Changing scenario: Impact of Europe-Russia defence industry ties

The French government’s decision to sell several Mistral-class amphibious warships to Russia has aroused concerns that the Russian Navy will use the vessels to intimidate or even invade its neighbors. Yet, the ship would add little to Russia’s already substantial military advantage over many other countries.

In a stark confession, former US President George W Bush had once admitted that Russia’s military dominance will remain impact making and it can not be decimated. Actually, US is worried over a deadly cocktail that is brewing in the form of Europe-Russia arms industry partnership. That will certainly challenge America’s military might in couple of decades if it is able to take deeper roots.        

There is a growing proximity between France and Russia, which has become a matter of concern for many nations in the world, especially for US. While France is a NATO member, the new Russian military doctrine openly declares NATO as a major threat to Russia.

However, the Mistral deal could assist Russian efforts to strengthen its bilateral ties with major European governments. Russian diplomacy traditionally strives to negotiate with the large European countries separately rather than being confronted with a united front in NATO or the EU.

Encouraged by Russian officials and the Mistral sale success, now Russian companies have been negotiating major commercial deals with France, Germany, and Italy to gain influence in these important states. Such a sale would be the most significant military sale ever between a NATO member country and Russia, and it will have significant implications for all NATO members.

Important step

The Mistral, weighing over 20,000 tons and extending approximately 200 meters in length, is the second-largest warship in the French Navy. It can transport amphibious landing craft, 16 heavy-lift helicopters, dozens of tanks or armored vehicles, and hundreds of sailors and marines.

In peacetime, the Mistral’s large size would establish a highly visible Russian naval presence and in wartime, the vessel can function as a command ship for combat operations. This Mistral deal is an important step for both the countries to achieve their national interests and benefit mutually.

Both, Russia and France, depend heavily on arms trade to run their economy. At the moment of economic crisis, France needs money to run its defence industry and Russia needs lot of new technology to continue with its dominance in arms supply to many nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

France lacks design technology, whereas Russia has got an expertise in the best designs for new types of military weapons and platforms. Now it is high time for France, if it has to surpass UK, Germany, Italy, it needs to partner with Russians industry as a strategic partner and invest in hi-tech technology, space technology and dual use technology to keep its R&D centres running.

The Mistral deal is a good beginning as it is time for European nations to fund their own defence industry, only then the Europeans will start making responsible decisions and get free from US shadow.

The Mistral deal is yet another bit of evidence that France, like Germany, sees its national interest as developing in a cooperative, or at least non-confrontational, relationship with Russia, rather than reassuring the Baltic NATO members.

French authorities have stressed the domestic economic considerations behind the Mistral sale. Building the Mistral-class warships keeps over a thousand people employed. French Navy orders are about to end, so the shipbuilder, which is already laying off workers and selling shares to the French government in return for cash to stay afloat, desperately needs foreign clients.

French Ministry of Defence stated that if France did not sell its vessels to Russia, other member of the Alliance would do it. Russian government representatives already sent letters of inquiry to shipbuilders in Spain, the Netherlands, and other countries about their possibly providing Mistral-like ships to Russia.

For the past decade, Russia’s shipbuilding industry, which depends heavily on military contracts, has been able to produce only a few small-sized warships each year.

The recurring production delays and cost overruns associated with efforts to renovate the Admiral Gorshkov, sold to India in 2004, underscore the weak strength of Russian shipbuilding industry.

Similar weaknesses in Russia’s aerospace sector have forced the Russian government to purchase unmanned aerial vehicles from Israel after the Georgian War highlighted Russia’s inadequacies in this segment.

The Russian Navy sees buying the Mistral as helping to fill an important gap in Russia’s defence assets. The Russian military lacks a large amphibious assault ship like the Mistral that can anchor in coastal waters and send troops ashore using helicopters and landing craft.

The Mistral could also serve as an impressive command ship for naval task forces. Russian shipbuilders would find it difficult to construct such a complex vessel without foreign assistance at the moment.

Concern of US

This Mistral deal and increasing interdependence of European defence companies in arms deal with Russia could prove to be a milestone in achieving stare-of-the-art technology in armamentr sector which is considered as a direct threat to the US dominance.

The US is not comfortable with this sale and has raised indirect objections to this whole deal many times. After French officials ignored the complaints of Robert Gates, the US Secretary of Defense, when he visited Paris, US has now stopped talking about this deal, at least in public.

Like other French government representatives, President Nicolas Sarkozy argued that the Cold War was over and, if the West expected Moscow’s help regarding Iran’s nuclear program or other 21st-century threats, it has to trust Russian officials sufficiently regarding arms sales and other issues as well. “The idea is bring Russia into Europe, else it could be too dangerous to ignore Russia,” remarked Mark de Brower, a defence analyst in Brussels.   

Although acknowledging the concerns of some European governments and the US, NATO Secretary-General Anders Rasmussen said that he does not perceive Russia as a threat and hopes that Russia does not treat the Alliance as an enemy.

He also noticed that this matter does not relate to NATO but bilateral relations between France and Russia. The Alliance is not engaged in this matter. He added that in his opinion this contract is not connected with transferring sensitive technologies by France and believes that Russia will not use these ships to attack its neighbors or members of the NATO.

The sale of Mistral triggered some controversies in Washington leading to a defence review by Pentagon. The arguments given by US lawmakers while criticizing this deal may have some logic but some are quite absurd.

How come US, which is opposing Mistral deal, is not happy with this step, when US itself uses Russian choppers in Afghanistan and has bought few of them for its military.

Further, last year Boeing Company entered into a deal with Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation for 65 planes and earlier for supply of advanced materials like titanium. Is it not considered a strategic partnership between two nations? Is US not a NATO member? Then why it is objecting to the Mistral deal with Russia.

Experts feel the US problem with France is drawn from the past as it did not support US in its Iraq War while being an ‘American ally’ which means obligation to take part in American war games in the Middle East.

Secondly, may be the US is threatened with this new cooperation between European countries and Russia because it knows Russia has got the best weapon designs in the world. With the help of fresh funding, European nations can even opt for new weapons concept with Russia and produce dual technologies that can be used in futuristic warfare.

The US always wants to control the technology because it realizes the importance that technology brings power. The Mistral deal is a direct indication of decreasing influence of US and Europeans are moving away from US centric dependence for military protection.

It is now the need of the hour that European nations focus more on developing their own defence industrial capacity building and cooperate with developing nations than depending on few western countries for all their requirements. Indeed, France has taken a bold and timely step to open new avenues for its defence industry, which is commendable.