hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Seizing Sevastopol: What to do with Russia’s French Warships?


Alphen, Netherlands. 23 July.  Predictably the EU fell apart yesterday over what to do about Russia.  Naturally the assembled foreign ministers all pretended otherwise but the only winner was President Putin.  There was a motley extension to the motley collection of asset freezes and travel bans and some talk of future sanctions covering the energy, financial services and defence sectors. It was only talk. And of course Britain and France fell out (again).  France accused Britain of hypocrisy over London’s demand that Paris halt the €1.2bn sale of two state-of-the-art French warships to Russia.  French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius not unreasonably pointed out that Britain has been far too “no questions asked” about the London money of Russian oligarchs close to President Putin.  The French were too polite to point out that Britain still has some 252 active arms export licenses worth some £132m for the sale of weapons to Russia.  For all that it is inconceivable that in the current situation France would help Russia create an entirely new expeditionary military capability. 

These are not any old new warships.  Weighing in at 21500 tons the Mistral-class ships are state-of-the-art marine amphibious command and assault ships that for the first time ever will give Russia the ability to launch from the sea 450 special and specialised forces supported by helicopters and tanks.  The first of the ships is due to be handed over to the Russia Navy in October.  France says that Russia has promised not to use them in its ‘near abroad’. Nonsense.  These two ships could be deployed anywhere around Europe from the High North to the Baltic Sea, from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. 

France must stop talking contracts and start thinking strategy.  That means seizing the ships.  There is a precedent. One hundred years ago in August 1914 the British seized a brand new battleship they had been building first for the Brazilians and then when that deal fell through for the Turks.   Winston Churchill personally insisted the ship be taken into British custody.  She was a state-of-the art Super-Dreadnought battleship with 14 12 inch guns, displacing 30,000 tons and capable of 22 knots. 

Although contractually obliged the British Government of the day felt the strategic situation of the day warranted seizure.  As one can imagine the Ottoman Empire was none too pleased by the seizure (along with one other new battleship) and some scholars believe it helped to push Constantinople towards Wilhelmine Germany.  Still, they could have been used against the Royal Navy and that would have been just a tad embarrassing.

The problem of course with seizure (apart from a seriously peeved Putin) would be what to do with the ships.  The French Navy has neither the personnel nor the budget needed to crew two new ships of this size. However, there are three alternative, very non-Russian options that Paris may wish to consider: 1. create a new Anglo-French strike force; 2. make the ships NATO common assets paid for by NATO Europe; or 3. make the ships the first EU-owned assets at the core of a new maritime amphibious Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF).

Under the 2010 Franco-British Defence and Security Co-operation Treaty the two countries are working up a CJEF.  Current efforts have been focused on co-operation between air and land forces.  However, with the launch of the two British super aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales the addition of the two Mistrals to a maritime amphibious CJEF would markedly enhance the ability of the two countries to launch and sustain significant operations from the sea.  This would ensure Britain and France were at the centre of efforts to enhance the expeditionary capabilities of Europeans but also offer real support to hard-pressed Americans.  The problem as with all ships of this size is their crewing but that is not beyond the bounds of sensible solution.

One of the big issues at September’s NATO Wales Summit will be burden-sharing.  The ships could become a NATO-owned asset in which all Alliance members invest.  The Alliance would then in effect purchase the ships from France and they would be crewed by personnel from all NATO nations – just like the Luxembourg-registered E3 aerial surveillance vessels.  The beauty of this elegant solution to France’s dilemma is that the purchase and subsequent crewing would go some way to helping some NATO members get towards the 2% GDP defence investment target the Americans regard as the minimum.  It would also help the Alliance develop a serious European High Readiness Force (Maritime).

A third option would be to make them the first EU-owned common defence assets to give EU Battle Groups a much-needed capability boost.  Indeed, the ships would certainly help to create an enhanced EU maritime amphibious capability.  It would help France lead the way towards the 5000 strong expeditionary EU force former President Sarkozy called for back in 2008.  One option would be to place the ships at the heart of a project cluster involving several EU member-states under permanent structured co-operation, possibly the Weimar Triangle.  By making such a move France would again be firmly at the helm of efforts to enhance the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

There is one other option; one hundred years on from Entente Cordiale France could generously give one of the ships to the Royal Navy.  The Russians had intended to name one of the ships Vladivostok and the other somewhat provocatively Sevastopol.  Again there is a precedent for such name changes.  In 1914 the British christened the new battleship HMS Agincourt (of course).  In 2014 the British could offer the French a choice; HMS Crecy, HMS Waterloo or how about HMS Trafalgar?

Just a thought.


Julian Lindley-French

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