How to Stop the Sale of France's Mistrals to Russia: NATO Should Buy Them

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Fast forward to November 1st of this year, just four days before US mid-term elections.  The top news story begins, “Just weeks after crash investigators determined that the Malaysian Airliner was shot down in Ukraine by a missile supplied by Russia, France has today delivered an advanced warship that will markedly increase Russia’s ability to threaten Ukraine, Georgia and other vulnerable countries.”  

Unfortunately, such an incredible scenario looks increasingly likely to materialize.  Cash-strapped France appears determined to go forward with its contracted sale of two Mistral class amphibious war ships to Russia.  If France delivers the first vessel, scheduled for just four months from now, this could mark a colossal foreign policy failure for the West.  Even if the other economic sanctions bite, the simple  act of a key NATO country conducting military business as usual with Russia will likely make a mockery of the attempt to fundamentally change Putin's decision calculus. 

It is imperative that the Obama Administration put on a full-court press to stop this deal – and there’s a way to do it, provided officials are willing to think outside the box.  NATO should buy the ships from France for its own long-term needs in Europe and around the world, acquiring useful capabilities while also cushioning the financial hit to France--and giving Paris diplomatic cover for a difficult decision as well.

To achieve such an outcome, President Obama has to make clear – publicly – to Congress and to our European allies that stopping this sale is an urgent priority for the US.  The President himself needs to point out the risks.  The sale of the Mistral is not only a symbolic disaster, vindicating Putin’s view of a West that is weak, unprincipled and just as venal as his cronies in Russia, it also provides Moscow with a critical boost to its military capabilities. 

Control of the coastal regions of the Baltic and Black Seas is a strategic priority for Moscow and the versatile amphibious assault ship, which can carry up to 16 attack helicopters, increases Russia’s ability to carry out offensive operations along the coast of Ukraine, neighboring Georgia and other countries, including in the Middle East, that have exposure to seafaring Russian vessels.  It could, for example, deploy more "little green men" of the type that moved into eastern Ukraine this spring, to various places quickly and semi-stealthily.  The sale will only complicate the effort to get Europe to follow the US lead in toughening sanctions on Russia as businesses cite – with reason – the blatant hypocrisy of asking them to take a substantial financial hit while a major European power closes its lucrative deal with Moscow.

Some in Congress, notably Congressman Engel of New York, have called for NATO to purchase the vessels instead.  That is a good idea but it needs to go further.  It should be coupled with financial contributions from all NATO members, in keeping with the usual algorithms by which NATO buys modest amounts of equipment for general alliance purposes.  In order to get the attention of allies, the Administration must be able to show that it is willing to consider partial financing of an alternative.

NATO already owns certain assets for the general utility of the alliance as a whole.  The list includes military infrastructure at some bases, and specialized equipment such as AWACS aircraft needed to control the integrated aerial operations of many countries in the event of a major operation.

Amphibious ships have not previously been seen as candidates for NATO-wide acquisition because, to date, the alliance has relied on the generosity of individual members for possess these kinds of vessels.  Such countries, notably the United States and Britain and France, have the requisite capabilities should they be willing to employ them. But at a time when most of NATO's European members are shirking from their duties within the alliance and letting military budgets fall precipitously, it may no longer be prudent or appropriate just to count on a small number of member states to provide such assets.  They could have many important uses. Whether for military exercises to shore up the security and confidence of the alliance's easternmost members, or for humanitarian purposes in Africa, or for counterterrorism purposes in the broader Middle East, it would make good sense for the alliance to have its own organic capabilities to move about several hundred tactically mobile and logistically self-sustainable personnel.

France would of course have to do at least its own part in this, paying for a share of the Mistrals itself (or, alternatively, offering them to the alliance at a considerable discount).  It is only right that Paris accept its fair share of the burden for a sale that was questionable from the start--and that, frankly, should have been unilaterally canceled by France by now in light of the tragedies of the last few weeks and months in Ukraine that have resulted from Russian belligerence.

But we are where we are. Paris will not take such an honorable step without substantial compensation and help, it would appear.  So now is the time for NATO as a whole to step up. Doing so, at this juncture, would accomplish more than simply avoiding a major strategic mistake.  It would turn a crisis into an opportunity for the alliance to show resolve and, at the same time, gain important capabilities for its future regional responsibilities. 

Edward P. Joseph is Executive Director of the Institute of Current World Affairs​.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and director of research for the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, where he specializes in U.S. defense strategy, the use of military force, and American foreign policy. 

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsRussia RegionsFrance

Australia's Future Submarine Strategy Presses Forward

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At the Defense and Industry conference this week, we got an official update on the status of the Future Submarine project (SEA1000) from the project head, RADM Greg Sammut and DMO’s General Manager of Submarines, David Gould. That’s welcome, as multi-billion dollar government projects should be exposed to public scrutiny to the extent possible consistent with commercial and security sensitivities. (I won’t comment on other rumors doing the rounds.)

In a recent ASPI paper, Mark and I summarized the thinking that was on display at ASPI’s conference in April. What we got this week showed encouraging progress in the three months since. I’ve been writing about the project for years now (like the F-35, it’s a gift that keeps giving) and have lamented the apparent lack of coherence in planning. So credit where it’s due; with a couple of exceptions, which I’ll come back to later, I think we’ve arrived at a sensible approach.

Firstly, RADM Sammut explained that the Integrated Project Team (IPT) in Adelaide is largely composed of industry representatives working in support of DMO’s project office. This “above the line” industry participation is vitally important if the Commonwealth is to be a smart buyer. Having relevant industry experience in-house will allow Navy/DMO to refine their requirements cognizant of their impact on project costs and risks.

A dramatic illustration of that—and a pretty newsworthy one in my books—is that there’s been a significant stepping back from the 2009 Defense White Paper’s wildly ambitious aims. There’s no conventional submarine in the world with the range and endurance of the Collins class, but the 2009 aim was a “significantly greater” performance. That led me (and others) to describe the projected submarine as a “conventionally-powered nuclear submarine” and to question the feasibility of the project.

This week we learned that the revised capability aims aren’t very different from Collins in terms of range, speed and endurance. Capability enhancements will instead focus on sensor capabilities and stealthiness, both of which will make the subs more effective and survivable in the decades to come.

Another sensible step is to take the existing Collins combat system (a highly modified derivative of the USN’s Virginia class system) and weapons into the new class, at least in the first instance. That will allow for a spiral development path, in which the new hulls, sensors and propulsion systems can be worked out without the concomitant risks of developing a new combat system. We tried that with Collins and it caused more grief than it was worth, so full marks there.

Of course, putting new sensors into the future boats will require them to be integrated into the combat system. Planning for that eventuality, we were told that Australian software developers were being contracted for “out of cycle” software-development work (ie not in the U.S. Navy development cycle). Getting Australian industry into the high value-add end of systems integration, where competing in global markets is entirely possible, is also a welcome development.

David Gould described the next step of finding an industry design partner that’ll take the design brief provided by the IPT and produce a detailed design. It wasn’t 100% clear if the design partner would automatically become the build partner, but that would make sense, allowing for the transition from design to production engineering to flow with lower risk of things being “lost in translation.” Mark and I had a fair bit to say about how this might work in the recent paper, so I won’t labor the point here, other than to note that such an approach might have avoided some of the problems the AWD project had.

Lest I seem uncharacteristically charitable, let me point out a couple of things that didn’t sound quite right. As Manager of Submarines, David Gould has to worry about the existing fleet as well as the future one, and he noted that both types would be in service together for a considerable time. He explained that his preference was to have a single support contract to cover both. Presumably the thinking is that having in-house understanding of both designs would allow for a single support arrangement. I’m not totally convinced; unless the same design house is behind both (in practice meaning a Swedish choice), it seems to add complication in managing intellectual property—a significant problem in the past.

Finally, there were hints in the presentation about the possibility of offshore builds, but no discussion of how (or where) that might happen. It’s fair enough to be looking at foreign builds, as the costs and benefits of all options should be diligently explored. But then we were told that a local build (including the first of class) was important for knowledge transfer needed for future support. The mixed signals had some of the industry reps scratching their heads.

All in all, there were more steps forwards than backwards. It might be several years later than would’ve been optimal, but real progress is being made.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defense capability and director of research at ASPI. This article first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

TopicsSecurity RegionsAustralia

Mikheil Saakashvili: Medford's Most Wanted

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One of the more enduring and resilient neoconservative myths--what the sociologist Karl Jaspers would have recognized as a “life sustaining lie”--is the notion that Russian President Vladimir Putin was entirely to blame for the outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Georgia on August 7, 2008. As the story goes, Mr. Putin, an aggressive geopolitical revanchist, went to war against his tiny southern neighbor that summer using a similar pretext that he is said to be using now is Ukraine - to protect Russian nationals outside of Russia’s borders – in order to prevent Georgia from launching on its predestined trajectory West.

No less a personage than former Georgian President turned Tuft’s University “Senior Statesman” Mikheil Saakashvili is a frequent proponent of this view. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, the former president expressed his continuing puzzlement as to why Russia invaded Georgia:

When Russia was bidding to be host of the Olympics, it had enthusiastic Georgian support, as we believed holding the Games in Sochi would enhance chances for peace and improve relations. Instead, several months after the Kremlin won its bid to host the Olympics, Russia invaded Georgia.

Now Misha, as he is commonly known, is back in the headlines. This time it is not as an object of the adulation he no doubt believes is his due, but rather as the subject of criminal charges that have been filed against him by Georgia’s general prosecutor for the “violent dispersal of demonstrators” in November 2007 as well as for attempting to seize an independent television station, Imedi.

These charges have caused a good amount of consternation among his Washington fan base. Senators John McCain and Ben Cardin, along with two Senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Jim Risch, neither previously noted for their expertise in Caucasian affairs, released a statement decrying the charges as politically motivated. The Senators began by conceding that “President Saakashvili and his government were not faultless…”

That is only too true. Leaving aside that during the brief 2008 conflict, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International documented numerous cases of Georgian forces targeting civilians and using cluster bombs in violation of international law; subsequently, evidence surfaced that Saakashvili and his government imprisoned and tortured political prisoners as a matter of course during his years in office. Even as recently as the 2012 Georgian elections, State Department veteran John Kornblum noted the “ruthless oppression of freedom and violence against [opposition] campaign workers.”

Undeterred, the Senators continued their unasked-for lecture to the Prosecutor General:

…the pursuit of justice should not become a tool of political retribution…We and others have urged Prime Minister Garibashvili and other Georgian leaders to focus on the future, not the past and to help move their country forward, not take it backward.

In other words: hands off Misha.

The reaction in Kutaisi to the Senator’s statement was swift. Tedo Japaridze, chairman of the parliament’s foreign relations committee, struck back in statement released yesterday, noting that:

In line with the principle of the autonomy of justice, I will refrain from commenting on the substance of the case made by the Chief Prosecutor’s Office. The very same principle should also constrain our friends in the US Senate.

He continued:

Democratic consolidation, ultimately, requires confidence in due process, that is, a deep conviction that no one is above or beyond the law.

This is an important point. Indeed, the irony is that McCain is a champion of promoting democracy abroad. Yet when it suits his purposes he apparently thinks that justice--the foundation, after all, of any democracy--should be jettisoned to protect his foreign friend. Not surprisingly, the Georgian government is taking a different view. Another irony is that Russia is currently moving toward imposing sanctions on Georgia to retaliate for its embrace of the European Union. McCain and Co. appear to be inadvertently finding themselves in bed with Putin when it comes to hectoring Georgia.

For too long Saakashvili’s friends on Capitol Hill have – with great success – managed to obscure their champion’s true record, which is one of abject criminality reflecting the predilections of a rather debased personality. The lesson policymakers should (but of course will not) take away from their decade long infatuation with Misha is that unstinting and unquestioning support for anti-Russian proxies and client states – even when they claim, like Saakashvili, to be honest-to-goodness democrats – is a recipe for trouble and all too often results in the further degradation of America’s reputation abroad.

James W. Carden is a contributing editor of The American Conservative.

Image: Wikicommons/Chatham House. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsGeorgia

China's Real Goal: Destroy the Regional Order in East Asia?

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Hugh White and others are right to worry about a drift toward antagonism among Asia’s great powers. China’s recent assertiveness in local maritime disputes should moreover disabuse anyone of the comforting conceit that China will forever meekly accept the meager consolation of being an also-ran great power.

But China’s options for challenging the East Asian regional order are in fact profoundly constrained. In debating Australia’s “China choice,” we must keep in mind the reality of China’s own limited room for meaningful choice in a more contested Asia.

China cannot and will not directly challenge America for regional hegemony in the foreseeable future. That’s partly because of the great economic gains China continues to derive from American incumbency. But it’s also because today’s East Asian order is underpinned by a broad based constituency for American engagement, among American treaty allies, but also increasingly among potent non-traditional security partners, such as Vietnam.

More fundamentally, as Evelyn Goh has masterfully demonstrated, today’s order isn’t merely “made in America,” but bears the imprint of multiple authors, including smaller and middle powers anxious to enmesh both the United States and China in a region wide multilateral security architecture. Talk-shops like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) are of course limited in their capacity to socialize and pacify great powers. But the proliferation of those architectures nevertheless reflects the real depth of regional resolve to uphold the status quo.

Even though China may chafe at American primacy, then, it cannot directly challenge that primacy without also challenging the densely institutionalized and increasingly polycentric regional order American primacy supports. For that reason, a direct full-spectrum Chinese challenge to the existing order is likely to remain a non-starter.

If China can’t directly overthrow the existing order, an alternative might be to hollow it out and eventually revise it from within, precisely by embracing Rod Lyon’s call for a “responsible” Beijing, more willing to shoulder its share of great-power obligations. In the security realm, a greater Chinese commitment to Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations could potentially prove a plausible mechanism of regional reassurance. Economically, meanwhile, the BRICS’ establishment last week of a New Development Bank (to be headquartered in Shanghai) may be read as a leading-edge indicator of China’s new willingness to outbid the United States in the provision of collective goods, at a global as well as a regional level.

Hypothetically, that “responsible” path to revisionism could challenge the existing order incrementally, by providing an alternative source of collective international goods not tied to American hegemony. For the moment, though, this strategy also remains practically beyond China’s reach. Beijing’s late and lackluster response to Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 dramatized a deficit of political will and logistical capabilities which together constrain a more systematic Chinese embrace of HADR as a lever of regional “soft power.” Similarly, China’s own internal development needs limit its capacity to displace the United States and its OECD allies as a development financier and source of foreign direct investment, much less as a provider of an alternative global reserve currency.

A more ‘responsible’ China—more willing to shoulder the burdens of managing Asia’s and the world’s increasingly complex governance challenges—would be welcome. But shouldering such responsibilities will not thereby equip China with a Trojan horse capable of effectively undermining either American hegemony or the East Asian regional order from within.

Bill Tow’s intervention reminds us that China—traditionally a continental power—is now eagerly embracing a “go-west” strategy of integrating Eurasian “spokes” into a China-centered “hub” via growing investments in pipelines and transportation infrastructure. In contrast to the Cold War, China neighbors a now-diminished but still vehemently anti-Western Russia, which is increasingly dependent on China as a market for its energy exports. Similarly, China counts as its Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) partners a penumbra of energy-rich rentier-state autocracies, which are far less likely to resist Chinese leadership aspirations than China’s feisty East and Southeast Asian neighbors. That raises a third possibility: if China can neither smash the existing order in East Asia nor subvert it from within, might it eventually be able to secede from it?

The idea of an autocratic China—engorged with Central Asian resources and paramount over continental eastern Eurasia—revives a Mackinderian spectre that has haunted Western strategists for over a century. Fortunately, this option of a Chinese “re-balance” to Eurasia and away from littoral East Asia also lacks credibility. Inevitably, as China continues to grow, it’ll assert more influence over its resource-rich Eurasian hinterland. But even as China’s
“go-west” strategy matures, its manufacturing sector—the key to China’s continuing rise—will remain hard-wired into regional production networks centered on littoral East Asia. Likewise, the countries to China’s West are unable to provide ready substitutes for either the Japanese capital goods, or the massive American consumer market, on which China’s manufacturing success still depends.

We are undoubtedly entering a more contested era in Asia, and must accordingly be wary of blithe assurances that we can effortlessly extrapolate from Asia’s peaceful recent past to anticipate its future. And a more multipolar Asia will undoubtedly pose real challenges for Australia, which since European settlement has almost only ever known an international order sponsored by its Anglo-American kin. But acknowledging those challenges should not blind us to the reality of China’s limited bandwidth of choice in the current regional order, which remains easy to join, but infinitely harder to smash, subvert or secede from.

Andrew Phillips is an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award Fellow and senior lecturer in International Relations and Strategy in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. This article first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

A Delicate Dance: China, Taiwan, America and the Sunflower Movement

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Editor's Note: The following is a "Letter to the Editor" from Thalia Lin, an Executive Officer in the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in the U.S.

In his July 22 essay, titled “How to Deal with America’s China Problem: Target Beijing’s Vulnerabilities,” Robert Sutter correctly considers the relationship between mainland China and Taiwan to be an essential part of the United States’ calculus vis-à-vis U.S.-mainland China relations. Unfortunately, Professor Sutter’s analysis lacks the nuance one needs to properly address the delicate relationship between Taiwan, the U.S., and mainland China.

To start, however, it is necessary to give credit where it’s due. As Professor Sutter indicates, the United States should authorize the sales of advanced weaponry that have long been requested by Taiwan’s government, as they are essential to maintain Taiwan’s self-defense capability. This is all in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year and directs the U.S. “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character.”

Where Professor Sutter misses the mark is his assessment that the United States should shift to “a more active U.S. posture in support of Taiwanese free expression and identity represented by the so-called Sunflower Movement on the island.” As Taiwan is a free country, its free expression and identity is represented in its robust democracy. It is Taiwan’s very system of government, so opposite of that of mainland China’s in every way, that allows and even embraces demonstrations such as the Sunflower Movement as an exercise of the spirit of the country.

The Sunflower Movement ended in peace, and the government has pledged to establish a supervisory mechanism to monitor cross-Strait agreements. However, students’ weeks-long occupation of the Legislative Yuan paralyzed the lawmaking process, preventing it from achieving anything concrete. This is why Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel, when answering a question about the protests during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in early April, stated that “the United States very much hopes that the students and demonstrators will use that freedom responsibly, that they will behave in a civil and in a peaceful manner and certainly to avoid violence.”

In any event, the Sunflower Movement is acting in opposition to the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement, which is essential for securing Taiwan’s economic future. It is not about integrating with mainland China, as some would suggest, but rather liberalizing Taiwan’s economy in order to be a part of the region’s ongoing economic integration. Besides economic agreements with mainland China, Taiwan has also signed trade liberalization agreements with Singapore and New Zealand, both of which are taking part in Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations. Additionally, as South Korea is expected to sign a free-trade agreement with mainland China by the end of this year, Taiwan is facing increasing economic competition in the region. The trade in services agreement with mainland China is only a logical step toward making Taiwan a significantly more attractive prospect for the TPP and other critical regional and international trade agreements.

Professor Sutter writes that “China would face costly and difficult reevaluation of its reasonably successful policy toward Taiwan.” However, we must point out that President Ma’s policy toward mainland China has been reasonably successful and widely praised by U.S. government officials. In the same testimony mentioned above, Assistant Secretary of State Russel noted that “[the United States] very much welcome and applaud the extraordinary progress that has occurred in cross-Strait relations under the Ma administration.” 

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsTaiwan