Ludwig von Gress
A year ago (25th January 2011) the Russian government signed a contract to acquire two French Mistral class assault landing ships for €1,37 billion. It also has an option to build further two in Russia. In December 2011 Russia finally paid the deposit and the construction is about to start. It is the first major arms contract between Russia and the Western world and it is unlikely to be the last. Lenin’s saying about capitalists keen to sell the rope on which they will hang inevitably springs to mind.
France has two of these ships, Mistral and Tonnerre. Flush with fiat economic stimulus money, it ordered the third. Mistral-class is an amphibious assault, helicopter landing ship, 199 metres long, 32 metres wide, displacing 21,300 tonnes when fully loaded. It has six helicopter landing spots and can carry 16 heavy or 35 light helicopters. Boats and landing craft carried: 4 CTM (chaland de transport de matériel) or 2 LCAC (Landing Craft, Air Cushion) Capacity: 59 vehicles (including 13 Leclerc tanks) or a 40-strong Leclerc tank battalion. It can also carry up to 900 troops. There is also 69 bed hospital. Mistral and Tonnerre are propelled by azimuth thrusters*. This technology gives the ships significant manoeuvring capabilities, and frees up space normally utilised by machinery and propeller shafts.
Russia will thus acquire significant littoral attack and support capacity, not to mention an interesting, not yet fully tried technology. Twenty percent of the work on the first two ships at Saint Nazaire dockyards is to be done by Russia. The other two are to be built in St Petersburg. General Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of General Staff announced that the first ship will be deployed to the Russian Pacific Fleet, and it can be used “in case of necessity” to transport troops to Kuril Islands. In fact, according to the Russia navy, all ships are to be stationed at Vladivostok. Somehow it does not sound right and, unsurprisingly, the governments of the Baltic states do not believe it.
Lithuania’s Defence Minister Rasa Jukneviciene said, “I think this is a mistake. This is a precedent, when a NATO and EU member sells offensive weaponry to a country whose democracy is not at a level that would make us feel calm.” And Latvia’s Defence Minister Artis Pabriks: “If these helicopter carriers appear in the Baltic Sea, Latvia will ask France and NATO in general for military and political support…. The size of this support should be adequate to restore the balance of forces in the region.”
Taken literally that would mean stationing Tonnerre, Mistral (or both) or equivalent in the Baltic Sea. Unfortunately, Latvia brings a little weight to its side of the scales. With population of 2,200,000 out of which only 60% are Latvians, its defence forces are the Obamaesque ideal of leanness. Latvian Land Forces comprise of 971 soldiers (some serving in Iraq), Naval Forces have 552 personnel and the Latvian Air Force 251. In Latvian National Guard there are 10,642 voluntary national guardsmen. The navy has 1 mine-layer, 4 mine-hunters and 9 patrol boats. One of them, PO 3, Storm class, is named Linga. The air protection for all three Baltic states, i.e. Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia is provided by four (4) NATO fighters, based in Lithuania.
The Russian ships will differ from the original in many aspects. For example, to accommodate higher (because of contra-rotating co-axial rotors) Ka -52 “Alligator” and Ka -27 helicopters, the hangars would have to be higher. From that alone many further alterations will follow. Beside such combat related changes, it is unlikely that the Russian sailors would be provided with the standard of accommodation the French are accustomed to. But the primary mission is unlikely to be different. It would be a multi-purpose intervention ship, capable of performing amphibious assaults, withdrawals, demonstrations and raids.
I wonder whether a Russian military strategist would rather keep such ships in Baltic where “in case of necessity” they could be deployed against rogue Balts, intransigent Poles and incorrigible Germans; or even in Black Sea for use against volatile Georgians, intractable Turks or unpredictable Ukrainians, rather than in Vladivostok. There the Russian helicopter carrier would need an auxiliary icebreaker for a half of the year in order to defend 56 barren (even of oil) islands with 200 volcanoes where the Japanese population of 17,000 was expelled in 1946 and was replaced by 17,000 Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar fishermen.
The Baltic port for Mistralski seems to be the most likely.
*/An azimuth thruster is a configuration of ship propellers placed in pods that can be rotated in any horizontal direction, making a rudder unnecessary. It was invented in 1950 by Joseph Becker, the founder of Schottel in Germany. First applications came in the 1960s under the Schottel brand name and referred to as Rudderpropeller ever since.