Even while U.S. defense critics attack the necessity of maintaining an American amphibious assault capability, the Russian government appears to have decided that that is exactly what it needs to dominate and, if necessary, physically control the country's perceived sphere of influence.
International reaction toward the recent agreement between France and Russia to provide the Russian Navy with two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships has ranged from questioning why France would pursue such a deal to pointing out that two such ships hardly give the Russian Navy global reach.
But the Mistral deal is much more a message than a mystery. In fact, it constitutes three messages, all of which should concern Russia's neighbors, NATO members and analysts of joint warfare.
A flanking capacity for small wars
Attempts to develop an amphibious assault capability along the lines of the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps are not new to Russia. During the Cold War, the Soviet Navy built two large Ivan Rogov-class ships, about two-thirds the size of Mistral, as well as more than 30 tank landing ships (LSTs). It displayed innovation in the amphibious mission, building numerous hovercrafts - roughly equivalent to the U.S. Landing Craft Air Cushion - as well as the wing-in-ground-effect craft known as the "Caspian sea monster," which is still shrouded in a bit of mystery.
The Soviet Navy could never challenge U.S./NATO's global amphibious reach, although it did transport Cuban troops to Angola.
Rather than global reach, the Soviet Navy saw amphibious capability as a means of flanking the NATO-Warsaw Pact central front and landing forces ashore behind opposing armies. This capability appears to be what a Putinized Russia is attempting to recreate today, which should certainly concern "near abroad" countries attempting to resist Russian dominance, such as Georgia or Ukraine.
Since it is easier to move forces by water than on land, amphibious capabilities are a dominant feature in small wars, not just an adjunct. That the Russian government recognizes this is message one.
A weakening solidarity in NATO Europe?
A second message is the apparently changing attitude in the major European states - in this case, France - toward NATO and Russia. One can argue that the primary objective of the French government was job creation, but the government estimates only 1,000 jobs will be created, hardly a massive benefit from such a major move in international politics. France has reintegrated itself into a NATO whose strategic concept is oriented toward missions outside of Europe rather than the organization's reason for existence - deterring Russian expansion.
It is a stretch to argue that France rejoined the NATO command structure because Russia was no longer the primary concern. However, the Mistral deal is yet another bit of evidence that France, like Germany, sees its national interest as developing an accommodating, or at least non-confrontational, relationship with Russia, rather than reassuring the Baltic NATO members or the former Soviet satellites.
More concerning should be the report that France expressed its willingness to transfer sensitive warship and command-and-control technology. This report may be overstated, but objections by Latvia and Lithuania did not seem to get much of a hearing in Paris.
War from the sea has replaced war at sea
The third message re-emphasizes the fact that after the Cold War ended, war from the sea replaced war at sea as the primary purpose of navies. Examining the geography and capabilities of those states that are potential opponents, it should be the focus of joint forces as well.
The artificial separation of military operations into the domains of land, air, sea (and now space and cyberspace), each presumably dominated by a particular service, no longer makes strategic sense. The Department of the Navy officially recognized this in its strategic vision "From the Sea" in 1993, but it was a realization that receded in the more recent era of counterterrorism and nation-building by force.
Yet the evidence that other nations recognize the change can be found in both the development of anti-access systems and greater emphasis on naval expeditionary/amphibious forces.
For instance: The U.K., France and Japan consider large-deck (flight operations-capable) amphibious warships as capital ships, with Australia building its first. And in recent years, the decommissioned ships that were most sought after by smaller partner nations from the U.S. were the LSTs.
The implication of the third message for U.S. defense policy might be that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may be, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates phrased them, the wars of the past rather than the wars of the future. Similarly, the high-tech wars of space and cyberspace may be wars of a farther-off future.
But right now, more nations are concerned with the leverage that littoral and amphibious forces can give them, whether in the South China or the Black Sea. Studies of the history of amphibious operations, incorrectly presumed to be the most costly form of warfare in both resources and lives, have indicated that most such assaults have been successful and the defenders defeated.
That is why the Russian Navy is buying the Mistrals. And that is why the Pentagon should think harder about the future of its own expeditionary/amphibious capabilities.
Sam Tangredi, a retired U.S. Navy captain who is a member of planning-consulting firm Strategic Insight, Arlington, Va., and author of the book "Futures of War."