French arms for sale: Reckless opportunism or glue for a future NATO?

by Craig Hooper on January 10, 2011

Back in 2008, In NDIA’s National Defense Magazine, I called for the purchase of the Mistral-class “projection and command” ships, noting that the acquisition of the vessels would be an ideal mix of capability and geopolitical utility. In what was a sidebar discussion of next-generation hospital ships, Jim Dolbow and I snuck in some geopolitical prognostication:

Options include France’s built-to-commercial-specifications Mistral helicopter carrier (displacement 21,500 tons, draft 20 feet), Japan’s smaller Oosumi (14,000 ton displacement, 21 foot draft) or any other member of the emerging global fleet of flat-deck/well deck amphibious ships — as long as the flight support facilities can be modified to handle large military helicopters.

Of all the flat decks, the Mistral would be a top choice because France seems likely to remain an active and enthusiastic partner in maritime outreach in the coming years. France also maintains many islands and remote territories. Of the countries that have the most to gain by building a set of active maritime alliances, France is it. By picking the Mistral as a standard for an aid vessel, the Coast Guard would be creating a longer-term tie to a valuable seaborne ally.

Since then, France has added to her brace of Mistrals, Russia settled a contract for four, and, now, even Canada is reportedly looking into purchasing a few. The selling point is not necessarily platform capability–the Juan Carlos I has fascinating potential as a Mistral-killer. But an arms deal with, say, Spain, Japan or South Korea fails to carry with it the geopolitical potential that a dalliance with France’s arms industry does.

Of all the European countries, France alone retains substantial colonial holdings. Put in other terms, France maintains sovereignty over a whopping 8% of the world’s demarcated maritime Exclusive Economic Zone. That is a lot of territory–and much of it rests in the strategically useful Pacific and Indian Oceans (take a look at the map above).

France’s far-flung colonial holdings helped make the Mistral what it is. Take a glance at France’s fleet–it’s chock-full of simple and useful “presence” ships suffused with a crust of high-performance assets. The French Navy is a patrol force, built around the imperative of maintaining low-end, reliable force (of which the Mistral is one piece), coupled with some elite “kick-in-the-door” capabilities (SSBNs, nuke carriers, etc.). This was a perfectly sufficient force to deter any third-world adventurer. But times are changing, and bigger maritime players are eying France’s colonial holdings, and wondering why such a tiny country holds such a vast EEZ.

To maintain the integrity of France’s offshore holdings, France’s future security depends upon alliances. Arms deals are one piece of that puzzle. And then, many of the middling-power nations that are busy buying French ships (and, for that matter, subs) are going to want forward-operating bases–which France is uniquely positioned to offer. So, by vending to those most in-need of an open-minded, politically-savvy and strategically well-positioned partner, France is generating useful allies. For all the hyperventilation over what the Mistrals might mean in a fight someplace–the Mistral sales, first and foremost, strengthen ties between middleweight maritime powers. They offer an opening to wider collaboration (and mutual basing agreements) that may prove to be very useful in guaranteeing the long-term security of French holdings.

With these sales, France is slowly developing the framework of alliances that may prove crucial in moderating “over-exuberance” on the part of certain new blue-water navies. And France, as a relatively benign power–it does not want for much–makes a perfect partner for those countries reluctant to tie themselves too closely to one emergent superpower or another.

The French effort to secure their colonial holdings may drive the development of a modern non-aligned bloc. And in that regard, it will be particularly interesting to see how the slowly-mounting pressure to secure France’s proud colonial past may transform the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

CapnVan January 17, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Fair enough, and I do understand that repetitively spelling out the complicated relationship France has to the US would be, at the very least, annoying…

But the term “non-aligned” still carries a lot of weight in the developing world. Important nations, like Brazil, India, and South Africa, continue to use it to describe and differentiate themselves from the (admittedly vague) “West”.

(And, of course, from the “East”, whatever that means since the death of the Soviet Union and rise of China)


Craig Hooper January 17, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Yeah, I think it’s easy to overstate the non-aligned case–but it’s easier to say that than to say something like, “pro-west, but wanting plausible deniability so we can keep our options open”…


CapnVan January 17, 2011 at 1:21 pm

“There are areas where France, by it’s non-aligned status, could be more influential than the U.S.”

Say wha’?

I mean, I recognize that the French tend to be more independent of American policies than, say, the UK, but they’ve been fully back in NATO for a long time. And they’re certainly seen in the rest of the world as part and parcel of the “globalization West”.

Certainly, they have more influence in a number of regions than does the US (Tunisia leaps immediately to mind, but most of West Africa and a number of other places are there as well), but they are far from “non-aligned”.


Craig Hooper January 14, 2011 at 7:12 pm

Oh, I look at the Mistral sales with a mix of regret and optimism. My regret is that America could have owned this space, but…we got greedy and stupid. So France is cleaning our clock with something that is pretty simple, built to be reliable and flexible enough to help serve the sprawling array of French colonial holdings. Imagine if Russia wanted to buy four LHD-lite platforms…from the U.S.? Now? The Gulf Coast–we former Georgians call it the Redneck Riviera–would be going nuts. Putin would probably be more popular than Pelosi, for god’s sake….but, ah, well, we got the LPD-17. Good times.

But I am optimistic. I…think France could do a lot in helping keep the littorals stable and secure. There are areas where France, by it’s non-aligned status, could be more influential than the U.S. We shall see.

I also think that it would be great to see Russia integrate further with the West and with Europe.

I have some other thoughts that go beyond the Mistral, but…those will come out in time…


CapnVan January 13, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Actually, I’d be curious to see if there’s anything in the WikiLeaks dump with regard to the Mistral sales…


CapnVan January 13, 2011 at 4:17 pm

But in all seriousness, how do you see this impacting Franco-American relations?

Mistral sales to Russia are obviously an issue, but where else would you see a concern? Are you looking fairly far down the road, or do you see something popping up within the next decade?


CapnVan January 13, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Good one! That gave me a chuckle…


Craig Hooper January 13, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Oh, but have you seen the walk-in wine cellar they installed on the Tonnerre? Amazing.

(I kid, but I do hear that the French don’t scrimp on the food they serve aboard ship)


CapnVan January 13, 2011 at 11:56 am

The only problem with the Mistral, I have it on good authority, is that the airconditioning brings an unmistakable whiff of cheese and surrender…

I kid!


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