Helicopter-carriers for Russia embargoed by France match Canada’s coastal fleet modernization needs
French president François Hollande’s several weeks ago to Canada opens the way to resolving at least one thorny problem created by the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea. The Russian military had ordered two new helicopter-carriers of the Mistral class from the French company DCNS.
The Mistrals are a special class of ship. In 2010, the then-commander of the Russian Navy said that if Russia had had a ship like the Mistral during its August 2008 war against Georgia, then its Black Sea Fleet could have achieved its operational goals in 40 minutes rather than the 26 hours that they required.
France has been under enormous pressure from its allies to cancel the sale. Hollande has in fact said that the sale will not go through, but the handover scheduled for November 14 in St-Nazaire, France, with the attendance of Russian officials did not take place. However, several days later, after Russian sailors had earlier trained on the ship, it was discovered that a large number of computer hard drives and technical manuals were missing.
One question is how to compensate France financially if the sale does not take place. Canada seems here to be stepping up to the plate.
A high representative of DCNS accompanied Hollande on his visit to Canada this week, which ended in Quebec. DCNS is interested to participate in the C$35 billion modernization project of the Canadian coast guard and navy, and Canada is interested to diversify from its dependence upon U.S. defence industry.
The French companies Dassault and Thales are likewise interested. The head of DCNS has said publicly that there would be “no limits” to technology transfer if it won such contracts, and that the multi-role Fremm frigate “could be constructed entirely in Canada.”
Irving Shipbuilding of Halifax will construct 21 combat vessels. Other projects are involved as well. This is the context for the possibility that Canada purchases the Mistral already built in France for Russia, and the second one under contract.
A Russian source says the Mistral’s sale to any third country is impossible because, according to its contract, Russian equipment is already on board that cannot be transferred to a third party without Russian agreement. At most, this source says, the handover may be delayed by several months.
Failure to deliver would open DCNS to pursuit in court of law for breach of contract. DCNS could conceivably plead force majeure (“Act of God”). Even if unsuccessful, such a plea would produce, in court, documentation that could subsequently be used for different claims against Russia in other proceedings.
Given the extent of potential French involvement in the Canadian rebuilding program, and the interest of the European Union that the Mistrals should not go to Russia, it is nearly certain that some formula can be found to indemnify France and DCNS against any eventually successful court claims by Russian parties.
The possession of these ships would help to revitalize Russian military shipbuilding, which has never really recovered from the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The contract for their purchase has already succeeded in its implicit political goal of dividing NATO members and weakening their leverage with Moscow.
To the degree that Canada has ever had a “grand strategy,” in world affairs, this has been predicated upon the cultural and normative unity of the Atlantic Alliance and of what used to be called Atlantic Civilization.
It is entirely fitting that the transfer of the Mistrals to Canada be incorporated into the re-invigoration of Canadian naval and coastal defences under way, also in connection with Arctic policy where Russia confronts Canada and has provocatively violated the air space. Such a natural move could likewise contribute to shoring up the NATO bulwark and re-enforcing the political unity of its members in international affairs.