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Mistrals and Tankers

1:24 PM, Nov 13, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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FS_Mistral_02.jpg

As we noted here a week ago, the French are planning a major arms deal with Kremlin. Gary Schmitt delves deeper today with a piece for THE WEEKLY STANDARD website. Schmitt writes:

In little over a week, a modern French warship is scheduled to visit St. Petersburg. If the Russians like what they see, and a deal can be reached, the French government has signaled that it is willing to sell Moscow a ship of its own. Should the sale go through, it will be the first ever arms sale of its kind to Russia from a NATO member. It will also be a remarkable bit of appeasement by an allied president, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose signature is on the cease-fire agreement between Russia and Georgia from the August 2008 war--the terms of which Moscow has been violating ever since.

The vessel, a French Mistral, is a new class of carrier that can carry more than a dozen attack and landing helicopters, landing craft, nearly a thousand troops, and dozens of tanks and other land vehicles. Mistrals, in short, are major amphibious assault ships, equal in capability to virtually any vessel in its class globally. The Russians have said that the ship will be used in peacekeeping and anti-piracy operations. But, of course, "peacekeeping" in Moscow's dictionary is not always so peaceful. As Russia's Navy chief, Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy, rather pointedly noted about the possible sale: "In the conflict [with Georgia] in August last year, a ship like that would have allowed [our] Black Sea Fleet to accomplish its mission in 40 minutes, not the 26 hours it took us [to move our troops ashore]."

Read the whole thing here, but there is one angle Schmitt doesn't address that may become a major story in the weeks and months ahead. At the same time as the French are courting Ivan, they're also trying to make it with Uncle Sam. The contract to provide the United States Air Force with a new fleet of air-to-air refueling tankers pits Northrop Grumman and its French partners at Airbus against all-American but occasionally corrupt Boeing.

This tanker contract has been up in the air for nearly a decade as one scandal and screw-up after another has conspired to prevent the Pentagon from procuring this badly needed equipment. One of the most controversial issues in this process has been the French participation in the Northrop bid. The Democratic members of Congress who represent the states where Boeing employs thousands of voters are not pleased about the prospect of U.S. defense dollars going to support jobs in Toulouse, France.

Now the French not only want to sell their planes to the United States, they want to sell their amphibious assault ships to the Russians at the same time. But that isn't going to work. If the French go through with this deal with the Russians, I suspect the Pentagon, under tremendous pressure from Congress, will find some very serious problem with the French/Northrop bid for the KC-X tanker.