French warships should go to Europe, not to Russia

  
France's Mistral-class amphibious assault vessel. [Reuters]

France is confronted with a dilemma: Its arms deal with Russia jeopardizes Europe’s security. At the same time, the deal is crucial for its own arms industry. The EU could help out by buying the ships, write Claudia Major and Christian Mölling.

Claudia Major and Christian Mölling are doing research on European Security and Defence Policy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). This text has first been published on the SWP Website as "Point of View".

“While Germany has already put its arms exports to Russia on hold, this kind of decision is still due in France. In particular, one delicate deal, signed by Paris in 2011, is of considerable political and industrial importance: Up to four navy vessels of the Mistral type are to be delivered to Russia for €1.2bn; the first ship is to be supplied by the end of 2014. This kind of ship can accommodate troops, helicopters and serve as a landing craft for an invasion from sea to land. But it can also function as a swimming headquarters for all sorts of military operations or as a military hospital.

As the crisis in the Ukraine unfolds and Moscow’s long-term geostrategic ambitions are uncertain, France should not upgrade the Russian Navy under any circumstance. Among others, the US is fiercely criticizing the potential sale. Hence, Paris is confronted with a huge dilemma: The multi-billion deal is crucial for the state-owned military shipyard DCNS and the half-private shipbuilder STX. Now, the French president is confronted with the decision to either cancel or approve the deal. If he cancels it, he risks protests from the workers who fear for their jobs. More job losses would further damage the already impaired popularity of the president. Hollande would also have to return the payments already received, and would ultimately have to search for new contracts for DCNS. Yet, if he seals the deal, he would backstab the currently fairly unified EU in two ways: Paris would have to block the “level three” economic sanctions or would have to water them down considerably. As a result of these sanctions, arms exports would have to be put on hold. Such a behavior would invite other Europeans to also ask for exceptions. But above all, President Hollande would equip the currently warmongering Russia, which shares land and sea borders with several NATO- and EU states, with cutting edge amphibious assault capabilities – and would thus jeopardize Europe’s security.

Hence, the deal is not only a French problem but a European one. At the same time, Europe also offers the opportunity to solve the French dilemma by buying up the Mistral-ships and using them for itself. Most EU states cannot offer any amphibious capabilities worth mentioning. On the contrary: The number of available units in Europe is decreasing. Yet there is both a pressing military and civilian need because sea transport routes as well as conflicts and crises close to the shores are increasing. So far, this need has only been defined in national terms: The German Navy has been calling for an operational basis at sea for quite some time. But one state alone could not afford such major acquisitions. Also, future noteworthy operations will always be joint operations. If European ships would exist, the Europeans could avoid those lengthy discussions over who provides his ship to an operation.

The buying of the Mistral-ships would be a good opportunity to implement the long held plan of a European headquarters. Its mobile infrastructure could be permanently set up on the ship. Also, in view of the common maritime EU security strategy, which is to be decided soon, this would be a consistent step. Thereby France would contribute to “European Defence”. Its reinvigoration had been on President Hollande’s agenda.

The ships could not only be used militarily, but could also be of use in joint civilian tasks. For instance, in operations it could act as a basis, command or hospital ship in humanitarian aid deployments. Such an asset was missing, for example, during the natural disaster in Haiti in 2010. Hence, the European Commission and the UN could be potential paying users.

Ultimately, Europe would send a positive signal towards Washington which has been pushing for greater cooperation among Europe’s armed forces. Towards Russia, the EU would send a signal of military strength.

The ships should come under the joint naval command of Belgium and the Netherlands. Both countries are not suspect to maritime great power aspirations and have experience in cooperation. All European armies should provide to the ship’s crew.

To prevent Europe from sailing into such troubled waters again, a procurement of the ships should be tied to immediate negotiations about the consolidation of Europe’s naval industry. This is the reason for the French misery: Because of industry-nationalisms, EU states have used taxpayers’ money to create over-distended naval industries that have to export for better or for worse. This again is not a French, but a European problem. Europe could counter this pressure to export via creative exchange deals: It buys arms for its own tasks, and in return, EU states have to reduce their defense industries.”

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