August 28, 2009:
After denying the rumors for a few weeks, Russian defense officials admitted that they were negotiating with France to buy a Mistral amphibious ship, and license production of two or three more in Russia. Before World War I, Russia often bought French naval technology, and much other military technology. Russia is currently looking beyond its own failing defense industries for new equipment, and ideas.
The French navy received the first (the Mistral) of these 21,500 ton ships in 2006, with the second one arriving in 2007. Both were ordered in 2001. These two ships replaced two older amphibious landing ships. This will give France a force of four amphibious ships. The two Mistrals are also equipped to serve as command vessels for amphibious operations. The French have been very happy with how the Mistrals have performed.
The Mistrals are similar in design to the U.S. LPD 17 (San Antonio) class. Both classes are about 620 feet long, but the LPD 17s displace 25,000 tons. The French ships are more highly automated, requiring a crew of only 180, versus 396 on the LPD 17. On long voyages on the open ocean, the Mistrals require as few as nine sailors and officers on duty ("standing watch") to keep the ship going.
The Mistrals carry 450 marines, compared to 700 on the LPD 17s. Both have about the same room for helicopters, landing craft and vehicles (2,650 square meters for the Mistrals, room for nearly a hundred trucks, or 60 armored vehicles). Both have hospitals on board, with the Mistrals being larger (69 beds). The American ships, however have more sensors installed, and larger engines (and thus higher speed.) The LPD 17 can also handle vertical takeoff jets like the Harrier or F-35. The French believe that the smaller complement of marines, who are very capable troops, are sufficient for most missions. And the smaller number of people on the ship makes it possible to provide better living and working conditions. This is good for morale and readiness.
One thing American marines and sailors notice about the Mistral is the wider and higher corridors. This came about because the ship designers surveyed marines and asked what ship design improvements they could use. It was noted that in older amphibious ships, the standard size (narrow) corridors were a problem when fully equipped troops were moving out. That, plus the smaller crew size, makes the Mistrals appear kind of empty, but very roomy. That, plus larger living accommodations (made possible by the smaller ships crew and marine complement), make the Mistrals a lot more comfortable. The French ships can be rigged to accommodate up to 700 people for short periods, as when being used to evacuate civilians from a war zone.
Armament on both classes are defensive. The Mistrals each carry two short-range anti-aircraft missile launchers, two 30mm guns and four heavy machine-guns. The Mistrals can stay out 45 days at a time, unless replenished at sea, and each cost about $600 million. The first LPD 17 cost nearly two billion dollars, and U.S. admirals are after Congress to adopt some of the more efficient French procurement methods. The LPD 17s were ordered in 1996, and the first one entered service two years ago. The navy wants to buy a dozen of them, and get the unit price under a billion dollars.
The third and fourth Mistrals are being built using more commercial techniques, and are expected to cost closer to $500 million each. It is believed that Russia is interested in buying "second generation" Mistrals. Russia would base these in the Black Sea and the Far East. Basing Mistrals in Russia's northern bases would put the amphibious ships too far from any likely peacekeeping or intervention activities.