Odd Man Out: France Could Sell Russia's Lethal Mistral Ships to Brazil

"...the prospect of having a useful naval partner in Latin America should make both Washington and Paris think hard about how they can facilitate a deal...

Brazil could use a pair of Mistral-class amphibious assault ships. Fortuitously, a pair just came on the market.

The Ships

As has become well known, Russia contracted with France in 2009 to build a pair of Mistral-class amphibious assault ships in French yards. The French would then assist in the construction of two additional Mistrals in Russian yards, giving the Russians a chance to redevelop their skills at building large surface warships.

The Mistrals displace 21,000 tons, can make almost 19 knots, and can carry two-to-three dozen helicopters, in addition to small boats and a contingent of marines. They have advanced communication systems necessary for managing complex amphibious operations (the sophistication of this system was one of the sticking points in the export deal with Russia).

The French expected to deliver the first ship, Vladivostok, in late fall of 2014, but relations between NATO and Russia took a disastrous turn when civil war broke out in Ukraine. France has now indefinitely suspended delivery of the two warships. It is unclear whether France will ever turn either ships over to Russia, or what the French will do with the ships if the deal is permanently cancelled.

In this context, several analysts have proposed solutions, including sending the ships to the United States, China and Canada. The first two are obvious nonstarters (the United States will not spend its precious shipbuilding funds on a foreign-built capital ship, nor will it allow the export of advanced amphibious warfare technology to China), and while Canada makes a great deal of sense, the unwillingness of Ottawa to step up its military spending means that a deal is exceedingly unlikely.

Brazil and France

Brazil and France have a long-standing procurement relationship. In the 1990s, as Brazil’s aircraft carrier Minas Gerais came to the end of its useful life, the French sold the Foch, a much larger ship, to the Brazilian Navy. The Foch joined the Brazilian Navy as “Sao Paulo” in 2000, carrying a contingent of A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bombers. Sao Paulo undertook several cruises in her first five years of Brazilian service, then entered a long period of repair and modernization.

Sao Paulo was expected to return to service early this decade, but suffered a serious fire in 2012. Now, the material state of the carrier remains in question. Under the best-case scenario, Brazil will try to return to service a fifty-five-year-old aircraft carrier, using planes that first flew in 1954. Moreover, Brazil has no clear plan to replace Sao Paulo. No country is currently attempting to sell an aircraft carrier, and the Brazilian shipbuilding industry has zero experience with such a large, complex platform.

Why would Brazil need an amphibious assault ship?

An amphibious assault ship, like the Mistral, gives a navy the capacity to undertake an independent leadership role in a littoral crisis. Several Latin American countries have expressed frustration about their ability to conduct maritime relief operations independent of the United States. Following the 2009 Haitian earthquake, for example, the United States and Brazil clashed over credit and precedent in the relief effort. Brazilian ships eventually contributed to support efforts, but later and with less impact than they might have otherwise had.

In such cases, the introduction of a Mistral (or similar amphib) would have given the Brazilian Navy an offshore command center with which to coordinate relief efforts. The operation of helicopters from the flight deck and small boats from the well deck would have facilitated quick transport of troops, medical and support teams and equipment to and from the shore. Helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles also would have given the Brazilian Navy far greater situational awareness.

In short, in maritime relief operations the ownership of an amphib makes the difference between a leadership role (including the ability to manage and steer the course of the operation) and a support role (in which another navy calls the shots). And for most countries, maritime relief operations happen much more often than active combat operations. Moreover, the French Navy has used the Mistral type effectively in maritime patrol missions in the Mediterranean, where its aviation and command and control capabilities allow it to manage a wide space of ocean.

That said, the Mistrals do offer some offensive combat capabilities. The Mistrals are probably too small to operate the F-35B Lightning II, and Brazil is unlikely to acquire any of the world’s dwindling fleet of Harrier jump jets. However, several navies have begun to work on increasing the naval lethality of their helicopter forces. During the NATO intervention in Libya, British and French attack helicopters flew combat strike missions off the deck of the French Tonnerre. Moreover, a few navies have looked into arming naval helicopters with anti-ship cruise missiles. Such helicopters could significantly extend the strike range of a Mistral, assuming an access-friendly environment.

The region

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