In the past few months Russia has annexed the Crimean Peninsula, brought instability to eastern Ukraine, provided a rag-tag group of separatists with some of the most advanced weapon systems in the Russian arsenal, and backed all of this with the technical expertise of Russian Special Forces. Last month, this deadly cocktail culminated in the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner resulting in the deaths of 298 innocent people. Even so, France has made it clear that it is not cancelling the €1.2 billion deal to sell two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to the Russians.
Commentators, congressmen, and parliamentarians on both sides of the Atlantic have proposed that NATO should buy these ships to keep them out of the hands of the Russians. This would also boost NATO's military capabilities, they argue. While this proposal might read nicely in the opinion pages, or make for a good tweet, it doesn't match reality.
Frankly speaking, NATO doesn't have €1.2 billion lying around to purchase these ships. There is no such thing as NATO money. NATO's budget is derived from its 28 members. Considering how cash starved European defence budgets are these days, one must question if spending €1.2 billion out of the blue on two amphibious assault ships is the best use of money. Anyway, why should European and North American taxpayers bailout the French defence industry's dodgy deal with Moscow? After all, this deal has always been about euros and jobs-- not geopolitics.
The argument in support of NATO buying these ships also falls short of suggesting how, and by whom, these ships will be kitted out. Presumably, NATO wouldn't want these assault ships floating around empty. Each Mistral-class ship carries 16 helicopters, four mechanized landing craft, 70 armored vehicles, and up to 900 troops. Which NATO members will provide the manpower, the helicopters, the landing craft, and the armoured vehicles to equip these ships? Providing attack helicopter capability for maritime operations is no easy task: just ask the British. In 2011 the UK initially operated three Apache attack helicopters (Yes, three!) off HMS Ocean for operations in Libya. Eventually, this number increased to a whopping five, but only after putting a strain on the Apache fleet.
Also, it is not just a one-off cost of €1.2 billion for these ships. Once the ships are finally kitted out, who will then provide the crews, the fuel, software updates, weapons platforms, the food and all the other logistical requirements for two ships for the next 40 years? This is a serious amount money requiring a serious financial commitment.
I don't want to see these ships enter Russian service any more than the next person but suggesting that NATO should buy them is not a realistic option.
So what is the answer? It is simple: France brings them into the French Navy--either into active service or in some sort of moth-balled state-- or Paris bites the bullet and cancels the contract. It is not beholden of the European or North American taxpayer to bailout the French shipbuilding industry. This is a problem the French have made and this is a problem that only they can solve.