"We've bought it," Russia's military top brass must have given a sigh of relief after nearly two years of negotiation. "We've sold it, thank God!" the French shipbuilders must have exclaimed as the ink dried on the paper. Russia signed the contract to buy two French Mistral class helicopter carriers for its navy in St. Petersburg on June 17. Independent military experts may be right in observing that the Russian navy will barely notice their impact. Nevertheless, this contract is of historic significance: Russia has even saved French shipbuilders from bankruptcy in this, its first equipment purchase from a NATO member. France, in gratitude, may respond by encouraging large European businesses to expand into Russia. Other benefits may follow. The trouble is, Russia needs to decide before yearend if the navy needs two more warships.
Floating command centers
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev oversaw the signing of the contract for the two Mistrals by DCNS shipbuilding company CEO Patrick Boissier and Anatoly Isaikin, chief of the state arms exporter Rosoboronexport. Isaikin valued the contract at 1.2 billion euros.
"This ship may be used as a command center coordinating groups deployed to any part of the ocean, world over, for peacekeeping and relief operations," Russian navy chief, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, told reporters after the signing. "In fact, the ship's sophisticated equipment offers far greater possibilities for relief operations than any other ship Russia currently has in operation."
"Let me emphasize once more," he said, "that the Mistral cannot be viewed as simply a helicopter carrier, assault ship, command center, or floating hospital. The cutting-edge control equipment on board can deal with forces of different strengths at any distance from naval bases, in sea and ocean areas."
Vysotsky noted that the Mistral technology makes it possible to integrate Russian weapons systems into the project, including landing craft and deck-based aviation.
The Mistral ordeal
The long and arduous Mistral negotiations began in summer 2009. Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov unveiled plans to buy one French warship and build three more Mistral class ships in Russia, jointly with French companies. He said he hoped the contracts would be signed before 2010.
This news caused outrage among analysts. The purchase of a warship from a NATO member became a symbol of Russian military reform. Never before has Russia made such a gigantic foreign purchase for Defense Ministry needs; this deal dwarfs that for Israeli UAVs.
A lot of doubt was therefore voiced about the expediency of this particular purchase. Analysts suggested that, if Russian shipbuilders could not develop similar equipment, it would perhaps be wiser to consider other international offers, such as South Korea's Dokdo or the Dutch assault helicopter carrier and amphibious transport dock Johan De Witt. Spain's Juan Carlos I is considered the best multi-purpose assault ship in operation. Experts used the media to push for a tender.
Quite unexpectedly, Russia's Defense Ministry heeded their calls and agreed to hold a tender. This news came as a shock to the French authorities and shipbuilders, who clearly thought the contract was in the bag. It was, incidentally, most likely a well-planned stunt pulled as part of the talks.
At that point, the negotiators had radically differing positions on the supply arrangements. Russia insisted that three out of the four warships had to be built in Russia. France had expected that, under this deal, it would be able to bring its own idle shipyards back into use. In the absence of any large contracts, the French shipbuilding plant in Saint-Nazaire was on the verge of bankruptcy. DCNS insisted that at least two ships be built in France.
The results of the tender surprised no one. The Mistral was selected, for political rather than technological reasons. France and Russia were both keen to expand their business and political contacts through the project. On January 25, 2010, an intergovernmental agreement was signed, albeit one setting out neither the deadlines nor the contract price.
Even so, the contract was drafted with great difficulty. The negotiations became mired in deadlock on more than one occasion.
It was Russia's requirement that French producers share sensitive technology such as the SENIT 9 naval tactical data system and the SIC 21 fleet command system that proved the greatest stumbling block. The French producers agreed to share SENIT-9 technology without a production license, but refused outright to cede the SIC 21. This is the system installed on France's only aircraft carrier the Charles de Gaulle.
In May 2011, the Defense Ministry replaced every member of its negotiating team. This happened after two key ministry officials left their posts, Vice Admiral Nikolai Borisov, deputy commander of the Russian navy, and First Deputy Defense Minster Vladimir Popovkin. Borisov was fired, while Popovkin was appointed head of Russia's space agency, Roskosmos, on April 29.
Rosoboronexport took over the talks. Finally, on May 26, after Dmitry Medvedev met with Nikolas Sarkozy at the G8 summit in Deauville, the French president announced they had agreed on the Mistral deal.
The contract's signing closed the chapter on this story. Russia and France have reached a mutually beneficial solution. Roman Trotsenko, spokesman for the state-controlled United Shipbuilding Corporation, told Rossiya 24 that Russian industries will produce about 40% of the components for the first two ships.
Trotsenko said France also "agreed to an unprecedented level of cooperation in the technology transfer." France will provide Russia with a proprietary state-of-the-art command and control system for the ships. The contract includes the cost of training the Russian crews, adapting the specifications and three licenses including that for SENIT 9.
This is not the end of the story. Alexei Kravchenko, spokesman for the United Shipbuilding Corporation, said that if the two countries agree on the purchase of two more warships before yearend, their price will be fixed at the current level, and they will be built in Russia. "If they fail to reach agreement this year, they will open a new round of talks," he added.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.