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French warship to Russia: Risky precedent or a cruise ship painted gray?

The US and other NATO allies worry that the French sale of a $750 million Mistral warship to Russia will set an arms-trading precedent. But analysts say the ship does not yet represent the transfer of cutting-edge technology to Russia.

By Staff writer / February 11, 2010

The French helicopter transport ship Mistral sits docked at a quay on the Neva River in central St. Petersburg on November 23, 2009.

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Paris

The sale in principle of a French assault ship to the Russian navy brought a stir this week – as the first military deal by a NATO member to Moscow, one that helps Russia’s ailing fleet, and one that may involve the sale of three more ships.

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A deal for the French Mistral, a modern $750 million craft that carries helicopters and up to 900 commandos, took place more abruptly than expected by other NATO members – at a time when European security policy on Russia remains in flux.

A Russian admiral has said the Mistral would have cut the 2008 war in Georgia “to 45 minutes.” US defense chief Robert Gates in Paris this week expressed displeasure with the sale. But Jacques de Lajugie, head of international development at the French arms agency DGA, said it may be the beginnings of a beautiful friendship: “It is no longer one command ship, but four” sought by Moscow.

Yet while NATO defense analysts hope the sale doesn't set a precedent, they also argue that the military attributes of the Mistral are not significant. Much of the Mistral was built in the Saint-Nazaire yard, where luxury cruise liners and ocean vessels like the Queen Elizabeth 2 are put to sea. Moreover, while the Mistral, named for a sharp and chilly Mediterranean wind, has conjured images of a bristling attack boat – it has little armor and does not include the state-of-the-art defense or fire-fighting equipment typical on a warship.

A NATO weapons specialist calls it “basically a big boat that goes from one place to the other … it is like a cruise ship painted gray.” The specialist, who requested anonymity, said that “Russia sank most of the Georgian fleet in 15 minutes. I don’t think the Mistral would have mattered in that conflict.”

Nor will the Mistral be built and delivered sooner than “years” say analysts, who argue it represents more a political effort by France to improve relations with Russia than an immediate military threat. Several other shipyards in and out of Europe could make the boat, and some French analysts say the sale is partly a matter of business sense and providing jobs.

How much technology will be included?

However one outstanding question is whether France will sell the Mistral with sensitive technology. Jean-Pierre Maulny, an armament industry and defense specialist at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris, says there is no likelihood France will sell advanced helicopters for the boat. “But what is not yet clear is what will be sold. The boat is not a problem, but the level of technology on the boat is. That won’t happen without a good discussion with the US,” he says.

“It was sort of a surprise for France to have Russia ask for this…the discussion started two years ago purely between French and Russian marines,” Mr. Maulny added.

The difference between a stripped down or “bare” Mistral, and a ship with some degree of advanced military hardware, is an employment issue in France.

Since the French Mistral sale awaits final verification by the Elysee Palace, further discussion of what accessories will accompany the ship may occur.

The French defense industry has always stayed in relative fighting shape compared to the size of France. The overall industry had roughly $12 billion in sales last year, according to the French defense ministry website. Submarines make up a large segment of sales – about a quarter of which are to EU nations. The main buyers of French weapons also include Brazil, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. France hopes to achieve $10-12 billion in sales this year, with long pending Rafale fighter jet deals to Brazil and Abu Dhabi of $14-17 billion.

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