France has now taken full possession of two helicopter carriers it originally planned to sell to Russia, but cannot afford to keep them itself, raising speculation over who might buy them instead.
The arms embargo against Russia, enacted to punish the nation for its involvement in the Ukraine crisis left France unable to release into service two Mistral class amphibious assault ships into Russian service, which had left them in limbo for a year. This week, France announced it had cancelled the contract and would be repaying Russia for their investment – an estimated €1.2 billion.
The Mistral class ships are true multi-role craft, being able to project land, sea, air, and humanitarian power anywhere in the world. The ship can carry 16 attack and transport helicopters, 13 heavy or 40 light tanks, four landing craft, and a hospital equivalent to the facility found in a town of 25,000 people.
France already operates three Mistral ships, giving it one of the largest amphibious attack forces in the world, but cannot sustain a further two due to budgetary constraints, making a foreign sale imperative for the government. While upwards of a dozen nations worldwide will be looking to acquire such ships in the next decade, governments around the world prefer to build ships indigenously if at all possible for reasons of self dependence and national pride. Buyers could be found in South America, or the South China Sea, or even closer to home – the European Union itself.
Supporting a paper published last year by influential think-tank the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, AFP reports the comments of retired French Admiral-turned defence analyst and expert Alain Coldefy who said the European Union could kick-start its own private military by buying the ships.
The concept of a free-standing European military remains a controversial one in Europe, which has enjoyed a number of false starts. Regardless, the European Union does maintain a number of military forces, made up of units either lent from member states, or operating in cooperation under the blue banner of Brussels.
The largest such force is the so-called EUNAVFOR, under which over 20 European nations contribute warships to patrol the coast of Somalia for Operation Atlanta.
The president of the European Commission, Luxembourgian Jean-Claude Juncker, is one of the loudest voices in Europe calling for a pan-continental armed force, which he is now able to sell on the grounds of Russian expansionism. Speaking in March he said “a common army among the Europeans would convey to Russia that we are serious about defending the values of the European Union”, but there is little appetite for the project, especially in the United Kingdom.
The British government has stated on a number of occasions it has no interest in becoming involved in a European Army, but fails to mention the fact the British take a leading role in running the European Navy – providing headquarters and senior officers to the force.
Responding to the suggestion, UKIP leader Nigel Fargage was particularly scathing. Taking the floor of the European Parliament, he said: “We ourselves in the European Union provoked the conflict through our territorial expansionism in the Ukraine. We poked the Russian bear with a stick, and unsurprisingly, Putin reacted. But this now is to be used as an opportunity to build a European army… And Mr. Juncker said, we must convey to Russia that we are serious. Who do you think you are kidding, Mr. Juncker?”
Yet the project does have supporters in Europe. Germany, which is presently struggling with poorly maintained military equipment and low morale, is pushing to increase cooperation and inter-dependence to defend the East of the EU with the more powerful forces of the West – France and Britain. In May, German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen said “The European Army is our long-term goal”, and that there would have to be “concrete military cooperation” between states.
The French may ultimately support the plan as well. Encouraging the European Union to buy their surplus warships would allow them to sail with French crews onboard, quite possibly commanded by French officers, but paid for by the other nations of Europe.
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