Key point: Paris may have wanted the money, but Moscow surprised everyone by invading Ukraine. Once that happened, France did not want to give such weapons to Russia.
It’s not uncommon for national leaders to succumb to the temptation of lucrative weapon sales abroad, even when there are obvious risks those weapons could undermine their national security and diplomatic interests, or those of close allies.
After all, the United Kingdom, France and the United States have warred with countries fielding guns, jet fighters and warships built in Western factories. Even seemingly “safe” third parties may transfer hi-tech weapons technologies to additional actors they were never intended for.
Perhaps no such conflict between profit-motive and national security seems more mind-boggling than the fact that, five years ago, France very nearly sold Russia two advanced amphibious assault ships, as well as the technology to build two more. But for a coincidence of timing, NATO today might have to plan for the threat posed by four Russian helicopter carriers, instead of none.
The boxy 26,000-ton Mistral-class carriers pack in most of the features you’d expect from amphibious assault ships, except for support for jump jets (France doesn’t have any). Each measures the length of two football fields, and their flight decks can accommodate up to 35 small- or 16 medium-sized helicopters, with spots to land up to six at a time. These can be used to hunt submarines, land troops ashore, or attack surface targets.
They also have internal well decks that can carry up to four CTM or EDA landing craft to ferry up to 60 vehicles (including main battle tanks) and or 450-900 troops ashore, and a large hospital with 69 beds to treat battle casualties or evacuees.
The Mistrals are also equipped with advanced satellite-based communication systems, laser-based inertial navigation systems, three-dimensional radars, and a huge command center space so they can serve as forward command ships. For propulsion, the vessels use electrically driven pod-mounted propellers called azimuth thrusters that double as agile steering mechanisms.
Mistrals comes at roughly half the price of the U.S. Navy’s Wasp-class LHDs at around $600 to 700 million, and thanks to a high degree of automation can function with 160 crew instead of the Wasp’s 1,000. This theoretically should make them appealing for export.
The vessels are useful both for peaceful missions and armed interventions. France commissioned the first two ships, Mistral and Tonnerre, in 2006. Mistral evacuated foreign nationals from Lebanon during the Israel-Hezbollah conflict of 2006, while Tonnerre ferried troops and helicopters for France’s intervention in the Ivorian Civil War (Operation Licorne). Both dispatched Gazelle and Tiger attack helicopters on missions in 2013 Libya campaign (Operation Harmattan). The Dixmude, commissioned in 2012, was almost immediately involved in deploying armored vehicles and helicopters in France’s interventions against Islamist insurgents in Mali and the civil war in the Central African Republic.
French Helicopters for…Russia?
In 2009, Russia decided it wanted helicopter carriers—but lacking the technology readily at hand, sought a foreign buyer. In December 2010, the Mistral beat out the Spanish Juan Carlos-class in a competition. For $1.7 billion, Paris agreed to build two Mistrals for Russia, train crews in their operation—and then transfer technology so that Russia could build two more for its own use. This was to be the largest arms deal from the West to Moscow since World War II.
That such a deal was possible illustrated the fundamentally different tenor of Europe-Russia relations prior to Moscow’s seizure of Crimea and involvement in Eastern Ukraine. But even then, the Mistral sale was criticized abroad by fellow members of NATO and NATO allies.
For one, France was effectively offering ship-building technology that would, according to Russian officials, take Russia at least a decade to develop.
Furthermore, most of the obvious uses of the ships ran contrary to the interests of France’s allies. The commander of the Russian Navy claimed (dubiously) the carriers would have allowed Russia to defeat Georgia in a 2008 war “within 40 minutes”; and a senior general noted the lead ship would serve in the Pacific fleet in case Russia needed to deploy troops to the Kuril islands, which remain subject to an ongoing border dispute with Japan.
Furthermore, the deal included the transfer of sensitive radar and command and control technologies—which may have been more valuable than the ships themselves.
The vessels were laid down at the STX shipyard in Saint Nazaire in 2012, with additional components manufactured in St. Petersburg, Russia, before being shipped to France for final assembly in a 60/40 French-Russian split. Differences in the Russian carriers, to be named Sebastopol and Vladivostok, included Russian-built point defense weapons (Igla short-range anti-aircraft missiles, and AGK630 30-millimeter autocannons), adaptation for Arctic operations, aviation facilities and electrical wiring.
Most importantly, the Russian Navy planned to use Mistrals as platforms for naval helicopters: Ka-52K Katran (“Spiny Dogfish”) attack helicopters, Ka-27 “Helix” choppers designed to search for and destroy submarines, and Ka-29TB assault transports designed for deploying troops into hot landing zones.
Russia paid €893 million in advance to help seal the deal. The first Mistral was launched in 2013 and firmly on track for hand-over to the Russian Navy on November 2014. But February that year, Russian special forces and Navy personnel seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.
As Western-Russia relations swiftly deteriorated, Paris eventually froze construction but insisted the deal was still on. But in the following months, Russia’s involvement in a bloody war in Eastern Ukraine only grew more and more overt.
External pressure mounted on France to cancel the sale, as Western sanctions on Russia grew stricter and more comprehensive. But in France, there was intense political opposition to killing the sale and the jobs it supported, particularly from the Moscow-friendly French center and far-right parties. The latter, not coincidentally, was loaned millions of dollars by Russia the same year.
Nonetheless, it was now obvious how the helicopter carriers could have supported Moscow’s Black Sea operations against Ukraine, been applied to projecting force against Baltic or Scandinavian countries—and (later in 2015) could have supported Russia’s military expedition in support of Assad’s regime in Syria.
On September 3, 2014, France announced it was freezing construction. After protracted negotiations, Paris paid back in full Moscow’s advance payment and sent back the Russian-built equipment. Russia also kept 150,000 pages of technical documents, which may inform the design of two planned domestic Priboy (Surf)-class amphibious carriers. If funding comes through, these new carriers, also named, Sevastopol and Vladivostok, may be laid down in 2020 and 2022.
Carriers for Egypt
France was left with two Mistrals moored in St. Nazaire, draining over a million dollars a month in maintenance fees.
Finally, in August 2015, Paris sold the ships to Cairo (which benefited from Saudi financing) for the bargain price of 950 million euros. The two vessels were transferred to the Egyptian Navy in 2016 and are now named the ENS Anwar El Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser after past Egyptian presidents.
The Egyptian Mistrals came without armaments, so Egypt improvised by placing Avenger anti-aircraft Humvees armed with Stinger missiles for air defense on their flight decks.
More critically, Cairo needed helicopters that could fly off its new flattops—and purchased thirty-two Ka-52K naval attack helicopters the Russian Navy no longer had a home for. Russian media also gloated that Egypt supposedly sweetened the deal by transferring Mistral technology back to Russia after all. This is possible given Egypt’s long history of weapons technology transfers.
Currently, Nasser is based at Safaga on the Red Sea (adjacent Israel and Saudi Arabia), while the Sadat is located on the Mediterranean port of Alexandria. It will be interesting to observe how Egypt employs the versatile vessels, continuing their politically fraught odyssey.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This first appeared earlier in 2019.