Marines: Mistral And The Avengers

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July 29, 2017: In 2017 the new French built Mistral amphibious ships were seen at sea using American Avenger air defense vehicles tied down on the flight deck providing protection from helicopters and other low flying aircraft. This may be a temporary solution until other systems can be installed. This improvisation was necessary because when the two French built Mistral-class LPDs (amphibious assault ships) entered service in Egypt ( June and September) it was noted that French modification for Egyptian service left out the Russian helicopters and air defense systems Russia was going to add once the LPDs were delivered. These ships were originally meant for Russia and are equipped with Russian electronics that were installed in France. The Russian aircraft for the Egyptian Mistrals will be delivered later but the Russian air defense weapons (two turrets each armed with eight Igla-S short range heat seeking missiles, and two AK-630 six-barrel 30mm auto cannon) were to be installed when the Mistrals reached Russia. Having any work on the Mistrals done in Russia is not possible now because of the sanctions that prevented Russia from getting the Mistrals in the first place. The Mistrals in French service each have two Simbad missile turrets each armed with two Mistral heat-seeking missiles with performance similar to the Igla-S and the Stinger used in the Avenger. The French Mistrals also had four 12.7 machine-guns mounted around the ship to deal with small boats and such.

What is different is that Avenger is basically a hummer vehicle with a turret mounted in the back. The turret contains two missile pods (each containing four Stingers). Under one pod there is a .50 caliber (12.7mm) machine gun. The weapons operator has use of a FLIR (night vision device) and a laser range finder to locate targets. The machine-gun, however, can't be depressed sufficiently to fire at ground targets towards the front of the vehicle. The missiles have a range of 4.5 kilometers, the machine-gun about half that. The Avenger is not built to be used on a ship although apparently the guidance system is considered capable of operating from a ship that would be moving in ways an Avenger on land would never encounter. Another problem is the damage constant exposure to salt water (from being stationed on the flight deck). Each Egyptian Mistral has four Avenger vehicles assigned to it and not more than three at a time were seen tied down on the flight deck. By moving the Avengers down to the hanger deck when the ship is not at sea or in a combat zone the salt damage can be limited. Moreover the Egyptian Army has been using the Avenger since 2008 when they received 25 of them and know how to take care of them.

Moreover the while the Avenger machine-guns cannot be used against small boats the Egyptians can simply mount similar machine-guns around the Mistral like the French do. Meanwhile while some amphibious ships mount one or two systems similar to the AK-630, the Egyptians are probably considering a system popular with Western warships. That would be the American Phalanx, which is found on many Western warships and dominates the market for this sort of weapon. The AK-630 was based on Phalanx.

France sold the two Mistrals to Egypt in 2014 after cancelling the sale 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. Egypt is apparently going to use Russian helicopters for their Mistrals. Each LPD will have eight Ka-52K attack helicopters, four Ka-29TB transport helicopters and four Ka-29TP ASW (anti-submarine warfare) helicopters.

Three Mistrals 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. 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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