French defense industry companies are interested in a solid contract with Russia to purchase Mistral-class helicopter carriers from France.
Significantly, on May 26 Presidents Dmitry Medvedev of Russia and Nicolas Sarkozy of France specified the date of contract signing. According to Sarkozy, the contract will be signed before June 21. This means the Mistral is not a pie-in-the-sky friendly project but a specific hands-on program. France and Russia have been waiting for this moment for two years. But it is still uncertain if the French are prepared to hand over to Russia all knowhow together with the ship.
The Mistral all-purpose helicopter carrier has a displacement of 21,000 tons and a maximum length of 210 meters and can develop a speed of over 18 knots. Its sea endurance is 20,000 miles. With a crew of 160, it can take aboard another 450 men, 13 main battle tanks or 70 trucks. Its air wing comprises 16 helicopters, with six able to be accommodated on deck. The Mistral was engaged in many operations by the French armed forces, for example, in Africa.
Earlier, the Russian and French presidents said two helicopter carriers would be produced in Saint-Lazare, France, and two in St. Petersburg. The French president repeatedly emphasized that the first two ships should be produced in Saint-Lazare to provide jobs for French workers. Talks are still underway on who will be responsible for the construction of the other two vessels. Two years ago, every finger pointed to a well-known Russian oligarch, Sergei Pugachev, former chairman of Mezhprombank board of directors. Today everything has changed, and France does not know who will be in charge of Mistral construction in St. Petersburg.
Regarding control systems, talks on technology transfer are continuing and it is not clear if this transfer will be finally effected. Politically, the presidents have decided the contract is to be signed. Russia does not need the French control system because it has its own systems. However, it is not certain that Russia will be able to integrate its system into the Mistral. The issue, whatever its outcome, is the apple of discord between Russia and France. Another problem is the lack of interoperability between Russian armed forces and those of NATO.
A better option would be to integrate the Russian control system. This may require a separate agreement between DCNS (a company producing submarines and surface ships for the French Navy) and Russia’s defense sector, that is between the Russian and French defense industries, to solve the integration issue. Russia is unlikely to integrate its system into the Mistral on its own and will need French assistance either to develop a joint control system or to integrate the Russian system.
The two countries have been in uneasy talks since the beginning of the year when, on January 25, they signed an intergovernmental agreement on the purchase of Mistral-class helicopter carriers. The agreement does not contain any dates or value of the contract – these will be specified in a separate agreement to be concluded between Rosoboronexport and DCNS.
The contract is opening up new prospects for military and technical cooperation between Russia and France. All French defense firms have been looking forward to this decision because it will open new opportunities for them. Sagem, for example, is interested in trying out the outfit for an infantry soldier of the future FELIN in the Russian armed forces; Panhard is continuing talks with Russia’s Interior Ministry to conclude a similar contract on the operational testing of its VBL armored vehicles.
Germany’s Thyssen Krupp Marine Systems (TKMS), a DCNS counterpart, is also eager to cooperate with Russia in defense and dual-use technology. Germany has its own FELIN outfit manufactured by EADS. Germany’s Rheinmetall Defense, Italy’s Finmeccanica, SAAB and Britain’s BAE Systems are also willing to share defense and dual-use technology with Russia.
This is not the first time either that Russia has bought unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from Israel, a positive fact for Israel. Interestingly, Russia is not opposed to purchasing foreign systems, which is a new departure in its defense policy. Perhaps in the future Russia would like to do something together with the European Defense Agency acting for all European countries. But Russia is likely to cooperate with France, Germany, Britain and other countries bilaterally, not through the European Defense Agency.
After the Mistral deal, Russia is certain to opt for a contract to purchase new equipment or control systems through its Rosoboronexport and NAMSA agency, which buys weapons for NATO. But that would be more of a political move. If Russia is anxious to deepen its contacts with NATO, its cooperation with NAMSA is quite probable. With the Mistral deal clinched, France will demonstrate that Russia is a country with which serious business can be done and all the alliance’s countries will see that this works. Such development is possible because Russia has experience in this field and NAMSA, though small, is a developing and growing agency.
The Mistral deal is for Russia a step to move closer to NATO. Now everybody is wondering what Sarkozy has promised Medvedev following the Mistral deal. Perhaps he pledged something connected with NATO, such as help and support in bringing Russia and the North Atlantic alliance closer together. Russia is not against technical cooperation with NATO and already has some experience of such cooperation. Therefore, Russia could strengthen its contacts with NAMSA, deepening ties ties between Russia and NATO.
Arnaud Kalika is Chief Editor, Confidential Newsletter Strategic Information TTU, specializing in issues geopolitics and military industries; lecturer, department for the study of organized crime, University of Paris II