How to Salvage France’s Mistral Shipwreck

Selling warships to Russia doesn't seem like a great idea right now. But there's someone else that could buy them -- and make it a win-win for European security.


Here’s the problem: Selling weapons systems to a country that might one day turn them against your allies, partners, or even your own forces is a risky proposition. In the 1982 Falklands War, an Argentine pilot sunk a British destroyer, HMS Sheffield, with an Exocet missile launched from his Mirage fighter-bomber. Both were made in France. (To be fair, the Argentines also flew American-built Skyhawks and British-built Canberras against the United Kingdom’s forces.) And in the 1986 American raid (Operation El Dorado Canyon) to punish Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime for mounting terrorist attacks in Europe, Libyan forces reportedly used a French-built Crotale surface-to-air missile to down a U.S. F-111 bomber. Needless to say, these incidents did not help the climate in London or Washington for defense-related cooperation with Paris.

French President François Hollande may have considered such examples when he announced, just before September’s NATO summit in Wales, that in view of Russian actions in Ukraine, he was suspending the delivery — planned for this fall — of the first of two Mistrals, named Vladivostok, to the Russian navy. According to the contract signed in 2011 under then President Nicolas Sarkozy and valued at 1.2 billion euros ($1.7 billion), France would deliver the second ship, the Sevastopol, by the end of 2016. Sarkozy justified the deal as a way to turn the page on Cold War antagonisms. Reacting to criticism of the sale from American and European officials, he stated in 2010: "One cannot expect Russia to behave as a partner if we don’t treat them as one."

Hollande has indicated that his next step on the Mistrals will be tied to Russia’s behavior regarding the shaky cease-fire in Ukraine. According to French media, he might unveil his decision at the large Euronaval exposition taking place outside Paris at the end of this month.

The French political class is divided on the subject. Some politicians and defense industrialists warn that notwithstanding Moscow’s bad behavior, France’s credibility as an arms supplier — it is currently the world’s fifth largest — would be irreparably damaged by canceling the Mistral contract. Indeed, despite the overall gloomy state of France’s economy, its arms-export industry is thriving. In September, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that foreign orders for French arms totaled 6.87 billion euros ($8.7 billion) in 2013, a whopping 43 percent increase over the 2012 figure. He also underscored that arms exports generate some 50,000 jobs and support cutting-edge technologies in the civilian sector.

But several respected French security experts and commentators want Hollande to cancel the Mistral sale. They cite past examples when France has reneged on arms contracts to comply with international embargoes. They worry that in the eyes of several NATO allies — notably Poland and the Baltic countries — l’affaire des Mistral will overshadow French contributions to the reassurance and deterrence measures agreed at Wales. And some voice concern regarding the extent of French technology transfer, notably in combat information and communications systems, to the Russian military. As Le Monde commentator Sylvie Kauffmann wrote two days before Hollande suspended delivery of the Vladivostok: "At a time when a debate has opened on whether or not to arm the Ukrainians, how can one justify that a NATO country is arming the aggressor?… Signing the [Mistral] contract was a grave error. Maintaining it under current circumstances would be totally counterproductive."

Here, then, is the solution: France should propose a "lease to buy" agreement that would bring the two Mistral ships under EU control and, eventually, common ownership.

The strategic rationale for such a bold initiative is compelling. Since 1999, the European Union — with strong encouragement from successive French governments — has worked to develop the European political will and capabilities necessary to execute the so-called Petersberg tasks, ranging from humanitarian and rescue missions to post-conflict stabilization. Although the EU’s performance to date has disappointed many, European leaders remain committed, by and large, to playing a global role in promoting security commensurate with the EU’s economic and diplomatic weight. The Mistrals would provide the EU with a formidable and flexible tool to do just that.

With a range of 11,000 nautical miles (at a speed of 15 knots), the Mistral can carry up to 16 heavy (or 30 light) helicopters, four landing craft, and more than 60 vehicles. It is equipped with a 69-bed hospital and can accommodate more than 700 personnel. Since some 44 percent of the global population lives within 150 kilometers of the sea — a percentage that will grow dramatically in coming decades with rising sea levels — the EU could become a leading provider and coordinator of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have regularly performed such roles, and the Royal New Zealand Navy’s Canterbury was specifically designed to provide tactical sealift for humanitarian and disaster operations.

Moreover, the EU would gain an organic capability to conduct noncombatant evacuation operations in contingencies such as the 2011 Libyan conflict. (A French Navy Mistral performed this role in 2006, evacuating several thousand civilians from Lebanon over a two-week period during the Israel-Hezbollah war.) The EU could also use the ships to reinforce maritime surveillance, rescue, anti-trafficking, and counter-piracy missions in the Mediterranean and off the coasts of Africa. With careful scheduling of maintenance and overhauls, the EU likely could keep at least one of the ships available for deployment at all times.

A leasing arrangement between the French government and the European Defense Agency, with France providing the initial 160-person crew, makes sense in the near term. The SALIS partnership, under which 13 EU member states can charter strategic air transport from Ukraine, could be a useful model for cost sharing related to a Mistral lease. Over time, the EU could assume legal ownership of the ships from the French and man them with multinational crews, much the way NATO organizes, funds, and employs its multinational fleet of airborne warning and control system (AWACS) planes. And once the 28 EU member states see their Mistral, flying the EU flag, arrive on the scene of the next humanitarian crisis, it might just inspire them to make good on their repeated pledges to develop sorely needed civilian and military capabilities.

The French government would need to work hard to convince the EU to take up the Mistral question. And its Finance Ministry could not realistically expect the EU to cover every euro of French penalties reportedly associated with canceling the existing contract. Still, Russian actions in Ukraine have led the EU to respond with sanctions that would have been unthinkable not long ago. And in the long run, Mistrals owned and operated by the EU will be a better advertisement for the French defense industry than placing them in Russian hands. Hence, if this French president were to propose an elegant but pragmatic EU solution to correct his predecessor’s "grave error," he just might succeed in steering the Mistral to a safer home port.

 Twitter: @stavridisj

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