Thursday, August 27, 2009

Thoughts on the Russian Mistral

Rob touched on the subject, but I want to weigh in on this too. The announcement that Russia intends to purchase a Mistral class amphibious ship is almost as remarkable as the announcement that part of the deal is to build more Mistral class ships in Russia. Defense Tech clearly missed the significance both in terms of industry and military strategy in regards to this development, although I imagine Norman Polmar will weigh in with some unique insights - as he often does.

From an industry perspective, a Mistral class built in Russia would immediately become the largest warship built from scratch outside the US or Europe in decades. I think that is pretty significant, in particular it suggests the Russian military has lost all confidence in its own shipbuilding industry. You also have to give DCNS a lot of credit here, Russia has historically been willing to spend money on its military even in times when their economy lags, so the Russian market holds enormous potential for the company (as well as Thales, potentially). Russia will also win big if they can produce Mistral class vessels in Russia, because Russia will be able to tap into the well educated and highly trained shipbuilding workforce of Europe to rebuild their fleet, in particular a project manager and modern skilled workforce that can replace the older and less skilled or experienced with modern tools professional workforce in Russia. It is hard to see this as anything other than a huge win for both DCNS and Russia from an industry perspective.

From a strategy perspective, this aligns the direction of the Navy with the stated national military strategy of Russia to downsize the land Army and become more expeditionary in nature. Under Putin Russia has continuously had eyes on the Black Sea, the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and the African coast as places where Russian influence holds potential with sea power. In 2000 after becoming President of Russia, one of the first things Putin did was put the Navy to sea in preparation for a Mediterranean Sea deployment. Unfortunately for his ambitions to promote Russian influence with sea power, K-141 Kursk happened during workups for that deployment, and the Russian Navy had 6 terrible years picking up the pieces of that tragedy.

I do wonder if this is in part a reaction to the conflict in Georgia. I disagree with CNO Gary Roughead in regards to some of his shipbuilding decisions, but last summer when he ordered USS McFaul (DDG 74) into the port of Batum, Georgia he pulled a modern day 'Commodore Perry Goes to Tokyo' with that gunboat diplomacy, and it had to set off alarms in Moscow. Some may not have appreciated what he did, but I thought it was a brilliant exercise in naval diplomacy. Traditionally, naval diplomacy has been a critical element in sustaining peaceful relations in times of tension, and in hindsight I think sending USS McFaul (DDG 74) had exactly that effect. Teddy Roosevelt would have been impressed.

It is important to note that even the ineffective activities of the Georgian coast guard had to get the attention of Russian naval commanders, and in a way, one can look at the desire to purchase a Mistral as the combination of the Russian Navy applying lessons learned in the Georgian War and recapturing naval tactics forgotten from the Soviet era.

Let me explain. In the cold war, Soviet Union naval tactics depended a great deal on long range bombers and submarines, but an often overlooked but critical aspect of Soviet naval tactics was the heavy utilization of helicopters. While helicopters in the cold war Soviet Navy were heavily utilized for ASW warfare or AEW, the option to put attack helicopters always existed for scenarios including North Atlantic amphibious operations from big deck Soviet helicopter carriers. Russia had problems enforcing sea control off the coast of Georgia during that conflict last year, indeed the Georgian Navy (Coast Guard) was able to get to sea, even get close enough to attack a major task force of Russian ships operating in the Black Sea, something many people probably think is unthinkable in a modern age.

Hardly, fog of war is a constant of littoral warfare. The Black Sea Fleet had numerous fast missile attack craft, but due to political concerns those missile FACs were forced to operate under restrictive rules of engagement, which as we Americans should understand by now given Iraq and Afghanistan, is a major factor in all limited and/or small wars. Russia couldn't afford to fire ASMs, because the geopolitical consequences of hitting a Turkish (or Ukrainian) ship would have been enormous for Russia. Ultimately, the Black Sea Fleet lacked the necessary asset to control the littoral seas of that conflict; that asset being helicopters.

Russia was reminded in the Georgian conflict that helicopters, not fast missile boats, are the littoral commanders of the sea in the 21st century. This is why I am less troubled by the Type 022 China is developing than some folks, because as a naval tactician, I'd rather be facing the threat of a dozen Type 022s than a dozen helicopters in the South China Seas, although the prospect of facing both at the same time is quite unappealing. In the littorals, a helicopter is an ISR platform with a limited, but reloadable strike capability, while a fast missile boat is a strike platform with a finite heavy payload and only a limited ISR capability. Without the ISR helicopters could provide in the restrictive RoE environment of the Black Sea, the Russian Navy ultimately operated at higher risk, despite the fact the Russian Navy had enormous potential for raw combat power.

In small wars in the maritime domain, ISR is king, which is why the USS Bainbridge operated ScanEagles instead of helicopters in dealing with Somali piracy, and why I believe the US Navy must emphasize as part of a distributable network the combination of UAVs, helicopters, and RHIBs as the unmanned/manned component necessary to achieve littoral dominance. Fast Missile Boats in the 21st century maritime small war is a second class option when compared to the combination of a good endurance patrol gunboat, capable boarding teams, modern naval helicopters, and UAVs.

As an amphibious platform that can support attack helicopters, the Mistral class not only would have allowed Russia to control the seas with helicopters, but would have allowed Russia to do what their current amphibious force cannot do, specifically capture a port from the sea. The inability of the Russian Navy to capture
Batum from the sea was what allowed the USS McFaul (DDG 74) to sail right into Georgia under the eyes of the Russian Navy. If you recall, the USS McFaul (DDG 74) originally wanted to sail into the port of Poti, but the Russian Army raced and seized the port to keep the ship out. The US Navy didn't go into Poti until after hostilities had ceased.

The Russian military strategy makes it clear that Russia will attempt to transition from primarily a heavy land army into an expeditionary force that can be mobilized to forward places. This is hardly a questionable concept, virtually every US military strategy analysis in the 90s suggested that was what the US should do, and as we have ended up fighting terrorism globally, indeed on almost every continent, the analysis in hindsight looked wise. Given how important the role of helicopters has always been to the Russian Navy, and how helicopters are the king of 21st century littoral warfare (the record of helicopters vs FACs is something like 43-1 btw), I think the decision to buy Mistral class ships is very much in line with Russia's stated military strategy and traditional Russian maritime strategy.

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