Russia plans purchase of French warship: military chief

 Russia said Wednesday it plans to buy a new helicopter-carrying assault warship from NATO-member France in an unprecedented deal experts say reflects Kremlin efforts to accelerate military modernisation.

The agreement for purchase of one Mistral-class naval ship also equipped with hovercraft and landing craft will be completed by the end of the year, the Russian chief of staff, General Nikolai Makarov, said.

He did not name a price, but the Russian government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported this month that the ship, which can carry 16 heavy helicopters, 470 airborne troops and other gear, costs 700 million euros (995 million dollars).

Makarov also said Russia wanted to forge a deal with France on joint production of more ships.

"We also want to establish production of a series of at least four or five ships of this class," he said.

Makarov, an influential proponent in Russia of modernizing the country's conventional armed forces quickly through procurement from Western suppliers, admitted the military needs equipment that Russia cannot produce at present.

"No country in the world can do everything" on its own, he said, adding: "Some things will have to be purchased" from foreign producers.

France currently has two Mistral ships in service with a third under construction.

The 200-metre (656-foot) ship is equipped with high-grade communications equipment and is desiged to control a NATO amphibious operation -- beach landing from the sea, according to the specialized website globalsecurity.org.

When contacted by AFP, the French defence ministry and the naval military contractor DCNS declined to comment on the matter.

A French Navy Mistral ship is seen in 2006.

Russia in tsarist and Soviet times prior to World War II, notably during Stalin's modernisation drive in the 1930s, routinely made substantial weapons purchases from suppliers in the West.

But the ship purchase deal with France is unprecedented since World War II both in terms of the size of the equipment in question and Russia's insistance since the war on producing all military hardware for its own use and export.

Russia has in recent years talked a lot about modernising its armed forces, which still rely heavily on Soviet-era doctrine and equipment, and steadily boosted procurement budgets during Vladimir Putin's tenure in the Kremlin.

The political rhetoric and the money however have failed to achieve desired results as Russia's bloated military-industrial complex has raised prices on hardware without actually delivering much more of it or developing new systems.

"This is the first major step in that direction -- of Russia turning to the West to modernise its military and military industry," said Pavel Felgenhauer, a noted Russian military analyst and commentator on defence issues.

"It is a major change."

Felgenhauer said the ship purchase and production agreements with France however would likely come under scrutiny from Washington as naval ships built in France and other NATO states contain potentially sensitive US technologies.

"We're talking not just about buying off the shelf but also getting the technology," he said. "There is going to be discussion about this."

Bob Ayers, a former US intelligence officer and current security analyst with the Chatham House research institute in London, disagreed, saying the French ship was not a particularly sensitive item.

"A helicopter ship by itself is not really capable of doing a whole lot," he said. "It makes a big, fat target."

More interesting, according to Ayers, was what the ship deal could say about changing thinking and behaviour among Russian military planners.

"The Russian navy is not into power projection these days," said Ayers, noting that the French vessel was best suited to special operations and light, rapid assaults.

Felgenhauer mentioned the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia as well as the Crimea peninsula in Ukraine and the Baltic states as areas where the ship could be used effectively for landing special forces onshore and other operations.

source AFP

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