Friday, April 30, 2010

Russia to Order French Mistral LHDs?

In August 2009, Russian media reported that their country was planning to take a radical step, and buy a French Mistral class amphibious assault ship (LHD) by the end of 2009. The outlet quoted the Chief of the Russian General Staff, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, who said that: “We are negotiating the purchase of one ship at present, and later planning to acquire 3-4 ships [of the same class] to be jointly built in Russia.” A Russian order would represent a sea change on several fronts – and also the extension of some trends.

France currently operates 2 Mistral class LHDs, and recently ordered a 3rd using economic stimulus funds. Unlike some other LHD designs, the Mistral class cannot operate fixed wing aircraft. Even so, it’s an important tool of power projection. Mistral class ships can carry and deploy up to 16 helicopters, including attack helicopters like France’s Tiger or Russia’s Ka-50/52. Its main punch revolves around its 4 landing barges or 2 medium hovercraft, however, which deliver armored vehicles, tanks, and soldiers to shore. The vessel is equipped with a 69-bed hospital, and could be used as an amphibious command ship.
Mistral’s Meaning: A Method to their Madness?
Russian Ka-31 AEW
Ka-31 AEW

For one thing, it would be the first major arms import deal since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The second change is that Russia’s current defense procurement program through 2015 did not envision construction or purchases of large combat ships. A new program is in development, however, and it would seem that Russian thinking is changing.

One aspect of that thinking is tactical. Control of littoral regions, which includes large stretches of Russia’s coasts and zones like the Baltic Sea and much of the Black Sea, depends heavily on helicopters and UAVs. Russian naval capabilities are limited in these areas, and during the recent war with Georgia, Russia failed to control the Georgian coast. Mistral Class LHDs would go a long way toward improving Russia’s capabilities in these areas, if coupled with the necessary training and equipment investments. The existence of Russia’s Ka-52 Alligator coaxial scout/attack helicopter would also add considerable attack punch to any Russian LHD.

The other aspect may well be industrial. Russia’s shipbuilding industry is clearly experiencing difficulties; major shipbuilders have defaulted on commercial contracts, and fiascos like the Admiral Gorshkov refit for India have blackened the global reputation of Russian defense products. Any Mistral class ship built in Russia would represent a naval project whose scale Russia hasn’t seen in well over a decade – which is why there’s a possibility that construction may even take place in France, using equipment shipped from Russia. Those industrial arrangements would be one of the matters up for negotiation, but the fact that Russia is even discussing a Mistral buy indicates a certain lack of confidence in Russian shipbuilding.

It may also be an opportunity, of course, if construction in Russia is accompanied by training in France, and imported engineering and project management expertise from France. If that project structure is accompanied by infrastructure investments within Russia, it would represent a key step forward in revitalizing the naval sector of Russia’s defense industries, following their decimation in the wake of the Cold War.

The foundations for cooperation on a program of this size have been laid on several fronts over the last few years. France’s Thales already provides components for Russia’s front line military equipment, from tank gunnery sights to avionics and targeting pods for Russian-built fighters. Recent memoranda of understanding for cooperation in naval R&D (Thales) and defense R&D more generally (EADS) build on the 2006 MoU between DCN and the Russian government to develop technical, industrial and commercial co-operations between the Mistral’s builder and Russia’s naval defence industry.

The Mistral Class BPC/LHDs
Mistral LHD
Mistral Class LHD

The 21,300 ton Mistral Class “BPC” (Batiments de Projection et de Commandement) ships operate as helicopter carriers and amphibious assault transports, with secondary capabilities as command ships, and an on-board hospital. Propulsion comes from 2 electric-powered maneuverable thruster pods, similar to those used on cruise ships, with 2 more bow thrusters for added maneuverability in tight situations.
Mistral Class vessels normally carry 450 equipped troops for up to 6 months, but can raise this figure to 700 troops or evacuees for short periods. Normal hospital capacity is 69 beds, with a fully-equipped operating room. That capacity can also be expanded in emergencies, by appropriating other ship spaces. The command post section is not expandable, but has workstations for up to 150 personnel.

The Mistral Class ships are slightly smaller than contemporaries like Navantia’s BPE/Canberra Class LHDs, or Italy’s Cavour Class aircraft carrier/LHDs, and lack the ski jump that gives their contemporaries fixed-wing aviation capability as well. Exercises off the American coast have demonstrated compatibility with heavy-lift helicopters in the front (#1) landing slot, however, and well deck compatibility with LCAC hovercraft as well as the conventional landing ships.

Mistral Class helicopter capacity is about 1,800 square meters, accommodating up to 16 machines with size “footprints” similar to the NH90 medium helicopter or Eurocopter Tiger scout/attack helicopter. Heavy helicopters like the much larger American CH-53E can use the #1 landing spot, over the bow, if “lilly pad” operations are required. Vehicle storage capacity is 2,650 square meters, accommodating an estimated 60 wheeled armored vehicles, or 13 Leclerc tanks, plus associated munitions.

Built to commercial passenger ship standards, the Mistral Class currently carries very light defensive systems, consisting of 4 machine gun stations, a pair of 30mm guns, and a pair of manual Simbad twin-launchers for MBDA’s very short-range Mistral anti-aircraft missiles. Deployment in zones that feature anti-ship missiles, such as the 2006 evacuation off of Lebanon, requires protective escort ships.

Updates and Key Events
FNS Tonnere
FNS Tonnerre [BPC 2], during sea trials

April 20/10: Rosoboronexport’s Russia is quoted as saying that Russia has made the political decision to purchase the Mistral-class warships, and expects that the agreement with France will be signed by the end of 2010. Time will tell. Defense News.

Feb 10/10: NATO spokesman James Appathurai offers an official alliance view:
“The Secretary General has said he does not consider Russia a threat and he hopes Russians don’t think of NATO as a threat. He takes it for granted, of course, that any arms sale would fully respect international rules and conventions, but the anxieties of some allies are, of course, real and they are understandable for historical reasons, geographic reasons and so this is the context which has to be taken into account.”

When closely parsed, it offers no firm position.

Feb 9/10: NATO and European Union member Lithuania weighs in publicly on the Mistral sale, as the Minister of National Defence pledges to raise the issue at the next EU Defence Ministers meeting. Mr. Dainius Zalimas, Law Adviser to the Minster, adds this statement:
“We think that the said sale is inconsistent with criteria II, III, IV, V and VI of Article 2 of EU Council Common Position 2008/944/BUSP that describe common rules of export control of military technology and equipment. Therefore, the execution of the sale may violate the principle of solidarity of member states which has been embedded in the Treaty of the EU and the responsibility of member states to ensure that the national policy must be in line with the position of the Union as it has been stipulated in Article 29 ( former 15) of the Treaty.”

Feb 8/10: Widespread media reports say that France has approved in principle the Russian request for 1 ship, and expects to decide in the “next few weeks” whether to approve the sale of 3 additional Mistral Class LHDs to Russia. The DGA’s head of international development, Jacques Lajugie, reportedly added that if Russia were to buy the Mistral, France would expect at least the first 2 units to be built in French yards. Russia has sated a preference for 1 ship from France, and 3 built in Russia’s less-than-reliable shipyards under the state-run United Shipbuilding Corporation

The deal is somewhat controversial in Russia, where industrial groups see the move as a declaration of non-confidence in Russia’s own shipbuilding industry, and a diversion of money to foreign industries. The issue has also become a topic of concern in Washington over the ships’ potential uses against allies like Georgia, with Senators writing letters, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates expressing his “deep concern” directly to French officials. Since the ships do not use American military technologies, there is currently no legal mechanism that would allow the USA to hold up the sale. Diplomatic concerns are being expressed nonetheless. A U.S. diplomatic official reportedly said that:
“We have a lot of questions for the French. Mr Gates made it clear that a lot of people are very worried about this – not just in Washington, but among other NATO allies like Britain and in the east too.”

Jan 31/10: Information Dissemination reports that Eutelsat’s cancellation of Georgia’s First Caucasian Channel stems directly from this proposed sale:
“Gia Chanturia, general director of the Georgian Public Broadcasts was in Paris this weekend seeking answers from Eutelsat and French government officials. He is unlikely to like what the French tell him, because my sources both in Washington, DC and Paris have confirmed that Moscow has made cancellation of the First Caucasian Channel by Eutelsat a condition of the Mistral sale…. As we watch Russia leverage their unequal national power to influence France, keep an eye on eastern European countries like Poland. This will get bigger than Russia, Georgia, and France before it is all over, and the potential for long term consequences in Eastern Europe is not trivial.”

Ka-52, Mistral
Ka-52 on FS Mistral

Dec 23/09: UPI reports that Russia is also considering amphibious ships from Navantia in Spain, and Damen Schelde in the Netherlands. Russian navy chief Vladimir Vysotsky was quoted as saying:
“Yes, we are holding talks, and not just with the French, but with the Netherlands and Spain, about the acquisition of a ship of this class.” ....But observers say the 650-foot Mistral is still favored to win the contract.”

Navantia makes the Spanish BPE, and its counterpart the Canberra Class for Australia. It is larger than the Mistral, and features a “ski jump” on deck that can help it launch fixed wing UAVs and short or vertical takeoff fighters.

Damen Schelde makes a slightly different kind of ship with a much more conventional profile, but its Rotterdam/ Johann de Witt Class LPDs are considered to be excellent examples of their type, and very good value for money. The firm also worked with BAE on the UK Royal Navy’s new Bay Class LSDs. These “Enforcer Series” ships are smaller than Mistral, but the firm is also designing a 28,000t Joint Support Ship. See also Foreign Policy Magazine: “Russia’s New Arms Dealers.

Nov 27/09: During the FS Mistral’s visit to St. Petersburg, Russia, the amphibious assault ship holds a “cross deck” exercise with Russian Navy helicopters. They include landings by a Ka-29 utility helicopter with a French officer on board, as well as landings using a Ka-27 Helix anti submarine warfare helicopter and the first deck landing for the Ka-52 scout/attack helicopter, which also simulates a refueling on the flight deck. French Navy [in French].

Oct 3/09: Russia Today provides an update on the Mistral controversy in Russia. Negotiations are underway, but buying ships from abroad does not sit well with many in Russia. On the other hand, senior officials openly acknowledge that Russian shipbuilding is in crisis, and it could not build an LHD itself.

Sept 19/09: Russia’s RIA Novosti confirms that talks are underway, quoting Defense Ministry official Vladimir Popovkin. Popovkin is not making any commitments, however, telling Ekho Moskvy radio that “We are holding talks, but no purchases have yet been made.” RIA Novosti adds that: “A Russian source close to the negotiations hinted on Tuesday that technical bilateral discussions should be completed soon.”

Sept 15/09: A RIA Novosti report lays out the expected process for any Mistral ship buy:
“We are holding technical consultations, which are expected to be completed by the end of September. The results will be reported to Russia’s military-industrial commission in order to determine the viability of the purchase…. The officers [who recently inspected a French ship of class in Toulon] were shown the interior of the ship and provided with technical data.”

A decision is expected some time in October 2009, if all goes as planned.

Aug 26/09: RIA Novosti reports that Russia is planning on a EUR 300-400 million contract by the end of 2009 to buy a French Mistral class amphibious assault ship (LHD). The outlet quotes Chief of the Russian General Staff Gen. Nikolai Makarov, who said that: “We are negotiating the purchase of one ship at present, and later planning to acquire 3-4 ships [of the same class] to be jointly built in Russia.” 

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