Marines: ENS Gamal Abdel Nasser

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July 1, 2016: On June 2nd the first of two French Mistral-class amphibious assault ships recently bought by Egypt was commissioned as the ENS Gamal Abdel Nasser. The commissioning was done in France, where the Mistrals were built and modified for Egyptian service. By the end of June the Nasser will arrive in Egypt. The second Mistral will arrive in Egypt by September. The Egyptian Mistrals are equipped with Russian electronics and Russian Ka-52K attack helicopters, which will not arrive until 2017.

France sold the two Mistrals to Egypt after cancelling the sale of these two ships to Russia and refunding money already paid for the Mistrals. The delivery to Russia was cancelled in mid-2014 just months before the first ship was to be delivered. This was because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2014 and the subsequent international arms embargo. While Egypt is the official buyer, Saudi Arabia provided most of the cash and helped get France and Russia to expedite the deal. Meanwhile France refunded nearly $1.1 billion to Russia and sold the two ships to Egypt for about the same amount. But France has incurred higher costs because of the delays and the need to remove some Russian modifications to the Mistrals before the ships can be delivered to Egypt.

The Mistrals are 21,300 ton vessels that carry 16 helicopters, 13 tanks, four landing craft, a battalion of troops and can reach speeds of 35 kilometers per hour. Three of these ships are in service with the French Navy. The Mistrals are similar in design to the American 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 generated threats of economic retaliation against Russia France held off on delivering the two ships. Russia demanded either a refund or delivery of the vessels and France ultimately refunded the money. Efforts to find another buyer began in 2014 and there were quite a few interested nations (India, Singapore, Egypt, and Canada.)

Egypt has been a regular customer for French weapons. Recent purchases include a dozen Rafale fighters a frigate and four Gowind class corvettes. In the past Egypt bought Mirage 2000 and Mirage V fighters, Gazelle scout helicopters and Alpha Jet training aircraft from France.

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.

 


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