France seeking new buyers for Mistral warships

AP News
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Posted: Aug 06, 2015 11:22 AM
France seeking new buyers for Mistral warships

BRUSSELS (AP) — If you're looking for a boat to carry 16 helicopter gunships, 700 troops and up to 50 armored vehicles, the French may be ready to make you a super deal.

After France reached agreement to cancel the sale of two warships it had been building for Russia, the French defense minister was on the air Thursday talking up the vessels' merits. He said it was now up to France to find a new purchaser.

"These are good ships," Jean-Yves Drian told RTL radio, "ships that can serve multiple purposes," from force projection and command to acting as floating hospitals.

The 1.2 billion euro ($1.3 billion) deal for the Mistrals was supposed to be the largest arms sale ever by a NATO country to Russia, but France put the arrangement on hold after Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Le Drian said a number of unspecified countries have "made their interest known" in the boats, which are similar to the U.S. Navy's San Antonio class of amphibious transport dock ships.

Finding another buyer, or buyers, may not be quick or easy, and may require the French to engage in creative deal-making, Ben Moores, senior defense analyst at IHS Jane's, a London-based defense research company, told The Associated Press.

Over the next 10 years, Moores said, there will be an estimated demand for 26 ships like the Mistrals in countries that France can trade with legally.

Those potential customers range from France's NATO allies like Turkey and Canada to India, Australia and Singapore.

France could use an attractive price or credit terms to entice countries that had been planning to add warships, even larger or smaller ones, Moores said. But for the French, he said, "the problem is that a lot of these countries don't actually need delivery till 2022."

"Only the Indians and Turks need delivery relatively soon," he said.

That means the Mistrals, one of which still needs to be completed, could be stuck for several years at their home shipyard in the western French city of Saint Nazaire. That would oblige the French to pay the expensive costs of their upkeep.

Peter Roberts, a former British naval officer who is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank, said France might try to include one or both ships as part of a package weapons deal to Brazil or India, lease them to NATO or the European Union or try to persuade one of China's uneasy neighbors like Vietnam or the Philippines to buy them to deter Chinese maritime expansion. But that final option would represent such a technological leap for those nations that a quick purchase agreement is unlikely, Roberts said.

"I don't think there are any quick or fast answers," Roberts told the AP. "Either the French use them for themselves, or they are going to be keeping them for a while in order to sell them at a disadvantage."

Whoever finally ends up with Mistrals will need to repaint them to cover up the Russian navy names and markings they now bear.