The French sale of helicopter carriers to Russia shows just how hard industrial rationalization in Europe really is.

Back in March, I argued (“Did NATO rearm Russia?”) that arms sales to Moscow had been been more embarrassing than alarming, but that the occupation of Crimea meant that it was really time to stop. Most egregious, I still maintain, is the sale of those two Mistral-class helicopter carriers that the French shipyards DCNS and STX France have been building for the Russian Navy. The ships are important because Russian shipyards have never built anything that large—the Soviet Navy’s MoskvaKiev, and Kuznetsov-class carriers were all built at yards in Unoccupied Ukraine. 

According to press reports, the French government is having second thoughts, and may be looking for an alternate buyer. The Russians will be unamused, and French reliability as a no-questions-asked arms supplier may suffer. But if discontinuing the sale would be awkward, worse still will be the next press release—the second Russian ship, to be delivered in 2016, will be named the Sevastopol. That must not be allowed to happen.

As Pierre Tran quoted Robbin Laird in Defense News last Friday, “the situation is not easy, but France can show leadership.” Funding makes leadership easier. In a speech this past Saturday at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies, Canadian Senator Hugh Segal suggested that

     Canada or NATO should buy these ships from France, leaving the Russians to await a further slot on the list, which good behaviour would assure… Being silent as French technology is afforded to an adventurist Russian military stance makes no sense at all. France’s rhetoric has been admirably focused and well-targeted over Crimea. We should call our ally’s attention to the perils of muscular hypocrisy when lives are at stake.

Claudia Major and Christian Mölling of Berlin’s Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik broadly agree, but have much more specific recommendations:

  • The European Union should buy the ships.
  • The ships should come under the joint command of Belgium and the Netherlands.
  • All EU members should contribute to the crew.
  • A permanent EU military headquarters should be installed aboard.
  • Procurement should be tied to immediate negotiations about the consolidation of Europe’s naval industries.

Of course, none of this is going to happen. Frankly, Senator Segal’s suggestion that Canada buy the ships by itself is more plausible. The Tories may be determined to rebuild the entire Royal Canadian Navy in Canadian shipyards, and the Cabinet may not want two helicopter carriers, but at least Ottawa can make procurement decisions every decade or so. That’s generally better than the EU in Brussels accomplishes. And this is before we even begin to discuss the challenge of putting crewmen from twenty-five navies aboard a single ship, or securing the permission of every national government before that ship is used for anything. In short, the collective action problems are overwhelming.

Thus does Vladimir Putin find himself facing down NATO and the EU, and perhaps thinking of coalitions as Napoleon did. It’s hard enough to assemble coalitions of the willing for semi-coordinated military action. If France cannot even agree with Canada and the US that it really shouldn’t be selling ships to Russia, how could any collection of European countries agree on how to rationalize shipyards? For if ships require hundreds, shipyards employ thousands, and guarantee the ability to repair and modify those ships. And at a time when even “the indispensable nation” cannot be bothered to send more than field rations and bandages, it’s reasonable to wonder why surrendering any national capability in Europe is appealing.

James Hasik is a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.