Educated guess: Russian Mistrals may sink the Canadian Rafale

Mistral-class Amphibious Assault Ship
By now, most have heard the controversy surrounding France's agreement to sell two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia.  This is despite current tensions regarding to what is happening in the Ukraine.  France has been criticized for this, and calls have been made to halt the sale.

Canada's own Prime Minister has called for continued sanctions over Russia, and Canada has been quite outspoken in it support for the Ukraine.  We are even sending fighter jets over there.  There was even a rumor that the RCAF would donate aircraft, but this rumor has been quashed.

France is in a bit of a "no-win" situation here.  It cannot just simply cancel the sale this late in the game.  One ship is scheduled for delivery this fall and construction of the other is well under way.  The two Mistral-class ships are being sold without weaponry, so they are technically considered "civilian hulls".  This makes things a bit more sticky.  France is not really selling weapons to Russia, just a couple of really big boats.  Sanctions would have to be bumped up considerably include the vessels.

Canceling the sale would have repercussions as well.  Foreign nations may reconsider buying French equipment out of fears that deals may be cancelled to political whim.  Since it has to compete the massive American Military Industrial Complex, France's defense industry cannot afford to be as picky with its clientele.

Libyan Mirage F1

Even if the sale was cancelled, Russia could still build its own Mistral-class vessels, since Russian engineers participated in building the Vladivostok and Sevastopol ships.

All of this could be excused however.  If the French government really wanted to stop the sale, it likely could quite easily.  Politically, it is still the most attractive choice.  Unfortunately, stopping the sale would have huge financial repercussions.

A cancelled sale would likely lead to penalty payments, and France would be stuck with two very expensive ships and no buyer.  France's military has no need of two surplus amphibious assault ships (they already have three), and certainly cannot afford them.

At the present time, it seems clear that there are only two ways to cancel the Russian Mistral deal.  Tougher sanctions or finding another buyer.

Sanctions are not always the easy answer, especially when dealing with a nation of Russia's economic clout.  Since economic trade goes both ways, all sides need to be prepared to take an economic hit.  Some might equate it to a game of chicken.  Russia produces a lot of energy and oil, sanctions against which would create global repercussions.  Sanctions have gotten tougher after the downing of flight MH17, but it is hard to predict how far they will go from here.  Worst of all, imposed sanctions still leave France stuck with two unneeded ships.

What France truly needs is the guarantee that it will not get stuck with these two ships.  It needs a buyer.  There have been calls for the EU or NATO to purchase the ships, as well as Canada.

The Mistral-class ships have been on the "wish list" of the Canadian navy for some time now.  They have been put on the back burner, unfortunately, as Joint Support Ships have the priority right now.  While the Mistral-class ships would likely be able to fulfill the role, plans are already underway to construct a German design.

Dassault Rafale with some weapons and a rather "phallic" looking drop tank.
As things stand now, it looks like the deal will go on.  Such a move will not go without some admonishment.  Russia currently lacks the sort of capability that an amphibious assault ship can provide.  The idea of Russian gunships launching from a French-sourced carrier during the next Chechnya or Crimea is a chilling one.

How far will this admonishment go?  Given Prime Minister Stephen Harper's rhetoric against Russia and Vladimir Putin, those that provide military equipment could well raise similar ire.  If the Mistral-class ships are sold to Russia, any Canadian purchase would likely be a non-starter.  Furthermore, France's attempts to offer the Rafale as a F-35 alternative would fall on deaf ears.

The Rafale is already seen as the "long-shot" among the possible CF-18 replacements.  While it is most certainly a capable aircraft, it simply does not have the political muscle that the F-35, Super Hornet, and Eurofighter have.  While Canada and France have good relations, those ties just are not as strong as those shared between Canada and the USA or the UK.

Canada could use those Mistral-class ships, though, and it absolutely needs new fighter aircraft.  France would very much like to sell us both, as it would be a huge boon for its shipbuilding and aerospace industries.  The Rafale has not yet been able to find many foreign buyers.  Its single export customer, India, continues to drag its feet.  While Dassault has been promoting the fact that the Rafale comes with technology transfer and "customer selected weapons", those benefits may cost extra.

Perhaps there is there possibility of a "package deal".  For France and Canada, it could be a "win-win".  France gets to avoid the stigma of selling ships to controversial buyer and manages to keep its Rafale line going a little longer.  Meanwhile, Canada gets to beef up both its navy and air force without breaking the bank on homebuilt ships and the controversial F-35.

Such a deal may be prohibitively complex.  It could very well be impossible given the mechanisms that are already in place.  Then again, a similar deal almost resulted in Canada procuring F-14 Tomcats.  Maybe it is worth trying again.


  1. Your political analysis is right on the money,
    IMO. May I just add, Winnipeg and west there is a huge Canadian citizen base
    with Ukrainian roots. So the Rafale becomes a very long shot indeed. It troubles
    me that the Gripen is a weak contender, at least from a political clout point of

    When you look at a fearsome weapons system like
    the MBDA Brimstone you describe, then you have to assume the Russians
    and especially the Chinese are developing or already have such an
    infrastructure wrecking capability. Everyone in the bizz is going to increase
    the range and sophistication of this type of weapon as the decades tick by. And
    its just a matter of time before some tin horn dictator out there gets a bag full
    of them.

    All the more need then, for a small fighter that
    can be hidden and serviced in a modest sized industrial park and can land/take
    off on a paved road. That is stealth that never gets old.

  2. correction I meant Storm Shadow and KEPD 350 not MBDA Brimstone in comment below.

  3. The Berlin class oiler is not even close to the original concept planned by the navy. Canada should have a small capital ship again. And may be put get out of this political mess by putting 5 F35 on her decks for close air support. The rest should by helicopters.

    My understand that the Rafale was fairly high on the RCAF list.

  4. The deal with Russia was made a few years before the Russian/Ukrainian conflict.

    If I were in the French government and there's pressure from the world not to sell the "empty" mistrals class ships to the Russians, I'd send them the bill for buying the two Mistrals and all the fees and court pursuits for cancelling the deal.

    That's my opinion.

  5. The Russian's Mistral ships case will certainly become a reference case for any futur weapon sale.
    It's an extremely difficult matter.
    As any weapons supplier , France was engaged in some shadowy business arrangements. Two recent exemples:
    -the "taiwan's ships" case , a story with kickback.
    -the "pakistan's subs" case , again with kickback and involving death of french engineers.
    France has also made political choices:
    -the embargo on Israel (1969)
    -the embargo on South Africa (during the appartheid)
    Now France tries to regain foreign buyer's confidence.
    The Russian's Mistrals sale seems to be clean. France has recently passed a law prohibiting kickbacks.
    A very important factor to consider is that France tries to be as "US independent" as possible.
    Russia ordered Mistral ships above all for the french SENIT 9 command systeme. Russia can easely build this kind of ship , but lacks modern cammand systeme.
    The first ship is paid and russian's sailors are still on bord for training. So i can't imagine french troops kicking them off the ship.
    The second is being build but all is still to play , depending Russian's attitude and possible new UE sanctions. The pressure from other countrys, now directly threatened by Putin's politic ( like Japan or Baltic Countrys ) can make a difference.
    But as you said , Doug , sanctions are not always the easy answer. I agree. This batch of sanctions humiliates Russians. It's not a very constructive thing.
    Regarding Canada :
    I don't think Canada needs a Mistral Class ship. Canada should invest the money in other projects.
    A more simple LSD like this German design would fit Canadian's needs very well.
    Dassault has lost the recent Moroccan contend mainly because French governement and DGA tried to sell them a pack including Rafales and warships.

  6. "France was engaged in some shadowy business arrangements."

    I think that puts many Countries in that category

  7. I said "As any weapons suppliers"

  8. A very clear and balanced article, Doug but...

    I've already said it, this Mistral case smacks of double standards.

    There seems to be a very active gang spending its time finding any excuse for a little session of French bashing. Why is it always the French who get the part of black sheep of Europe ?

    What about those sermonizing Brits ? According to an article published in The Guardian, the
    UK arms export licences for Russia are still in place despite Cameron's claims of embargo.

    And the US ? Are they really a model of virtue ? How much are they paying the Russian Soyuz for getting their astronauts to and from the ISS ?

    Unfortunately Doug, your absolutely right to claim that some Canadian politicians will use the lame excuse of the Mistral for not buying the Rafale.

    BTW I'm not French.

  9. No you were right!

    I unvoluntarily skipped that part

  10. The US/Canada/UK/Australia "military" relationship, which to me, seems anti-French empire, is enough to keep the Rafale out of Canada. It really is a coalition of uniformed men (that Australian fellow supporting the F-35 looked really Canadian to me).
    This E-U secret free trade deal (why is it secret is another example of dirty tricks which are total nonsense since the CIA has penetrated our government) could change things especially with this keystone pipe line, anti beef, anti soft lumber protectionism stuff, which is the only hope of seeing Rafale in Canada.
    The Harper administration is too right wing to side with the French. They do not care how good the airplane is.
    Also, we are having issues buying fighters, you want to add two aircraft carrying ships (imperial fascism tools) to the discussion? Holy crap, might as well release a skunk in a church weeding and witness complete pandemonium. The Canadian ship building industry will totally go nuts, which will cause Pro-labour NDP to go nuts. Liberals will demand pot smoking sections in the back of the ships.
    It took how many years those 28 sea-choppers that the conservatives did not want to penalize for breach of contract stipulations? (duh!)
    On the other hand, the leopard 2s (2nd hand) were quick and so were the (2nd hand) heavy lift choppers. The C-17s were quick also. I guess it was because Canadians were getting killed in combat.
    So in summary, I have no idea! ... because they are, after all, secret non-rational macho/business related gang negotiations!
    Since this topic is so political, and makes reference to ships, and I have a tendency to ramble on , I will take this opportunity to say that we need more small powerful ships with better missile systems (less crew) not more large expensive floating targets, I mean ships (more $), and do what Australia did, get 6 good subs (in addition to AIP propulsion) loaded with good long range smart missiles that can hit a Guinea pig directly in the rectum from 500 miles. That is called real Canadian deterrence because they know we shifty Canadians can turn anything into nukes if we want to. The rest of the stuff is NATO support and a little arctic sovereignty patrol.
    Thank you and have a good day.
    PS Scandinavian women are beautiful, support Gripen)

  11. Wow, you've kicked up a stink, Serge.
    You are right. If Canada doesn't have the politicians to defend its interests, you can as well close down Ottawa and transfer all power to Washington. I do hope this never happens.
    Smaller countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Belgium should really consider buying the Gripen. It seems the first generation Gripens are already doing the job. So the NG will certainly be even better.
    As for a large country like Canada, I cannot and won't say what's best.
    In my opinion and after having followed the debates on this site, no matter how the F-35 is certainly not the solution, neither for a large country, nor for a smaller one. Any aircraft would be better than the lame F-35, even a de Havilland Mosquito...
    PS Serge, have a glass of one of those excellent British Columbian Shirazes, it will help putting things into perspective.

  12. There was never any chance of Canada buying French planes instead of American ones (no, seriously, it's pointless to even entertain the thought seriously; Washington would basically see it as a declaration of war) so even if it certainly would be some creative blackmailing, having Canada go "stop selling weapons to people the USA don't like or we won't buy your jets" would be laughable. The only proper response the French should have to something like this is "okay, we'll sell the Mistrals to you instead, but you have to buy a hundred Rafales as well".

    Keep in mind that it's very likely that currently India is looking at the Mistral sale very closely. If France doesn't demonstrate it can stand firm against NATO pressure, the MMRCA will probably be abandoned.

  13. Interesting article... but also worrying!
    This is a complicated "situation" for France. I'd like to add some details from a french perspective.

    A decision to deliver the ships might indeed "sink" Canadian Rafale. But what we say in France is that a decision to cancel the delivery of the ships might sink Indian Rafale. We should not forget the fact that India is more or less an ally of Russia, India isn't on occidental side regarding sanctions against Russia.
    So, how much could weigh 65 highly-hypothetical Canadian Rafale against 126 nearly-done Indian Rafale?

    In addition, some peolple claim that a cancellation could do a fatal blow to the trust of many "independent" customers (countries outside NATO, Australia, Japan and South Korea), which could endanger all our defense industry.

    In case of a cancellation there are some hurdles. For example, the ships contain some russian-made components and systems. So, the ships are not 100% French, even before the delivery. How could French "give" a partly-Russian ship to any other country without paying that russian part accordingly?

    My opinion is that the Ukraine is mainly an excuse. Since the inking NATO countries have been very critical about this deal. But Mistral is only one aspect of Russian-French defense cooperation. Damocles laser designation pod (the same equipping Rafale) is license-produced in Russia, and some cockpit avionics of SU-30 are French-sourced.
    That's not only about France : Italian M-346 training aircraft was developed alongside Russian Yak-130... so I bet there are some Italian-sourced hardware onboard Yak-130. But Mistral ships are much more visible.

    Let's be honest : NATO isn't a good customer for France. France make aircrafts, ships and missiles. But NATO countries do not purchase french aircrafts, ships and missiles. That is a fact. In the last 10 years, any significant deal? Not in my knowledge! So France must sell weapons to Russia, India, Gulf countries, etc. Sometimes at an ethical cost. But we are still standing...
    France do not need charity for 2 ships and 65 warplanes, France needs REALLY independent NATO-partners which don't always purchase US hardware because "USA will always be here for us", without seriously considering another ally proposition.
    That's why I think the delivery must go on : NATO countries seem to have a strong faith in USA... but as you know, in France we believe in Independence, not USA, so we need to keep the trust of our own customers. It's a shame if NATO partners like Canada doesn't want to be part of it, but that isn't new.
    The threat could have worked if Canada and other NATO countries were real potential customers. Ironically, UK and France signed together in Farnborough for the first phase of the demonstration program for future combat UAV (FCAS, Future Combat Air System), so UK isn't so pissed after all!

    To come back to Rafale, two details :
    - You could have mentionned the article of the new indian express "why Rafale is a big mistake" contains many approximations, simple guesses and wrong information. Without such notice, that's a bit misguiding for your readers!
    - In your picture, the 'rather "phallic" looking drop tank' at the forefront is in fact the RECO NG (Areos) reconnaissance pod! The drop tanks are under the wings : more "pointy" and without the little air intake for the cooling system.

  14. You know this got my attention, but I do not see this happening.
    If they drop 2 destroyers, there is only one left and if you consider resupply, maintenance, well that would be useless in protecting 2 large expensive capital targets.
    The destroyers are platforms for long range SM-2 (only 32 SM-2). The frigs only have 16 evolved Sea Sparrows, with a range of 30 miles. Not much air defense for a determine aggressor.
    If Canada goes this route, you are talking big, big, big, bucks! Scarp F-35, like you say .... half goes to assault ships (empty shells) ... expensive radar/missile/point defense systems, planes + choppers, still need missile boats to protect ... 400 sailors ... I just do not see our government spending that kind of money.

  15. I had local Red beer with my neighbor. No BC Shirazes as I am in Montreal, and to be honest I do not know what it is? Care to educate me?
    We walk a fine line being beside the USA. Our economies are so connected it is scary. We have the longest unprotected border in the world. There is a reason for that and it is an unspoken understanding. That said, I think we can taste from other sources, but we must be careful. I do not dislike Americans, but I know how "the" empire works. If the F-35 flops, I think, possibly, given the right conditions, a Saab deal could have slipped through like what happened with Airbus and Air Canada (shit did hit the fan). But, the military is very conservative. As Silver Dart says, NATO has not done much for France weaponry. This is why i see the ASH with no ships attached. (play on words) :)

  16. 'Let's
    be honest : NATO isn't a good customer for France. France make aircrafts, ships
    and missiles. But NATO countries do not purchase french aircrafts, ships and
    missiles. That is a fact. In the last 10 years, any significant deal? Not in my
    knowledge! So France must sell weapons to Russia, India, Gulf countries, etc.
    Sometimes at an ethical cost.'

    has been pointed out by some other commentators nobody selling weapons can be
    slinging mud on the ethical front without drawing attention to

    One more thing these Euro nato countries that have bought into the F35
    program-among many other faults and built in obsolescences,do they really know how noisy
    this '35 is compared to what they are flying off their bases now?

    not go over so big in a densely populated Euro country where its not so easy
    to tell folks to 'if you don't like it you should just move away'. They got the
    fly away ticket price [do they actually have it?] then they got the hidden
    social costs..

  17. It's always a pleasure too share one's passion. You seem to be fond of beer, I am an amateur wine lover.

    Shiraz or Syrah is a type of vine that gives very dark red usually strong wines (+/- 14°). Last year I discovered BC's excellent wines among which the Shiraz, the Merlot and many more. I couldn't believe my palate. In a blind test, I'd have guessed they were Chilean or Argentinian wines.

    We seem all to be victims of the big US bully. You tell me of the conservative military... When you add official, and non-official..., kickbacks, it's hard to make a reasonable choice based on facts. It's a pity for the Rafale which seems to be a nice, war-proven, versatile plane. Why not picking the ASH or the EF ? Or the Gripen with its single engine ?

    Any choice would be better than the F-35.

  18. Harper would buy Rafales and have them assembled in Quebec to gain the vote. Remember sitting in office means keeping you party in power (first) and the good of the country (second) and sometimes it is even. This is why I say during peacetime there are a lot of factors to this purchase and in war time it is less so.

  19. France does and alway has sold there weapons to anyone. I'm not sure if that has ever come back to bit them.

  20. They are planning 15 new destroyers. One Mistral class would be great at a discount, but I think Canada might be better served with a Absalon Class or San Antonio Class ship.

  21. 4 things: 1) I love what they call micro-breweries, artisan like beers. I often chose these beers over wine because I have a tendency to get tipsy/hammered on wine because of the higher % of alcohol. 2) I must agree with you on the strong American influence but I hesitate to call them bullies because all nations are capable of the same behavior if given the chance. 3) May I ask where you are from as I am curious by nature? 4) A thanks to Doug for providing such an excellently organized and informative medium for people to share a wholesome passion. I sincerely wish we could share a least one beer to add to this great atmosphere.

  22. I knew they upgraded the frigs and thought the next 15 were going to be frigs as well. Wow. I got some reading to do. Will look into both of these classes. Gracious!

  23. Paul, if you were correct on this one, I would toast you as I am a firm supporter of local assembly/autonomy because the total acquired knowledge is sometimes worth the higher initial cost.

  24. Jumping jiminy crickets! Both are really nice machines. 15 of these? Maybe 15 Absalon at 300 million, but not San Antonio at 1.5 billion. Maybe or mix or just two San As and keep upgraded Halifax class.
    Tha Absalon are based on frigs and classed as support and weigh like destroyer. The San A is armed to the teeth.

    I now understand your interest in the mistral. I openly apologize.

    But they are not well armed. The other two are and the Americans might let us change our order if we get 2 San Antonio class vessels.

  25. Looks like San Antonio class has the same virus as F-35. Lots of problems.

  26. Technology sometimes and a lot of times gets in the way.
    A fighter jet needs to have wings, a tail, gun, a jet, and some missiles.
    A War ship needs to float, have a propeller, gun and some missiles.
    A go get them!

  27. They would not buy off the US if the item was so crappy that they couldn't. The F-35 is a crappy tactical fighter, maybe ok attach plane, better electronic warfare plane. Good thing there are a few other choices. I do agree that they would buy from the US first.

  28. No no! Maybe one or two Absalon class and the rest would be destroyers. Anyway they are looking at a design that is similar to the Absalon's little cheaper brother as the model for the destroyer.

  29. Doug the Rafale is still my favourite, but I agree that it is a bit of a long shot. But this would be the only time that I can think of where the Rafale has a shot, because the future of US air superiority sucks. And the production lines of the other two US fighters are coming to an end.

  30. The Antonio Class with its 2 mk 41 VLS + the rolling air missile launchers + 4 chopper bay is some serious firepower... what is the little cheaper brother?

  31. If it is the De Zeven Provinciƫn-class frigates, it is armed to the teeth.

  32. As there has been some talk about ships in this thread maybe the comparison about the Canadian Air Force and Navy philosophy can be mentioned here. Quote "Faced with delays and restrictions from the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, the Navy has opted to modernize the Halifax class using as much non-American equipment as possible, including technology from Canada, Sweden, Germany, Netherlands and Israel." from Wikipedia It seems that the navy happily uses non-american equipment even if LM is in charge of the upgrade. There is a lot of Saab key-components installed in the Hallifax class upgrade it seems that they know what they are doing and are leading the race.

  33. I'm sure the "De Zeven Provinciƫn" frigates are Dutch.


  35. You right. The RCN was looking at the Iver Huitfeldt class

  36. The Rafale is a better choice than the Typhoon (which Doug seems to prefer). Cheaper to operate with an industrial structure more efficient than the mess behind the Typhoon.

  37. Exactly, Paul.
    Unlike the F-35, on which everything will be under strict control of LM, the Super Hornet, the Rafale, the Gripen will be totally adaptable to the buyer's wishes (at least that's what I can conclude from the comments on Doug's site). Food for thought, isn't it ?

  38. Yup. You are correct. Hence, my personal preference for the Gripen. I have no bias.

  39. Yup. You are also correct. 90% of the work with 50% of the cost. Why buy a delicate Ferrari when you can buy a robust MAZDA 3 speed at a 1/10 of the price, remove the speed regulator, and say hello to St-Peter at the pearly gates.

  40. I do not think you will be able to do anything on the SH americans do not allow for it you can request things but even if you pay for it there is not necessary what the Americans want. Upgrades is only what the Americans want to have and with luck it is what Canada want also.

  41. By the way, one of the "less rational" reasons why I am supporting the Gripen, is, like you, I cheer for the underdog. Although I think it is an excellent aircraft, I am a teacher and by nature I have this thing about elitism and bullies and believe in giving every contender a fair shake. And good for you for what you did for your local brewer. So many people talk and do nothing. I will go seek a Belgium beer this weekend to toast your community! :)


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