France should have cancelled its sale of sophisticated amphibious warships to Russia when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimea in March. The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 by Russian proxies in Ukraine on Thursday now mandates such action by Paris. American political and economic leadership has a role to play in the matter.
Americans of this generation rarely credit French military prowess. They instead tend to associate France with its “old Europe” opposition to the Second Gulf War or its surrenders at Deim Bein Phu or in the rail car at Compiegne in 1940. For Teddy Roosevelt and the rest of the world with a longer historical memory, however, “the brilliant gallantry of the French soldier has for many centuries been proverbial.” Vercingetorix, Charles Martel, Joan of Arc, Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle, are, to name but a few, French military heroes who have changed history.
The sophistication of French armaments is equal to the valor of its soldiers. Dassault’s Rafale is one of the most dangerous fighter jets in the world. The Mirage fighter jet is legendary. A handful of French Exocet anti-ship missiles almost turned the Falklands conflict in Argentina’s favor. The Charles de Gaulle is the only nuclear-powered aircraft carrier outside of the United States Navy. France will commission a new generation of Suffren-class nuclear attack submarines in 2017.
One of France’s most important but least known naval platforms is the 21,300 ton Mistral-class amphibious assault ship (LHD). These helicopter carriers have a 69,000 square foot flat top deck with six helicopter landing spots. Their massive hanger is large enough to hold 16 helicopters, which access the flight deck via heavy lift elevators. The ships’ size allows them to operate with up to 30 embarked helicopters. In addition, their vehicle hangers can accommodate 40 main battle tanks, and they provide quarters for up to 500 soldiers or marines. The troops can be transported to shore by helicopter or by amphibious catamarans housed in the ships’ well dock. Amphibious operations are controlled from a nearly-10,000 square foot command center fit for 150 officers and staff. The ships carry a medical facility equivalent to a hospital for a 25,000 inhabitant city with a complex surgery center.
Like their American LHD “light carrier,” “gator navy” cousins, France’s Mistral-class amphibious warships with their embarked air wings and troops are game changers in the littoral and amphibious environment. Had Russia possessed such warships in 2008, boasted its naval chief, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, it would have won its war against Republic of Georgia in “40 minutes instead of 26 hours.” The result would have likely been the capture of Tbilisi and the total subjugation of the nation as opposed to Russia “only” carving it up into phony autonomous regions recognized by the Kremlin alone. Thus, it was no surprise when Putin approached Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009 with an offer to purchase two Mistral-class warships. In 2011, over the objections of Georgia, its Baltic NATO allies and the United States, France agreed to sell two of the amphibs to Russia for 1.2 billion Euros. With the first of the ships almost completed, 300 Russian sailors arrived in Saint-Nazaire on June 29 for training by the Marine nationale to familiarize themselves with the warship that is due to be delivered to Moscow this winter. Very soon these impressive warships will be in the hands of a leader who will not be hesitant to deploy them to impose Moscow’s will.
At the same time, critics of the sale both in France and abroad are increasing their demand that the deal be scrapped. Paris has so far resisted, arguing that it should not take the economic hit for punishing Russia for its Ukraine adventure when Germany refuses to take action because of its industrial and energy links to Moscow, and the United Kingdom demurs due to the Capital city’s financial relationships with Russian oligarchs.
With the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight No. 17, it should now be clear to all observers that Russia is fully intent on subjugating and intimidating its former Soviet constituent states and Warsaw Pact allies, and will do so with the most advanced weapons in its inventory. There is no reason to believe that the Mistral-class warships, once in the Russian Navy, will not also be used in the Black Sea, Baltic and Pacific to further increase the pressure on Russia’s neighbors. Given its recent history, Moscow should not be handed another military tool of the Mistral-class magnitude.
For its part, the United States should relieve the economic burden on France by purchasing the warships for the U.S. Navy. American Marines have successfully operated off the ships in the past during joint exercises and they could be finished and fitted using American electronics and weapons systems, thereby providing work to American shipyards. It is well-known that the “gator navy” is short by two to four such ships, even with the new America class warships joining the fleet, so the Mistrals would provide an immediate solution. Even better, the purchase would not cost U.S. taxpayers a cent. France’s bank BNP Paribas SA just agreed to pay an $8.97 billion fine to the United States for violating sanctions against Iran. Less than twenty percent of that fine could be diverted back to France to pay for the ships. Another fraction of the fine could be used to pay for the bringing the ships up to U.S. Navy specifications, still leaving the DOJ and Treasury a healthy return on their investigation of BNP.
A very savvy Putin is worried that just such a deal could ruin his chances of quickly obtaining this key NATO naval platform. He told Russian diplomats last week: “We know about the pressure which our U.S. partners are applying on France not to supply the Mistrals to Russia … and we even know they hinted that if the French don’t deliver the Mistrals, they would quietly get rid of the sanctions against the bank, or at least minimize them.”
“What is that if not blackmail?” Putin asked. The answer to that question, of course, is that it is not blackmail. It is a sanction commensurate with Russia’s conduct in Ukraine. It is also a win-win solution to an unfortunate problem for the United States and France, whose long alliance started with a French naval victory in the Battle of the Virginia Capes, which sealed a military victory for America at Yorktown to end the American Revolutionary War against the British.
Robert C. O’Brien is the California Managing Partner of a national law firm. He served as a US Representative to the United Nations and was a Senior Advisor to Governor Mitt Romney. His writings on foreign policy and national security are available at www.robertcobrien.com and he can be followed on Twitter @robertcobrien.