Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Turns out the SECDEF also thinks it's a bad idea for allies to sell advanced weapons systems to countries working at cross purposes to NATO

Remember how the French were gonna sell Mistral-class amphibs to Russia? (Perhaps surprisingly, the posts "Dirty French!" and "Dirty French pt 2" had nothing to do with this.) Yeah, I didn't think that was that cool of an idea when it came up three months ago, and now the deal has been inked. Turns out Secretary Gates agrees with me on the fundamental un-coolness of this.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told French officials Monday that he was concerned about their plans to sell Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia, although there is little if anything the United States could do to block the deal, officials said.

Russia has been engaged in negotiations for months over what would be the first significant purchase of advanced NATO weaponry since the collapse of communism. Each Mistral warship costs up to $750 million, and the vessels, which can launch helicopters and armored vehicles, would be viewed as a notable addition to the Kremlin’s rusting fleet.

Mr. Gates chose the well-known diplomatic code for disagreement in describing his discussion of the arms sale with his French counterpart, Defense Minister Hervé Morin.

“I think I would just say that we had a good and thorough exchange of views,” Mr. Gates said.

Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said later that Mr. Gates’s meetings here were “very amicable and positive” on issues that included the NATO effort in Afghanistan, but that Mr. Gates “made our concerns very clear” on the arms sale.
According to media reports, France has agreed to sell one Mistral to Russia and the sale of an additional three ships is under discussion. Information Dissemination, which can be a bit dense for this idiot non-engineer but ought to be your go-to blog for maritime stuff if you care about all that, expresses some confusion on this point. I've seen it reported elsewhere that only three Mistral-class ships exist: the one being sold to Russia, and two currently in the French fleet. That means that the three additional ships would have to be built to order, and some people are even speculating about a licensed production agreement with Russia.

Uh, what?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the U.S. should have veto power over anyone else's arms sales or other military contacts, but aren't we supposed to be on the same team here? Russia's certainly entitled to its own defense program, and I'll be the first to say that there are certain things we can do to give Moscow assurances about its own territorial integrity and security. But amphibious assault vehicles? Really? Where are these things gonna be based? And what missions are they gonna be used for? It seems clear to me that they'll go to the Black Sea fleet (if only because there aren't a whole ton of other warm-water ports), and that they'll be used to menace the Georgians (and perhaps the Ukrainians).

Dmitry Gorenburg of the Russian Military Reform blog does a good job of dissecting the rationale from a Russian perspective here in "Why the Mistral":
Whether this is the ship that should be built is another matter entirely. Various authors have made the case that the Mistral is not the ship that the Russian Navy needs. It may be that at least part of the reason for its purchase has to do with political factors, such as improving Russian-French relations. Or it may be that the Navy wants a versatile ship that can be used in many different ways.

While because of its versatility I don’t think it would be wasted in the Russian Navy, it’s probably not the best use of the limited procurement budget. It might make a good utility ship, good for “conducting independent amphibious operations in distant locales” but is that really going to be a primary mission for the Russian Navy in coming years? It seems to me that for the foreseeable future, the Navy’s main missions will consist of protecting sea lanes and showing the flag. The Mistral could be used for these kinds of operations, but they are not its primary purpose. Given the money that would be spent on this ship, it seems that the RFN might as well get exactly what it needs.
So is this some kind of malign action by the the Russians, or are they just being stupid? (Or, as I always ask in the case of U.S. defense procurement, is there someone with a significant stake in the successful conclusion of this deal exerting inappropriate pressure on the decision-makers?)

And perhaps the more important question, and the one over which the U.S. and other NATO allies should have more influence: WTF are the French doing? I've yet to see any explanation from the French side of things, any justification of how this advances French foreign policy or security objectives. So: anybody want to speculate? Any of our French readership (or authorship!) want to speak up in defense of the strategic calculus behind this decision, or try to explain to us exactly what that is?


  1. As far as the French interest goes, how about:
    1) the fact that the Netherlands and Spain have also been approached;
    2) the possible 500m euro worth of the deal;
    3) that it may save the STX ship-building facility at Saint-Nazaire.
    There are probably less open-source reasoning to consider as well. For the rest, see the coverage in Le Monde.

  2. David -- Thanks. Links?

    On your 2), I appreciate the potential positive for the industrial base and all, but if the French are anything like us, the treasury is only getting the small percentage surplus administrative fee that's charged (which goes to pay the personnel and operate the organizations that process the sale). The real money is going to the manufacturer.

    That said, industrial concerns are industrial concerns, and I get that they play a part. (They certainly do in our system.) While I appreciate that explanation and would be happy to see more details on those factors, I'm interested in strategic rationale.

  3. Sorry - one example: http://www.lemonde.fr/europe/article/2010/02/09/mistral-la-france-veut-une-offre-formelle_1303190_3214.html#ens_id=1296449.

    You're probably right re: industrial base. Still what's good for French industry is good for France - jobs, etc.

  4. A couple months ago, I advised a local corporation to hedge their currency risk by purchasing FX futures. Using the figures that I recommended, they would have recently been able to earn a higher profit on the currency hedge than on their business transactions. Too bad they didn't listen. In their defense, they had a flawless rationale for rejecting my advice: I don't work for an investment bank. Cause, you know, those guys never get things wrong.

  5. I very much doubt that the Mistral ship(s) will be based in the Black Sea. All of the Russian reports I've seen on this assume that these ships will go to the two big fleets (Northern and Pacific). I share this belief, in part because of prestige factors -- the Black Sea Fleet is a bit of a backwater, despite all the politics that swirl around it. The Russian navy is not going to put its most modern (and one of its largest) ships in a backwater. Second, basing will be tricky. The agreement with Ukraine prevents Russia from placing new ships in Sevastopol. It's possible, of course, that Yanukovich will agree to allow this to happen, but I think he will seek to avoid needlessly antagonizing the anti-Russian part of the Ukrainian population and will not do this. This means that a Mistral-class ship would have to be based at Novorossiisk. This presents various logistical challenges -- there isn't very much space there now and the base expansion is not ready yet and won't be for several more years. So even if Russia wanted to place a new Mistral-class ship in the Black Sea, it would be difficult for it to do so in the short term. And more than one is simply out of the question.

    All the talk about the Mistral being a threat to Georgia is based on a single comment by Vysotsky, who most likely said it in order to increase the navy's chances of getting more procurement funding. The Russian navy would play a minor role in any conflict in the region (except with Turkey, god forbid). A future conflict with Georgia, just like the previous one, would primarily involve ground forces, with air force cover to the extent it's still capable of that. The Navy would have a small role, with or without the Mistral -- just enough to justify continued funding.

  6. Dmitry -- Appreciate your contribution.

    On basing, I suppose we could just replace all the Georgian concerns with Lithuanian ones if the Mistral joins the Northern fleet. After all, where else would Russia need to project power from the sea that was accessible by the Northern fleet? And we already know that Vilnius has expressed official concern with the French government. (That said, the Baltic countries are obviously vulnerable to Russian aggression on land as much as from the sea.)

    While I appreciate the details on the Black Sea fleet, and acknowledge the agreement about Sevastopol, I think we all recognize that the situation there is fluid and flexible. Which is to say that if Moscow decides to renegotiate, it seems likely to happen. You mention that Yanukovych wouldn't want to antagonize the "anti-Russian part of the population;" I'm less sure of this, though it's perhaps less likely than had he won five years ago. I'm also not sure that the "anti-Russian" population is that high -- there are a great many Ukrainians who feel a certain anxiety or resentment towards Russia, but I don't think the number of "anti-Russians" is that high.

    I'm also not sure that the navy "would play a minor role in any conflict in the region," considering that a major limitation on Russian force projection in the Georgia war was the lack of transit routes into the country. Perhaps the pre-Mistral navy would play a small part, but isn't this precisely the sort of scenario for which an amphib is built?

  7. I suggest reading Galrahn's analysis of the purpose behind Russia's purchase of the Mistral. (http://www.informationdissemination.net/2010/02/observing-recent-russian-navy-news.html)I'm largely in agreement with him. They have plenty of domestically built amphibs -- some of which were used in August 2008. The main constraint then was the speed of the ships vs the distance from their bases in Sevastopol and Novorossiisk to the conflict area. By the time they got to Georgia, all that was left to do was to mop up. Is the Mistral that much faster than their existing ships? I don't think so. They just don't need the Mistral for this purpose.

    There are three potential reasons for the purchase. 1) As a helo platform, 2) as a command ship (if they get some advanced electronics as part of the deal, 3) as means of rebuilding the domestic shipbuilding industry (if they get to build the other 3 under license). These are obviously not mutually exclusive.

  8. One thing is very clear from all these exchanges on Mistral (a ship smaller than the U.S. LPD-17 class, of which the U.S. already has 4, and is building to 8 or 9 -- notwithstanding that they have severe engineering and other problems so far (badly built). What is clear is that everybody on the U.S. side is talking to each other, and nobody talks to the Russians themselves. The greatest good the Russians did for us after the Soviet Union collapsed (and it was already happening under Gorbachev) was to collapse that huge Soviet military (aside from losing a third of it to Belarus and Ukraine). And it essentially remains collapsed, barely clinging to institutional life, capable of attacking only essentially unarmed Georgia in a confrontation that had been going on for 19 years, but never noticed by the dumb Americans. The Russians are not going to attack the Baltics. Our NATO advocates are being very stupid in talking about contingency plans and force reception facilities up in the Baltics, i.e., just as some of our people see the Russians threatening their neighbors, the Russians see that step as threatening them -- given their intimate knowledge of how crappy their own military is, and not getting much better very fast. Nuclear deterrence is a strategy of the weak -- and that's what we see. Few Americans understand deterrence any more. Why the Mistral would change any of this is totally beyond me. And can't somebody get into a dialogue with the Russians?

  9. Dr. Gaffney -- I may have more to say about your post later, but I just want to say how excited I am to have you commenting here, especially considering the influence that Tom Barnett's books had on my thinking back when he first started publishing.

    I understand where you're coming from on avoiding confrontation with Russia, and I agree that the Georgia conflict has next to nothing to do with American (or NATO, or "Western") interests. Of course, that doesn't really change the simple reality that Russian aggression and adventurism is still a part of the security calculus for our allies in the Russian "near abroad," whether the Russian military is capable of acting on these ambitious impulses or not. If Russia is willing to address its outstanding grievances with Georgia through force, why not with Estonia? Why not in Transdniestria, or in Belarus, or in Ukraine or Kaliningrad? One could fairly say "because of NATO," but isn't that sort of begging the question? Isn't that then a matter of the very contingency plans and reception facilities that you deride as pointless considerations?

  10. I don't understand what the big fuss is about Russia buying amphibious assault ships.

    I think that good relations between NATO and Russia are good for NATO, Russia and the world at large. Blocking export of this ship might harm Russian relations with France/NATO. What is the edge to that?

    I think it is much more important to cooperate with Russia to fight Takfiri extremists (Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Xinjiang . . . since they are all linked) than to worry about Russia buying Mistral-class amphibs.

  11. As the United States prepares to pump $40+ billion in foreign military sales into the Middle East, should it really be in a position to lecture to others about unwise arms sales? Or is the USG just concerned about competition during an economic slump?

  12. As the United States prepares to pump $40+ billion in foreign military sales into the Middle East, should it really be in a position to lecture to others about unwise arms sales?

    To be frank, yes. While I obviously object to use of the term "lecturing," I think allies are well within their rights to express the viewpoint to one another that a potential arms sale will jeopardize the interests of a number of countries, and that it could have unpleasant second-order effects for the seller. While the U.S. is obviously the biggest arms dealer in the world in terms of volume and dollar value, I can't think of a sale that is as controversial as this among American allies. (We tend not to sell offensive weapons systems to countries that build their strategic concept around opposition to an alliance to which we belong.)

    As far as "competition during an economic slump," the vast majority of the $40B in sales to which you refer have been on line since well before the economic slump took hold. A huge chunk of that is for defensive weapon systems, including sales to at least one country that is definitely bearing the brunt of the downturn.