What might once have seemed a fantasy now seems more realistic. A year ago senior Russian visitors to the Euronaval show in Paris expressed interest in the French Mistral class amphibious carrier. A spokesman said that it was "not excluded" that the Russians might buy a foreign-built ship for their fleet. That seemed to be blather; surely a country that had been designing and building its own warships for decades had no great need to buy a relatively simple warship from another nation. The last time the Russians bought foreign-built ships was before World War II. At the end of the war the Russians also made considerable use of new German submarine technology (as did Western navies), but that was a special case.
The Mistral is an efficient modern warship, but she does not reflect any great advance in naval technology. Perhaps her greatest advantage over current Russian ships is that she is designed for economical production. The protracted building periods of recent Russian frigates and submarines suggests that a great deal was lost in the post-Soviet collapse. It is also likely that the sort of production methods used to build the Soviet fleet of the past are no longer affordable for their successors.
The vessel is now scheduled for a visit to St. Petersburg, and the Russians are talking about buying one or two ships and then building more in-country. The French are certainly interested, since the French Navy has been compelled to cut its building program, and export orders are scarcer than had been expected. The Mistral lost to a Spanish design in the Australian competition for an amphibious helicopter carrier.
Moreover, the Mistral could function as a small carrier if the Russians revived their moribund vertical/short take-off and landing (VSTOL) fighter program. The Russians may imagine that the fighter they have already designed and tested (Yak-141) may become attractive to foreign buyers if, as seems inevitable, the unit price of the U.S. F-35C Joint Strike Fighter keeps rising. The British have already announced that they are cutting their order, as part of their own retrenchment. Several Western navies operate small carriers that cannot accommodate conventional aircraft, hence must operate either VSTOLs or helicopters. It will be interesting to see what they do as the price of the F-35C rises. Too, part of the advertising for the airplane is that there is no pared-down export version; every buyer gets exactly the same airplane and exactly the same software. Some of that software may prove difficult to export to prospective buyers.
The Mistral does not incorporate systems that any Western country might feel reluctant to export; she is a very simple ship, essentially a fast truck for amphibious craft, troops, and helicopters. Her operating techniques may be news to the Russians, but it is unlikely that they will be exported effectively. What is interesting is that a mature Russian shipbuilding industry has apparently collapsed to the point where it is reasonable to import not only foreign designs but also foreign production and design concepts. It is also possible that the Russians feel comfortable building combatant ships, but not large semi-combatants like the Mistral.
Russian interest in the Mistral may also indicate renewed interest in power projection, or rather a desire to display such interest, as the Russians are unlikely to be able to afford a substantial power projection capability in the near future. Roughly parallel with the discussion of buying the Mistral came a claim that the Russians now have a naval basing agreement with Syria. That may be an attempt to revive the old Soviet Mediterranean squadron. However, anything the Russians operate in the Mediterranean would have to be based at Sevastopol, in Ukraine, and in the wake of the 2008 Georgian war and Russian attempts to intimidate the Ukrainian government, it is not clear that this basing arrangement will last.
It is difficult to imagine how the carrier task forces sometimes mentioned are to be built, manned, or maintained when the Russians can barely operate their current single carrier, the Kuznetzov. However, a Mistral probably costs less than a tenth as much as a full-up carrier, and if the Russians chose to call it a strike carrier, then they probably could have the carrier fleet they sometimes propose. Of course, that fleet would also have only a small fraction of the capability of a U.S.- or even a French-style carrier force. It might be useful in a future confrontation with Georgia, but most of the "near abroad," which interests the Russians lies across land borders, with little if any seacoast. The great exception is the Far East, where the Russians may anticipate problems as so many Chinese settlers have moved into Siberia.
Meanwhile, it's been reported that part of the bridge structure of the former Russian carrier Varyag, now in China, is being dismantled. For several years the ship has not undergone visible modification, apart from being painted in standard Chinese naval colors. Speculation has of course been intense. Was she being rewired? Or had the Chinese abandoned any hope of placing her in service, perhaps because she had been damaged too badly in the post-Communist frenzy of looting in Nikolaev, where she was built?
Now it appears that the flight deck is being repaired (presumably resurfaced). The work on the bridge structure is being interpreted by some as preparation to install the active phased-array currently on board two Chinese destroyers. It is probably a short-range fire control radar, supporting a Chinese point-defense missile. Under the Soviets, the Varyag was to have received conventional rotating air-search radars, not the phased-array installed on board the Kuznetzov (and reportedly less than successful). By April 2009 the heavy mast had been landed and the forward part of the island structure opened up; by September everything above the bridge level, apart from the uptakes, had been removed. The Varyag was renamed Shi Lang, after the Chinese general who conquered Taiwan in 1681.
Israeli-Iranian Tensions Simmer
The nuclear crisis in the Middle East continues. A possible compromise, in which Iranian enriched uranium would be traded for fuel rods for a research reactor, has collapsed. This arrangement would have provided the Iranians with what they say they want, which is a research or power reactor, without giving them what many believe they actually want: uranium enriched so that it can power a bomb. The Iranians would have ceased enriching uranium at the point at which it would be worth assembling into fuel rods for one or more reactors. That would still have left them with the option of removing spent fuel rods and processing them to recover plutonium, but any such processing would be in the future. The unspoken hope is that in the interim the current Iranian regime would give way to a more rational one.
The most interesting thing about the deal was that it was apparently reached in secret talks between the Israelis and the Iranians, two parties that seem on the point of war. After all, the Iranian bomb is menacing at least partly because Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad keeps talking about how Israel should be destroyed. For their part the Israelis have run exercises that seem to be training for an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Moreover, it is generally believed that Israel has nuclear, and quite possibly thermonuclear, weapons, plus ballistic missiles capable of delivering them. Such weapons are the only credible means of dealing with the sort of dispersal and hardening the Iranians claim is in place. Perhaps even more interesting, after the Iranians seemed to reverse course and reject the deal, some Israelis said that the situation was not as desperate as might be imagined.
One reading of these events would be that the Israelis meeting the Iranians gave them some idea of just what Israeli nuclear weapons could do to Iran. Another is that the Iranian threat to Israel might be less than it appeared due to evolving Israeli missile defenses. In that case nuclear weapons may be less valuable to the Iranians than some had imagined, and conceivably a debate about them is currently taking place. Other governments entranced with such weapons have become oddly sober about them once their capabilities were more fully grasped.
The Iranians may conclude that they gain more by sponsoring proxy armies like those of Hezbollah than by presenting the Israelis with justification to vaporize substantial parts of Iran. From an Iranian point of view, Hezbollah gains Iran's support in the Muslim world without much direct risk. In this sense the existence of Israel is useful in that it serves as a justification for accepting Iranian leadership. Governments may find it difficult to resist a country that seems to be dealing effectively with the common enemy. Once that enemy is gone, the question of Iranian imperial ambitions has to be faced. Conversely, the rulers of Sunni countries who feel threatened by Shi'ite Iran have made tentative approaches to Israel, wondering whether Iran or Israel is the worse enemy. However, any hope that the stress between Shi'ite and Sunni may lead to a kind of peace in the region has to be balanced against previous failures to reach compromises and the general complexity of Middle Eastern politics.