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NATO Should Buy French-built Warships

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This article was originally published in World Affairs Journal, and is reproduced with permission.

Today, in a shipyard in northwest France, two warships are receiving finishing touches. These ships are more than twice the length of a football field. They each can carry 700 troops, 60 armored vehicles, four landing craft, and 16 helicopters. They represent the state of the art in amphibious assault vessels. And when these two Mistral-class ships leave port in France, they'll sail to Russia where they will enhance the military strength of a nation that forcibly annexed Crimea and is posing increasing challenges to Ukraine and countries across Eastern Europe.

With a newly aggressive Russia, the United States and our allies should look for a way to keep these ships out of Vladimir Putin's hands so we don't give him precisely the type of expeditionary military asset used to invade other nations. While there was a time following the end of the Cold War when Russia acted more cooperatively and could be a partner in European stability, that period has clearly reached an end. It is critical that NATO countries no longer provide powerful weapons to enhance Russia's ability to intimidate or even invade its neighbors, and even if the Ukrainian crisis continues to cool, we cannot send the message that we're back to "business as usual" with Russia.

The French government has signaled a willingness to postpone a final decision on the sale of the ships until this fall. That's good news. But canceling this contract would mean a big financial hit for our French allies: the ships reportedly cost $1.6 billion and their construction employs hundreds of workers. So the United States and our partners and allies need to work toward a solution before France faces the impossible choice of selling Russia the ships or swallowing huge losses.

That's why last month I wrote to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, urging a plan by which the alliance would collectively purchase or lease the warships as a common naval asset.

This avenue would give us a win-win-win solution.

First, we deprive Putin of this valuable military asset. Such a step would help reassure nervous allies and partners in Central and Eastern Europe that would most feel vulnerable by this force multiplier in the hands of the Russian military.

Second, we would greatly enhance NATO capabilities at a moment when many of its members have been cutting defense expenditures. There is already ample precedent for NATO to purchase shared assets, including the alliance's fleet of E-3A AWACS aircraft. If Russia does indeed remain an aggressive force, NATO will have to refocus its energy and resources on European defense. The future success of the alliance in turn will depend on all NATO members sharing this burden and commitment. Purchasing these ships would give NATO a much-needed shot in the arm.

Lastly, this purchase wouldn't leave France holding the bill. At a time when the European economy remains fragile, we shouldn't allow one of our allies to endure such a heavy financial blow.

Secretary General Rasmussen will soon visit Washington, where I'll reiterate my suggestion for the way we deal with these ships. In the meantime, I hope leaders and thinkers in the global arena will take a hard look at the threat posed by Russia and consider what it would mean if our allies continue to strengthen Putin's ability to wage war.