Canada was actively pursuing – at the political level – the possible acquisition of the controversial French-built Mistral-class helicopter carriers, several defence, diplomatic and military industry sources have told The Canadian Press.
The effort has ground to halt, however, largely because of the federal election campaign – and it may slip away entirely because the French are now in a position to entertain bids from other countries for the 22,000-tonne ships, originally built for Russia.
The original deal was cancelled because of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its ongoing support of anti-government forces in eastern Ukraine, but it was only last month that the French government concluded a 1.01-billion-dollar (US) refund agreement, a plan that was approved Thursday by the lower house of the French National Assembly.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly, say Defence Minister Jason Kenney was – until the election call –“actively engaged” in sounding out the French, including a face-to-face exchange at the most recent NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels last June.
A series of international media reports – including the French daily Le Monde, the International Business Times, Les Echos and La Tribune – have long put Canada on the short list of potential buyers, along with Egypt, India and Singapore.
While there was no shortage of interest and backroom dialogue, the sources say, the French were unable to formally negotiate with interested nations until a deal was concluded with Russia. Now that has happened, “the matter is now with the Elysee Palace,” the president’s office.
The vessels could well be snapped up before a new government gets organized in Ottawa.
“We were unable to get into a position before the writ dropped where we could actively discuss [or] negotiate,” said one source with knowledge of the file.
A spokesman for Kenney declined to comment when asked specifically about the government’s interest in the ships and lobbying efforts last spring. Daniel Proussalidis would only say that “the Canadian Armed Forces is not pursuing the acquisition of these vessels at this time.”
The idea of the Harper government buying the ships has percolated in the defence community for years.
Former chief-of-defence staff Rick Hillier advocated for such a capability as far back as 2006. Former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal suggested Canada buy the Mistrals a few years ago, while an independent report last year from retired colonel George Petrolekas and defence analyst Dave Perry endorsed it as part of a larger strategy to recapitalize the navy.
Word of the initiative came as the Liberals released their defence platform on Sunday, which promised to put more emphasis on rebuilding the Navy.
Although considered amphibious warfare ships and equipped with landing craft, the Mistrals have been used extensively by the French for disaster relief and evacuations, including in Lebanon in 2006.
The problem for Canada, according to defence sources, is that National Defence has done very little in the way of formal study on the long-term ownership costs and the hurdles of operating such sophisticated ships, which are capable of carrying 16 helicopters, 59 armoured vehicles, and more than 450 troops.