Buying the French Mistral Amphibious Ships is a Win-Win
The United States should begin negotiations with France to purchase the two big deck amphibious ships originally built for sale to Russia, but subsequently retained by France due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. With the French government set to reimburse the Russians for the voided contract, a confluence of strategic, operational, and fiscal dynamics point to a win-win opportunity for the United States. An American purchase of these assets would relieve a key NATO ally of a fiscal burden they incurred by rightly withholding the ships in response to Russia’s rogue behavior in Ukraine. It would send an unmistakable message to Putin that there are consequences associated with his aggressive policies. Such a symbolic move would reassure nervous Central and Eastern European allies by providing a tangible example of NATO solidarity and American commitment to Europe. Diplomatically, this acquisition would complement recent NATO initiatives to increase readiness within the maritime domain and reward France for taking one on the chin for European security. Operationally, these ships would mitigate the mobility deficit for U.S. Marine Corps crisis response forces that are currently land-based due to the U.S. Navy’s shortage of amphibious ships. Given the modest price of the ships when compared to alternatives, buying the two Mistrals provides a potent bang for the buck.
At 21,000 tonnes, Mistral class amphibious assault ships carry 450 marines (double for shorter deployments), rely on a small crew of 150 sailors (the ship is highly automated), and accommodate 35 light or 16 heavy helicopters, approximately 70 light vehicles (or fewer tanks), and a 69-bed hospital. These ships contain a well deck that carries four landing craft, or two LCAC hovercrafts, an essential feature for amphibious operations. Mistrals have exercised with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, and succeeded in several high-profile operations such as the 2011 intervention in Libya. As an addition to the U.S. amphibious fleet, these ships would fall into the category of enhanced afloat forward staging bases, functioning much like the new Mobile Landing Platform, but with the very substantial benefit of having a large well deck to accommodate boats and surface connectors.
Strategically, a sale would demonstrate NATO solidarity at a time when the alliance’s credibility is increasingly under question. Instead of adding a potent capability to Russia’s fleet, the United States would buy these ships for the benefit of NATO and permanently forward station them in the Mediterranean.
Lacking an adequate number of amphibious ships, the U.S. Marine Corps has established several Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Forces (SPMAGTF) ashore. Based in Spain, one of these SPMAGTFs remains on high alert, primed to respond to a crisis in Europe or Africa. Unfortunately, this otherwise impressive formation lacks the inherent maneuverability and flexibility offered by an amphibious ship. The SPMAGTF cannot easily reposition its forces in the early stages of a developing crisis given limited shore-basing options and the requirement for flight clearances and secure holding areas. The Mistrals would be an excellent solution to address this gap since the principal means of insertion for these forces is the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. The Mistral’s large flight deck allows aircraft to be positioned forward, reducing response times and increasing a commander’s options should a brewing crisis escalate to the point that Marine forces must be employed.
The combined cost of the two available ships is $1.5 billion, a good deal compared to U.S. designs costing roughly $4 billion apiece. While refitting the ships based on standards suitable for the U.S. Navy may add as much as several hundred million dollars, these costs could be shared by the two governments. Congress does not have to appropriate dollars at the expense of the existing shipbuilding plan; it would merely need to increase funding in the overseas contingency operations account, specifically under the banner of the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI).
Of the $985 million enacted for ERI in fiscal year 2015, only $34 million went to maritime capabilities. ERI was proposed by President Obama and authorized by Congress with a very specific goal:
Reassure allies of the U.S. commitment to their security and territorial integrity as members of the NATO Alliance, provide near-term flexibility and responsiveness to the evolving concerns of our allies and partners in Europe, especially Central and Eastern Europe, and help increase the capability and readiness of U.S allies and partners.
Adding a substantial maritime dimension to ERI would send a powerful message to nervous allies while enhancing responsiveness.
Other commentators, including retired Adm. Jim Stavridis, have suggested that the Europeans (through the EU or NATO) take the lead on purchasing and employing the Mistrals. While this arrangement is desirable, it may not be realistic. Despite a growing threat from Russia, allies capable of operating advanced amphibious platforms (the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Netherlands, and Italy) are shrinking or flat-lining their defense budgets. Increasing NATO’s common funding and relying on multinational rotations — two proposed measures — may be possible over the long run, but years of negotiations and planning would be required. Instead, the United States should lead by example, establish an initial capability around the SPMAGTF, and look to expand the initiative in the coming years alongside like-minded allies. Without this commitment, a plausible alternative is that China buys the ships in order to service its expanding plans for the South China Sea.
Gene Germanovich and Noel Williams are maritime strategy and policy consultants in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are theirs alone.
Photo credit: Ludovic Péron