“France has made a good decision stopping the sale process — it would be absurd for NATO to be providing assistance to Ukraine on the one hand while selling arms to Russia on the other,” said retired James G. Stavridis — U.S. Naval Institute’s Chair of the Board of Directors — said in a statement to USNI News.
“If the [Russian] arms embargo continues, then the idea of NATO purchasing one or even two as part of a rapid reaction force might make sense… “[But] it is too soon to tell, given discussion today about ceasefires and political settlement.”
Stavridis comments follow a Wednesday announcement from the office French President François Hollande suspending the delivery of the ships as part of a $1.53 billion program.
Citing the continued Russian involvement in violence in Eastern Ukraine, the Hollande administration concluded, “the conditions under which France could authorize the delivery of the first helicopter carrier are not in place.”
It is yet unclear if the suspension of delivery will be permanent.
This week — as part of the ongoing NATO conference in Wales — alliance leaders will likely approve the creation of a, “very high-readiness force able to deploy at very short notice,” NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Monday as reported by The Wall Street Journal.
“This force can travel light, but strike hard if needed.”
NATO currently has a response force, but the new unit could assemble in two days instead of five.
The force that could pair well with the Russian Mistrals, said Eric Wertheim — naval analyst and author of U.S. Naval Institute’s Combat Fleets of the World.
“I [think] that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should examine acquiring the two ships as NATO alliance assets operating in support of their newly proposed rapid reaction force,” he said.
“Additionally the two 20,000-ton vessels could support NATO mine-countermeasures (MCM) operations or be on standby for humanitarian assistance duties.”
NATO’s Military Assets
It wouldn’t be the first time NATO purchased and operated its own military assets.
“There would be a precedent for joint ownership of NATO maritime and even air assets. NATO has operated the research ship NRV Alliance as well as the oceanographic tender CRV Leonardo,” Wertheim said.
“NATO also operates a fleet of E-3 airborne early warning and control (AWACS) aircraft as well as a force of C-17 cargo aircraft operated by multi-national NATO crewmembers.”
The U.S. Navy also experimented with mixed multi-national NATO crews to some success in the 1960s.
The inclusion of the Mistrals into the NATO arsenal opens up a range of possibilities for the reaction force.
The Russian Mistrals — Vladivostok and Sevastopol — have been modified to carry heavier Russian helicopters and are optimized for Arctic operations, allowing a rare cold weather operating capability for NATO. Most Western ships are optimized to work in tropical climates.
The ships could also serve as a logistics sea base for expeditionary forces from NATO without creating a large terrestrial footprint — much like U.S. Navy and Marine Amphibious Ready Groups and Marine Expeditionary Unites. (ARG/MEU).
Economic Affect and Russian Capabilities
A cancellation of the Russian Mistral deal could have a significant affect on the French defense industry.
Russia has paid France most of the price tag for the two ships and a cancellation of the program could result in a total refund plus $325 million in contract penalties, reported the BBC on Thursday.
“Unless an alternative buyer or use is found for these two ships, cancelation could have a negative impact on their economy, employment and shipbuilding industry,” Wertheim said.
A NATO purchase could defray that cost, he said.
The cancellation would also degrade the long-term outlook for the Russian Navy’s amphibious capabilities.
“Without the two French Mistral class vessels, Russia’s navy has only a handful of small landing ships, none of which carry helicopters or have flight decks,” Wertheim said. “Their newest class of tank landing ships has been under construction since 2004 and have yet to enter service. Without these French ships, Russia remains a decade or more away from gaining a similar capability.”
Russia contracted France to build the two ships shortly after its 2008 with Georgia. Russian commanders had trouble deploying large numbers of troops on the coast — prompting the deal with France.