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.
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.