Winning: The Lost Mistrals

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April 14, 2015: France is hoping Russia will somehow come around, get out of Ukraine and behave enough to get economic sanctions lifted. That will save France a lot of money, including a billion dollars or more in losses resulting from the French government ordering a French firm not to deliver two warships Russia had ordered. France earned lots of praise because of its refusal to ignore Russian threats and stick by its decision to not deliver the two Mistral class amphibious ships. Now the second Mistral is in the midst of sea trials and rapidly approaching the time when the French will refuse to deliver this one as well. In the meantime the French are willing to wait. The two Mistrals will also wait, and that will cost over $5 million a month to maintain while they wait, to either be sent to Russia or sold to another customer. Even that is a questionable option because the sales contract with Russia is suspended and technically it is illegal to try and sell the Mistrals to anyone else until the deal is officially cancelled. In any event the Mistrals were customized for Russia, meaning, at the very least, lots of modifications before another buyer could use them.

This is all about NATO opposition to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Back in June 2014 France was willing to defy its NATO allies and deliver the first Mistral, as promised, before the end of 2014. But continued Russian aggression in Ukraine, including the shooting down of an airliner in July, persuaded France to halt delivery. Russia now threatens to sue in court, but the Russians may find themselves in court for war crimes, which would have an impact on the Mistral contract suit.

Back in June most European nations did not like seeing the France renege on their 2011 contract, worth over $1.8 billion, for the two Mistral class amphibious ships. This is the largest Russian purchase of Western weapons since World War II. The deal was delayed for a long time because the Russians demanded the transfer of shipbuilding and electronics technology (which was eventually agreed to). Despite the dispute with Ukraine over Donbas, in which the European Union and NATO support Ukraine, back in June the major exporting nations of Europe believed that previous deals should be fulfilled unless the situation escalated to outright war. That changed in July when an airliner full of Europeans was shot down over Donbas by a Russian missile.

Russia has not bought foreign warships for a long time, but the Mistral purchase was largely because of an eagerness to acquire Western shipbuilding technology and construction skills. This has already paid off, although not exactly how the Russians had planned. This became evident when a Russian official announced that the first Mistral would be built entirely in France. It had earlier been decided to have Russian shipyards build some sections of the first Mistral. It was quickly discovered that the Russian shipyard was not capable of building to the French specifications or do it according to the French timetable. The Russians expected to learn some valuable lessons from the French and, while embarrassing, this was one very valuable lesson. Russian shipyard officials have had their faces rubbed in the embarrassment of not being able to compete while using their current practices. Russian experts on Western production methods and techniques have long complained of the antiquated and inefficient methods still favored by Russian shipbuilders. Navy leaders have been complaining for decades about the poor quality of work coming out of Russian shipyards. The Mistral purchase was to put this to the test because additional Mistrals were to be built in Russia, with plenty of French supervision and technical assistance. That is also being withheld because of the Ukraine situation.

The Russian Navy has made some changes in the existing Mistral design. This Russian model will be called the Vladivostok Class and carry 30 helicopters (compared to 16 on the French version). The Vladivostoks will be armed with two AK-630 multibarrel 30mm autocannon for anti-missile defense. There will also be two quad-launchers of shoulder fired type anti-aircraft missiles (with a 5 kilometer range and does well against helicopters) and two or more DP-65 55mm grenade launchers for defense against divers.

The Vladivostoks will also be winterized for use in arctic conditions. The hull will be strengthened to deal with ice and the well deck door will completely close. The flight deck will have a deicing system and the ship will be modified to operate for extended periods in arctic conditions. There is also different electronics and this means a different arrangement of radomes and antennae.

In the aircraft handling areas below the deck, there will be more space made for the taller Ka-52K and Ka-29 helicopters. The Ka-52K is a navalized version of the Ka-52. In addition to being equipped with coatings to resist sea water corrosion, the K model will also have a lightweight version of the high-definition Zhuk-AE AESA radar used on jet fighters. This radar currently weighs 275 kg (605 pounds), but the helicopter version will weigh only 80 kg (176 pounds) and enables the Kh-52K to use the Kh-31 anti-ship missile. This weapon has a range of 110 kilometers and travels at high speed (about one kilometer a second). The Kh-52K can also carry the sub-sonic Kh-31 missile, which has a range of 130 kilometers. Both of these missiles weigh about 600 kg (1,300 pounds) each.

The French navy received the first of their own 21,500 ton Mistrals in 2006, with the second one arriving in 2007. Both were ordered in 2001. These two ships replaced two older amphibious landing ships. This gave 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 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.

After the first two, additional Mistrals for the French Navy are being built using more commercial techniques and are expected to cost closer to $500 million each. France has three Mistrals with several more on order. Russia says it plans to base some of its Mistrals in the Far East, where there is an ongoing dispute with Japan over Japanese islands Russia occupied after World War II and never gave back. The Mistrals will probably show up elsewhere (like the Baltic and Black Seas) because the Russian fleet is again patrolling the high seas and showing up wherever its government needs some muscle.

 


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