NATO should buy the two Mistral warships France is building for export to the Russian Federation this year and make them a commonly shared asset. This bold action would prevent a powerful military capability from falling into the hands of an assertive Russia, bolster NATO’s capabilities, demonstrate political solidarity among NATO allies and offer the alliance a flagship symbol of multinational defense cooperation.
Russia’s invasion of Crimea has put many European countries in an awkward position due to the continent’s close trade linkages with Moscow. No one has been more challenged than France. Under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, Paris agreed to manufacture and sell to Russia two of its most sophisticated amphibious warships.
The sale provoked noisy objections in the US Congress and among allies in Central and Eastern Europe who saw the contract as undermining NATO solidarity. But for France, the sale was all about jobs. The nearly $2 billion contract has preserved 1,000 jobs at the St. Nazaire shipyards.
Paris has come under renewed pressure to cancel the contract in light of Russia’s actions over the past few weeks. As of this writing Paris will decide whether to go forward with the sale in October, when the first of the two ships is scheduled for delivery to Russia. Facing enough economic challenges as it is, Paris is loath to eat the nearly $2 billion cost of the ships and see 1,000 shipbuilders lose their jobs.
The United States should propose that NATO allies collectively buy the Mistrals and make them a common asset dedicated to the NATO Response Force. This move would have powerful, positive effects on NATO at a time when many within Europe are feeling a renewed sense of appreciation for the alliance.
First, and perhaps most important, this would prevent the ships from falling into the hands of Russia.
Second, the sale would keep the ship and its capabilities within the alliance. NATO has been in a defense depression over the past five years, with many European allies cutting core capabilities. By buying this multidimensional ship and dedicating it to the NATO Response Force, allies would show they are serious about defense in an era of renewed geopolitical competition.
Third, a NATO purchase of the ships would demonstrate powerful solidarity among allies. The Central and East European allies, as well as partners like Georgia and Ukraine, would be relieved to see the ships not become part of the Russian Navy.
Moreover, the purchase would also be an important gesture of alliance solidarity with France, which finds itself in an embarrassing predicament.
Finally, the warships would become the flagship symbol of NATO’s Smart Defense initiative to foster cooperation among allies on defense projects. Until now, Smart Defense has been criticized as a means of enabling allies to cut capabilities together to minimize loss. A common NATO purchase of the two Mistral ships would show that Smart Defense isn’t just a policy of addition by subtraction.
Of course, alliance politics would make a NATO purchase of the ships extremely complex. Who would pay for the ships and who would command them?
The United States should agree to pick up 50 percent of the costs of the $2 billion contract and ask Canada and the rest of the Europeans to pick up the other half. By assuming half the cost, Washington would demonstrate a powerful signal of leadership that the rest of Europe would find hard to ignore.
France should take the next highest burden, 25 percent, given that it has the most at stake. Central and Eastern Europe would be expected — and would likely be willing — to take on their share of the burden as well.
Command and control of the ships would not be an insurmountable challenge. The United States should take command of oneship and France of the other. The ships should be staffed by a multinational crew, much like the airborne warning and control system fleet that NATO operates for surveillance purposes.
Operating a sophisticated ship with a multinational crew would be a daunting undertaking but would offer huge benefits to NATO naval interoperability in the long run.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has breathed new life into NATO through his dismemberment of Ukraine. The United States and its NATO allies should seize this unique opportunity to undertake a joint purchase of the Mistral warships and make them part of NATO’s renewed commitment to European security. ■
Jeff Lightfoot, a senior associate with the Jones Group International and former deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He writes in a personal capacity.