Marines: Russian Amphibious Ships In The Mediterranean

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October 8, 2015: France has found a buyer for two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships that had been in limbo since the crisis in the Ukraine broke out and the sale to the original buyer (Russia) was cancelled by an arms embargo. In this case, Egypt has bailed the French out, with a fair bit of financial help from the Saudis.

 The Mistrals, which displace 21,300 tons, carry 16 helicopters, 13 tanks, four landing craft, and a battalion of troops, can reach speeds of 35 kilometers per hour. Three of these ships are in service with the French Navy. Russia had sought to purchase two, and had paid about $1.454 billion for them. The ships will set Egypt back $1.063 billion and France will absorb the difference in order to refund Russia what was paid. Russia has allowed some Russian equipment to stay with the ships (which were customized for operations in the arctic) and offered to sell Egypt the Russian helicopters that these Mistrals were modified to handle.

The Mistrals are similar in design to the U.S. LPD 17 (San Antonio) class. Both classes are about 200 meters (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 ship's 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.

When the crisis in the Ukraine went hot, France held off on delivering the two ships. Russia demanded either a refund or delivery of the vessels, and France ultimately refunded the money, but was left with the two ships sitting at the dock. Efforts to find a buyer followed. Among possible suitors were India, Singapore, Egypt, and Canada.

Egypt has won the bidding war for the two ships, the latest purchase from France, which sold Egypt two dozen Rafale multi-role fighters and a frigate earlier this year. Egypt is negotiating the possible purchase of a second frigate from France, which started building the first of four Gowind-class corvettes for Egypt in April. Egypt also bought Mirage 2000 and Mirage V fighters from France in the past, along with Gazelle scout helicopters and Alpha Jet training aircraft.

 The two Mistral-class ships will make Egypt a major naval player in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. They also will help cement a growing relationship with France as a major supplier for the Egyptian military. Unmentioned is the fact that Egypt depends on Saudi Arabia for the money to pay for all these new French weapons. The way things work between Egypt and Saudi Arabia is that Egypt is now expected to come to the aid of Saudi Arabia in case of an emergency. The two Mistrals could quickly carry Egyptian troops to Saudi Arabia in the event of an emergency. – Harold C. Hutchison

 


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