French “Tin Cans” or Technology Transfer? Vysotskiy on the Mistral

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 144

French Amphibious Assault Ship Mistral

On July 23, French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, confirmed that France will build two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships for Russia, each costing up to 500 million Euros ($650 million), as negotiations continue over additional platforms. Despite Sarkozy’s confidence, Russian military officials remain more cautious about the procurement. Interviewed by Ekho Moskvy on July 24, Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian navy, said that the deal will not be finalized unless Paris offers a technology transfer with the ships. Vysotskiy stated that this was a pivotal condition for Moscow, and suggested the ships were otherwise not required: “This is without doubt the main condition for this transaction. If this does not happen, then there is no point in undertaking this. We do not need the ship, but we do need its possibilities: we need its equipment” (Interfax, July 23; Ekho Moskvy, July 24). Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Igor Sechin, a close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, will oversee the completion of the deal, and is widely expected to drive a hard bargain.

While French diplomats have tried to allay concerns within the NATO Alliance about the first sale of such advanced military hardware to Russia, the sticking point to which Admiral Vysotskiy alluded contradicts the official French stance on the issue. If Paris advocates treating Russia no differently than any other potential customer for its defense products, why is it so reluctant to agree to the requested technology transfer? It is certainly puzzling Russian officials, who have confirmed that in addition to discussing possible alternative sources for the procurement within Europe, South Korea is also a viable option.

The Russian defense industry has consistently opposed the foreign procurement under consideration by the defense ministry, arguing that rather than supporting workers in French shipyards, the Russian government should invest in domestic capacities. Indeed, the Yantar shipyard in Kaliningrad recently asked the Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) to examine the legality of the defense ministry’s initiative to purchase the Mistral-class ships. On July 9, a spokesman for the open-joint stock company (OAO), Pribaltiyskiy Sudostroitelnyy Zavod Yantar, also asserted that Russian shipyards have sufficient production capacity to build analogous ships. Specifically, he identified the St. Petersburg and Arkhangelsk shipyards OAO Nevskoye PKB, Admiralteyskiy Verfi, Baltiyskiy Zavod, Sevmash, and Yantar as well. However, the nature of the complaint related to the alleged violation of Article 6 of the federal law “On the State Defense Order,” and exclusion of Russian companies from the tendering process violated Article 15 of the law “On the Protection of Competition.” The FAS confirmed receipt of the complaint from Yantar, and said the document was forwarded to the Federal Service for the State Defense Order (Rosoboronzakaz), since it is authorized to control military purchases (Regnum, July 16).

Among the technical issues to be addressed while building these vessels for the Russian navy, is the need to reinforce their hulls (for the use in circumpolar routes) as well as modifying the flight decks. Since the procurement excludes French helicopter sales, the flight decks will need to be raised to accommodate Russian helicopters onboard. Further structural reinforcements will also be required to enable the ships to operate in cold seas. In order to placate the concerns of the domestic defense industry and attempt to reinvigorate Russian shipbuilding, Moscow insists that two or three of the Mistral-class ships will be built in Russia, without any stipulation on conditions or timetables (ITAR-TASS, July 23; Air & Cosmos, Paris, July 13). None of these technical issues surrounding the planned procurement are necessarily deal breaking, and are likely to be resolved.

However, Vysotskiy said that other countries possess technologies which Russia lacks and that some officials were “being crafty” by claiming that the country could develop these domestically (Ekho Moskvy, July 24). The commander of the Russian navy referred to the domestic defense industry’s weaknesses in terms of manufacturing high-tech components, and indirectly highlighted the need to secure the onboard electronics along with the Mistral procurement.

Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, the former Commander of the Black Sea Fleet and an outspoken critic of Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov’s, military reform, recently admitted that the defense industry’s shortcomings have resulted in a shortage of high-tech homing systems for weapons guidance. Moreover, Komoyedov drew attention to a deeper sensitivity within the Russian armed forces concerning foreign electronics. In theory, as the ratio between Russian designed and manufactured onboard electronics shifts towards foreign components, it might risk the future disablement during a naval engagement due to the presence of “plants” (zakladka) within the microelectronics. Foreign microchips and microprocessors pose such a theoretical risk, and are therefore checked rigorously. Technological deficits combined with the expression of interest in the onboard sophisticated electronics, which Vysotskiy linked to the Mistral deal, suggests not only that Moscow wants the ships to serve as mobile advanced command and control platforms, but is willing to risk becoming increasingly dependent upon western military technology. Many Russian military officials and naval experts believe that the purchase of the Mistral makes no sense. Komoyedov put it bluntly:

“Mistral is like a tin can, not armed with anything, and with one virtue –the diesel-electric ship power plant. It is good for the fact that it takes up little space. It has a small engine compartment, and in the space free of large engine compartments it is possible to base, warehouse, store, and service helicopters and personnel. Unfortunately, this class of ship is incapable of operating independently. Her combat stability always has to be ensured under as well as above water and also in the air. In order to redeploy forces to the Kurils and other islands… it is necessary to have those [Mistral-class ships] in a support system” (Novyy Region, July 23).

While Paris has a domestically driven agenda in mind regarding the Mistral, as well as playing commercial catch up with Germany in terms of its bilateral trade links with Russia, any claim that the sale would symbolize ending the Cold War is farfetched. Moscow, on the other hand, is not interested in “tin cans,” but sophisticated technology transfers, and the French authorities have yet to elaborate on reasons as to why Russia should be denied such an opportunity.