Mistral class amphibious assault ship
On June 17, 2011, Russia and France signed in St. Petersburg a contract for two French-built Mistral class amphibious assault ships for delivery to the Russian Navy. The contract, signed by Rosoboronexport state-controlled arms exporter and France's DCNS shipbuilder, calls for the first Mistral warship to be delivered in 2014 and the second in 2015. Russia will pay France $1.7 billion for two Mistral-class helicopter carriers, Anatoly Isaikin, director of Russia's Rosoboronexport state-controlled arms exporter, said on 17 June 2011. The deal was signed in St. Petersburg in the presence of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev by Isaikin and Patrick Boissier, president and CEO of France's DCNS shipbuilder, who are contracted to build the warships.
On 24 December 2010 RIA Novosti reported that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had told his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy over the phone that France had won a tender to build amphibious assault ships for Russia. The winner was a consortium comprised of French DCNS and Russia's OSK (United Shipbuilding Corporation), the Kremlin press service said. At the initial stage, two Mistral-class helicopter carriers will be built jointly by France and Russia with another two to be constructed subsequently.
These 19,500 ton ships would represent a major increase in Russian force projection capabilities. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union never developed such large amphibious assault ships. The largest amphbious ships available to Soviet Naval Infantry units were the three 14,080 ton Ivan Rogov Class Bolshoi Desantny Korabl [BDK - Large Landing Ships, a Landing Ship, Dock - LPD - in American parlance], which provided sea-lift and landing of one battalion of 520 marines and 25 tanks. The first of these ships was commissioned in 1978, and two were stricken in the 1990s, leaving Russian Naval Infantry with a single Ivan Rogov class BDK [the Mitrofan Moskalenko], and Landing Ship, Tank [LST] of modest capabilities. Procurement of the Mistral, a power-projection capability by definition, would significantly increase Russia's offensive options and vulnerability of states such as Georgia or the Baltic countries to attack.
Rasa Juknevi?iene, the Lithuanian Minister of Defense, speaking of the Russia's acquisition of four Mistral-class helicopter-carrier ships, defined the provision by France as a serious mistake. "I think this is a mistake. I assess [the fact] mainly from the political point of view, not from the military one. It's clear that two ships are unable to cause a serious shift in the balance of forces in this region, but it sets up a precedent when a member state of NATO and the EU sells offensive weapons to a third Country, where democracy has not reached a level that allows us to feel safe", the woman said, adding that "For Countries around Russia, this is not pleasant news. It's definitely not the Christmas gift we would have liked to receive...", In early August 2009 RIA Novosti reported that Russia was discussing the purchase of a French Mistral-class amphibious assault ship worth between 300 and 400 million euros ($430-580 mln). "Such talks are being held at the level of experts; the Russian side is represented by the Navy, the United Shipbuilding Corporation, and plants' representatives. In September we will provide a final conclusion for the Russian Defense Ministry," a high-ranking source close to the talks told RIA Novosti. Earlier a French business daily, La Tribune, said Russia is planning to purchase a Mistral class assault ship from France. The purchase, if successful, would be the first large-scale arms import deal concluded by Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russia first expressed an interest in bilateral cooperation with France in naval equipment and technology in 2008, when Navy chief Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky visited the Euronaval 2008 arms show in France. The admiral said at the time that the Russian Navy was interested in "joint research and also direct purchases of French naval equipment." The possibility of buying a Mistral class amphibious assault ship was discussed at the naval show in St. Petersburg in June 2009.
A Mistral class ship is capable of transporting and deploying 16 helicopters, four landing barges, up to 70 vehicles including 13 main battle tanks, and 450 soldiers. The ship is equipped with a 69-bed hospital. The Russian Kommersant business daily confirmed the possibility of the deal, but said Russian military experts were skeptical about it. "The Russian Navy lacks the means to finance even the production of corvettes and missile boats, let alone the purchase of large combat ships," the paper quoted Mikhail Barabanov, science editor of the Eksport Vooruzheny (Arms Export) journal, as saying.
Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said "although the practice of arms imports will become more common in Russia in the future, the Mistral deal is rather questionable from a military standpoint, as well as Russia's hopes for the transfer of advanced technologies from France."
Russia's current weapons procurement program through 2015 did not envision construction or purchases of large combat ships, so the possible acquisition of a French Mistral class ship is most likely to happen under the new program for the years up to 2020, which is still in the development.
On 26 August 2009 it was reported that the chief of the Russian General Staff said Russia was planning on signing by the end of 2009 a contractual agreement with France on the purchase of a Mistral class amphibious assault ship. "We are planning to reach an agreement [with France] this year on the production and the purchase of a Mistral class vessel," Gen. Nikolai Makarov told a news conference in the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator. "We are negotiating the purchase of one ship at present, and later planning to acquire 3-4 ships [of the same class] to be jointly built in Russia," the general said.
On 01 October 2009 it was reported that France was considering the sale of a helicopter carrier ship to Russia that could provide Moscow with added offensive capabilities at sea. Speaking in Moscow, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Defense Minister Herve Morin confirmed speculation that France is considering the sale of a helicopter carrier to Russia. Both sides, however, noted no deal has been signed. Kouchner said there are a number of French administrative and political principles governing arms sales, particularly a ship as expensive as a helicopter carrier. Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov indicated the two countries are now just consulting about the matter. The defense chief says Russia has a whole set of questions it has put to the French, and is waiting for answers before it makes specific decisions. Serdyukov adds that Russia is not interested in one ship, but several.
The carrier under consideration belongs to the Mistral Class of amphibious assault, command and projection ships. The 199-meter vessel can carry 16 helicopters and 450 troops for up to six months or about 700 for shorter periods. Russian news media recently quoted naval commander Vladimir Vysotsky as saying the French warship would greatly increase the speed of Russian operations. He said a Mistral Class carrier would have accomplished certain tasks in 40 minutes that took Russia's Black Sea Fleet 26 hours during last year's conflict with Georgia.
Independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told VOA that France will likely need to consult with allies to go ahead with the sale. Felgenhauer says that almost every country that produces modern weapons uses some patents or know-how from the United States. He says France will, therefore, consult with NATO and above all with Washington whether to sell or not to Russia and to what extent. Moscow has indicated it may purchase one helicopter carrier and acquire licenses to build several more in Russian shipyards. Each ship costs an estimated $1 billion.
On 04 November 2009 Oleg Burtsev, first deputy chief of the Navy Main Staff confirmed Moscow's plans to buy one Mistral-class warship worth 400-500 million euros (around $600-$750 mln) and build another three or four in Russia under French licensing. The first warship will be built at the STX shipyard in France in partnership with the French shipbuilder DCNS. Russian shipbuilders strongly opposed the deal and the government had yet to make a decision on whether Russia needed to build costly amphibious assault ships.
On 22 November 2009 RIA Novosti reported that Commander-in-Chief of the Estonian Defence Forces Ants Laaneots said if Russia buys a French Mistral amphibious assault ship, measures should be taken to ensure Estonian national security. "If the French finally sell it [the warship], we should consider security measures to be taken in case the navy is deployed in the Baltic Sea," Laaneots told Estonian television. Estonian security analyst Eerik Niiles Kross said: "If Russia obtains such a modern and effective warship, which can carry a tank battalion, take aboard several hundreds of people and faultlessly control [its] operations... the possession of such an equipment will provide Russia with a considerable advantage, if it is deployed in the Baltic Sea."
Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin said in late November 2009 that Russia could build its own helicopter carrier on a par with the French Mistral-class warship, and that the Defense Ministry could contract the United Shipbuilding Corporation to build it.
France's Mistral helicopter carrier made a port call in St. Petersburg on 23 November 2009. The ship arrived in Russia's second city to be shown off to military personnel and the public. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited France on November 26-27, when a final decision on the purchase was expected to be made. But during the visit on November 27 Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Russia had yet to make a final decision on whether to buy a Mistral-class helicopter carrier from France. "No decision has yet been made on the purchase of a Mistral," he said. Asked whether he could guarantee the warships in question would not be used against Georgia, Putin said it was up to Russia to decide where or how to use its own weapons. Responding to the same question, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Mistral ships "mainly perform logistic functions.... We are currently in the final stages of negotiations with the Russian government." On December 14 RIA Novosti reported that Russian and French delegations would meet later in the month to discuss the possible sale of the French warship.
The Russian Armed Forces must keep up with modern challenges to reliably ensure national security, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said in a televised phone-in on 03 December 2009. Putin also said Russia would continue to rely on its own defense industry to develop and produce new weaponry, adding, however, that domestic arms manufacturers should be aware of competition, including foreign competition. He said Moscow was yet to decide whether to buy a Mistral-class helicopter carrier from France but would keep its options open.
The Russian Navy planned to deploy the Mistral-class warships in the Northern and Pacific fleets to conduct troop transport, peacekeeping and rescue missions. In addition, the helicopter carriers could be used effectively in anti-piracy operations, including off the Somali coast.
The Georgian newspaper 24 Saati (24 Hours) published a front-page article 18 November 2009, written by a American analyst based in Tbilisi, that registered strong protest against the proposed sale. Calling the sale potentially the "biggest ever NATO country military supply to Russia," the article notes that quotes Russian Navy Commander Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy as saying in September that "In the conflict in August last year a ship like that would have allowed the Black Sea Fleet to accomplish its mission in 40 minutes, not 26 hours, which is how long it took us."
In private conversations, Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze voiced serious concerns about the potentially destabilizing influence of France's possible sale of Mistral-class helicopter carrier ships to Russia (reftel) to DAS Tina Kaidanow and the Ambassador. As the broker of the August 2008 ceasefire agreement with which Russia has still not complied, France would not only provide Russia with arms that its own officers admit would have helped them in the war against Georgia, but would send a powerful signal that NATO and the west are no longer concerned about Russia's intentions. At a time when Georgia faces a "silent embargo" on arms shipments, other countries -- notably Spain and the Netherlands -- await such a signal to begin their own sales to Russia. Such an opening of the floodgates could render an already out-of-balance military confrontation even more lopsided, allowing the Russians to assert themselves with impunity -- and delivering the implicit message that the west will not interfere.
The fact that it was France considering the sale carries significant symbolic weight. President Sarkozy, representing the French presidency of the EU, brokered the August 12, 2008 ceasefire agreement between Georgia and Russia and effectively pledged the EU as the guarantor of that agreement. Point 5 of the agreement required Russia to withdraw its forces to those positions held previous to the war -- a provision that Russia has not complied with. In fact, Russia has done the opposite, increasing its military presence in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and expanding its positions beyond their August 6, 2008 positions. Thus, if France were to approve the sale of any significant military equipment to Russia, it would implicitly intimate that the broker of the ceasefire agreement was satisfied either that Russia had complied with those commitments, or that the commitments were no longer binding.
Lithuania's NATO PermRep Linkevicius raised France's potential sale to Russia of a Mistral class ship during a 09 February 2010 PermReps' lunch, noting that the sale was not simply a national issue but a subject for discussion within the Alliance. French PermRep Andreani did not respond. However, the following day, the February 10 NAC meeting, Andreani made a point of highlighting France's commitment to Baltic security by reporting that France had been participating since January 4 in Baltic air policing. She cited this as evidence of France's commitment to the collective defense of the Baltics.
The Mistral sale had not been a topic of debate at NATO prior to the Lithuanian-French exchange. Several Allies have been reluctant to raise an Ally's bilateral arms sales at NATO, even if they preferred that France not sell the ship to Russia. In the past, discussion of bilateral arms sales have traditionally not been seen as an appropriate topic at NATO. Given the significance of the potential Mistral sale and broader discussions on reassurance and NATO's relations with Russia, the Mistral may be viewed as an exception in light of some Allies' concerns regarding Russia's military capabilities and intentions, and possible third party transfer rules.
On 21 December 2012 RIA Novosti reported that Russia was putting back the launch of a project to build two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships under French license from 2013 to 2016. “The Russian Defense Ministry is not abandoning plans to build two Mistral-class ships in Russia but is postponing the start of the construction work from 2013 to 2016,” a Defense Ministry source said. The reason for that is the need to assess the ships’ performance, role and status as part of the Russian Navy, he said. “It is essential, first, to understand what is required to ensure their effective operation and technical servicing.” It may also be necessary to modify the ship’s design, introduce new elements and mechanisms taking into account Russian specifics and basing conditions, the source said. Russia's United Shipbuilding Corporation said earlier in the day the contract to build two Mistral ships is in force, dismissing media reports that the country’s Defense Ministry had dropped the construction plans. “We have not been informed of any such decision by the Russian Defense Ministry. Currently, the contract remains in force, as before,” a spokesman for Russia's United Shipbuilding Corporation said. The spokesman also confirmed that the construction of the first two Mistral ships in France will be continued.
Russian business daily Vedomosti cited a government source saying that the Defense Ministry had decided to abandon plans to build two Mistral class amphibious assault ships under French license in Russia. Russia and France signed a $1.2-billion contract for two French-built Mistral class ships, including the transfer of sensitive technology, in June 2011. The first ship, the Vladivostok, is being built at a DCNS shipyard in Saint-Nazaire and should be delivered in 2014, while the second, the Sevastopol, is scheduled for delivery in 2015. Two more ships were expected to be 80 percent built in Russia, 20 percent in France.
The Mistral deal came under fire from senior Russian officials in January 2013, following the dismissal of former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, had who actively lobbied for their purchase. Military-Industrial Commission Deputy Head Ivan Kharchenko said the $1.2-billion deal with a French shipyard, signed under the ousted Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov had caused significant damage to the state and the Russian shipbuilding industry. “We have been discussing the absurdity of this earlier decision. It was the initiative of Serdyukov and it’s not the only damage he has inflicted to the government and the industry,” Kharchenko said a meeting with defense companies in Moscow on 24 January 2013.
The first ship, the Vladivostok, is being built at the DCNS shipyard in Saint-Nazaire and is due to be delivered in 2014, while the second, the Sevastopol, is scheduled for delivery in 2015. Kharchenko said the ships must now be completed, otherwise Russia “would lose more” if backtracks the deal. Another contract for two other Mistral vessels was under discussion, but was postponed.
Russia does not produce the type of fuel necessary for the French-made Mistral-class amphibious assault vessels it has ordered, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said on 05 February 2013. The Mistral class are powered by electric motors supplied by diesel-powered turbogenerators, according to naval-technology.com. Diesel fuel can suffer from a condition known as waxing or gelling in cold conditions, causing it to clog up fuel injection systems, naval systems engineers say. The condition can be corrected by use of certain chemical additives, or pre-heating the fuel, as is done in some cars. “Probably, our chemists will prepare some special additives to solve this problem,” Rogozin, who oversees Russia’s military industry, told reporters.
The construction of the stern for the first Mistral helicopter carrier being built for the Russian Navy will be finished in France because a Russian shipyard cannot meet the deadline specified in the contract, a senior Russian defense official said 18 June 2013. “We will have the whole stern made there [in France], we won't take risks so as not to delay the contract,” Deputy Defense Minister Yury Borisov told reporters on the sidelines of the Paris Air Show in Le Bourget. Borisov said the decision had been made as it became evident that the Severnaya Verf shipyard in St. Petersburg, subcontacted to build the stern for the ship, was not going to meet the deadline.
The first, the Vladivostok, is being built at the DCNS shipyard in Saint-Nazaire and is due to be delivered in 2014, while the second, the Sevastopol, is scheduled for delivery in 2015. Borisov said the Vladivostok may be moved as early as in October from France to Russia where Russian armaments, communications systems and other equipment would be installed. He also said the Sevastopol helicopter carrier was laid down at an official ceremony in Saint-Nazaire on 18 June 2013. Russia put back plans to build two additional Mistral-class ships under French license to 2016, citing the need to assess the ships’ performance, role and status as part of the Russian Navy.
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