French defense officials are exploring ideas to avoid delivering a second helicopter carrier to Russia, including looking for an alternative client for the Sevastopol, analysts and an industry executive said.
A highly discreet review is being held as armed strife rises in eastern Ukraine and top US officials call for NATO allies to boost defense spending and act as a counterweight to Russia.
“The deal raises a fundamental policy issue not just for France but for the alliance,” said Robbin Laird of consultancy ICSA, based in Washington and here.
Paris is in a political crossfire between the US and Russia. Washington has publicly called for breaking the contract, while Moscow has threatened a hefty financial punishment while praising France’s “reliability as a partner.”
In 2011, Russia signed a deal for the two Mistral-class carriers, listed as amphibious assault ships or landing helicopter dock, worth €1.2 billion (US $1.6 billion) with a first delivery in four years. Moscow also holds an option for two more vessels.
France is effectively “trapped” on the Vladivostok, the first of the two ships, with a delivery in October, Laird said.
But French officials are reviewing the second vessel, along with considering offering the ship to another nation.
“The ministry is clearly looking for an alternative,” Laird said. Russia has yet to pay fully for the Sevastopol, allowing France some time to explore options, he said. That second ship is due for delivery late next year.
Loic Tribot La Spiere, chief executive of think tank Centre d’Etude et Prospective Stratégique, said he has heard of the search for alternatives and a possible re-sale to an ally.
An industry executive said President François Hollande and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius have made public statements about honoring the Russian contract, seen effectively as Plan A, but “it’s logical” officials are also searching for a Plan B, which could lead to withholding the second warship.
France may have to take a financial hit, but a political statement could be made.
“The situation is not easy, but France can show leadership,” Laird said.
A senior defense analyst said, “It’s highly likely Defense Ministry analysts are looking at all the possibilities. This is primarily a political problem.
“The industrial aspect is not the key factor as the contract is not vital for the French defense sector,” the analyst said. “What is at stake is the bilateral relations between France and Russia. And there is also the fact there are other European states exporting arms.”
Part of the French problem is a prospective defense spending cut of €6 billion, Tribot La Spiere said. Financial difficulty has pushed Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to play the role of “super salesman” for French arms, he said. The feared budget cut adds pressure to find another buyer for the Sevastopol.
If Paris were to answer positively to Washington’s call, France could also offer the second ship to the US, Laird said.
A French diplomat said France has not approached the US on a purchase. When asked whether the US has discussed purchasing the ships from the French, or if the US has any interest, a US State Department spokesman referred to recent comments by deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf at a press briefing.
Harf said US Secretary of State John Kerry and Fabius had discussed on May 13 the delivery of the ships.
“We’ve expressed our concerns to the French government several times over this sale, and don’t think it’s an appropriate time to move forward on such military sales given Russia’s actions that we’ve seen recently to destabilize its neighbors,” she said.
An analyst said France has an image to maintain as a reliable arms vendor.
“The French have the reputation that if they sign a contract they’ll deliver,” said Joel Johnson, analyst with the Teal group. “The French will hold their nose longer than the US will.”
Johnson said, however, that France’s reputation could quickly be altered if it decides against delivering the ship. “They’ll end up with a reputation like the US,” Johnson said. “If you look at Latin America, they don’t see the US as a reliable supplier. In cases like that, the French have moved in.”
Fabius has warned that if Russia interferes with Ukraine’s presidential elections in May-June, the third batch of European sanctions would be applied.
A first round of votes is due May 25, with a second and final round in June if needed.
An adviser to Hollande said the ship is not on the list for a third round of sanctions against Russia, daily Le Monde reported May 11.
The ship sale meets with international law and France will decide in October on whether to proceed, Fabius has said.
“We are not there,” the diplomat said.
A Defense Ministry spokesman referred to Hollande’s remarks that a decision would be taken in October and declined comment. A US defense official said there has been no discussion of the Mistrals in the regular meetings with French officials.
A French naval expert said a hold on the second ship would show President Vladimir Putin that Europe could harden its position and perhaps re-arm its forces. This message would be strengthened if a solution could be found, be it through NATO or the EU, to have this ship reinforcing European navies, the expert said.
Also, Brazil is seen as a possible client for the Sevastapol, as the regional power bought the French Navy’s retired Foch carrier and renamed it the Sao Paulo.
Russian interest in the Mistral-class ship reflects the vessel’s remarkable design concept, Laird said.
It serves as an amphibious assault ship, housing about 450 troops, armored vehicles including tanks, helicopters, landing craft, and carrying a field hospital and headquarters command center.
“It’s about influence,” Laird said. “This is an ideal ship for the 21st century.”
Such a ship can sail close to shore and deliver support, he said. That capability delivers a powerful political signal, not just a military strike.
The interest in the Mistral shows Russia’s interest goes beyond eastern Europe, as basing its second ship at Sevastopol gives Moscow more capability in the Mediterranean, Laird said. The Vladivostok, with its anti-ice features, would extend Russian strength in the Arctic.
Researchers at the SWP Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, or German Institute for International and Security Affairs, have floated the idea of the European Union acquiring the Mistrals.
“Europe also offers the opportunity to solve the French dilemma by buying up the Mistral ships and using them for itself,” researchers Claudia Major and Christian Molling wrote in a think piece.
The German Navy has called for such a capability, but such an acquisition is beyond the financial reach of a single nation, the paper said.
Training of some 400 Russian sailors is due to start in the first two weeks of June on the Vladivostok, an industry executive said.
DCI will deliver a first phase technical instruction on board the ship, said Jean-Michel Palagos, chief executive of the training company. An operational training of sailing the ship “is not on the short-term horizon,” he said.
DCI is a subcontractor to prime contractor DCNS, which designed the Mistral for the French Navy.
The rear part of the Sevastopol hull, representing 60 percent of the deal, is being built by Russian local partner OSK at Saint-Petersburg. That portion is due to be sent in late June to Saint-Nazaire, northern France, for fitting on to the hull built by shipbuilder STX.
Some 25 Russian engineers and officers are at the French dockyard.
A French Navy officer has said it took the French planners and officers two to three years to learn how to operate the Mistral and its sister ship to their full capabilities.
A Russian Navy tour of the Mistral a few years ago stirred envy and worry, as senior officers admired the capabilities but were also concerned France designed such a capable vessel while Russian companies had been unable to match that, the officer said.