Egypt Purchases Mistral-class Assault Ships: Problems and Possibilities

Back in 2011, French shipbuilders DCNS and the Russian corporation Rosoboronexport signed a deal which would have sent two French-designed Mistral-class assault ships to the Russian navy. That deal would have been completed this year. However, after Russian action in the Crimea, and later in the Eastern Ukraine, France cancelled the deal under pressure from other NATO allies, despite concerns that it would make French arms exports seem unreliable in the future.

Image courtesy of Simon Ghesquiere/Marine Nationale © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Simon Ghesquiere/Marine Nationale © 2012, some rights reserved.

The result has been a long period of speculation regarding the eventual recipient of the assault ships. China was briefly considered, and then dismissed as a candidate. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brazil, and Canada were all also considered. In the Middle East, Egypt and Saudi Arabia also made clear their interest in acquiring the ships. And France needed to find a buyer relatively quickly to foot the large bill which France’s withdrawal from its contract with Russia had created, roughly €893 billion.

On 23 September, the French government announced that Egypt would be the recipient of the two assault ships, previously the Vladivostok and the Sevastopol. Naturally this has led to some serious discussions of the geopolitical ramifications of such a move. But the general agreement is that this move will have some very interesting consequences.

The Mistral-class itself

To discuss the effects of two Mistral-class ships being operated out of the region, it is first necessary to discuss the ship itself. The Mistrals are a type of ship called a landing helicopter deck, colloquially an amphibious assault ship. Though superficially resembling an aircraft carrier in terms of its flat top and towering super structure, the ships represent entirely different capabilities.

First, the basics: the Mistrals are 199 metres long, with a beam of 32 metres and a draught of 6.2 metres. They displace 21,300 tons fully loaded (for comparison, the French carrier Charles de Gaulle displaces 42,500 tons fully loaded and the American Wasp-class amphibious assault ship displaces 41,050 tons). The Mistrals are designed to carry roughly 450-750 soldiers (depending on the length of embarkation), along with roughly 70 armoured vehicles. These forces can be deployed via a well dock in the ship’s stern, which can carry up to four landing barges.

In addition to the ground and sea-based forces, the Egyptian Mistrals will also carry (ironically) roughly sixteen Russian-built KA-52K helicopters each. These are the naval derivative of the Russian KA-52 coaxial-rotor attack helicopters. The standard KA-52 armaments include one 30mm turreted gun, and four external hard-points; the naval version will likely be modified to carry anti-ship missiles.

In short, the Egyptian Mistrals will dramatically increase the Egyptians military’s ability to project power and conduct expeditionary warfare. After the ships are integrated into Egyptian command systems, the Egyptian navy will be one of the most powerful forces in the region, able to conduct warfare at a significantly greater distance than before.

Problems with Egypt and the Mistrals

There are two very significant problems with the Egyptian navy operating the Mistral: lack of operating experience, and the Mistral’s survivability in kinetic environments.

Firstly, while the number of ships it operates is significant, the Egyptian navy has minimal blue-water experience, conducting operations mostly in the state’s Mediterranean and Red Sea littoral areas. Operating the Mistrals will be an entirely new challenge, as demonstrated by the fact that roughly 400 Egyptian sailors will have to be trained in France before Egypt can take possession of the ships. They are also much larger than anything else operated by the Egyptian navy, 21,300 tons displaced as opposed to the next heaviest ships, the American-built 4,200 ton Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates. These ships are remarkably sophisticated pieces of technology (as will be the potential air wing); its azimuth thrusters are particularly unique amongst the Egyptian navy. It remains to be seen if the Egyptian navy can provide adequate maintenance to keep the Mistrals operating at top capacity.

The other major weakness of the Mistral class is its survivability. One of the reasons the Mistral class was such a bargain for the Egyptian navy was that it was built to commercial, not military, standards. This means that the armour of the Mistral is less thick, and that it must stand further off from kinetic engagement, where the Mistrals themselves are in risk of enemy contact.  While this may not be relevant for planned expeditionary operations, the confined waters which surround Egypt (particularly the Suez Canal) combined with the asymmetric threats Egypt faces means the ship is vulnerable to shore based attack. Moreover, the ship is relatively lightly armed, with only four 12.7mm machine guns and two Simbad missile systems for close-in-combat (though the Egyptian navy may alter these specifications).

Possible Uses

The usefulness of the Mistral class is that it allows the Egyptian military to wage more expeditionary warfare. Certainly there is no shortage of countries in the region in which Egypt might wish to intervene. Libya, Egypt’s neighbour to the West, has been unstable since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. And piracy remains a threat—albeit a greatly reduced one—in the Gulf of Aden. Further afield, Egypt may wish to join Saudi Arabia in waging a proxy war in Yemen, a task to which the Mistrals would be immensely helpful. And of course Egypt may use the ships strike capabilities to engage targets from the Islamic State. Certainly Egypt and Saudi Arabia have agreed to work together to ‘boost security and stability in the region, and to work together to protect Arab national security’ in the Cairo Declaratin earlier this year. It is very possible that the purchase of the Mistrals signals a shift to a more muscular Egyptian foreign policy in the region.

While it is unclear which (if any) of these foreign policy choices Egypt will pursue, any of these avenues will be greatly enabled by the new Mistral class assault ships Egypt has bought from France. While there are certainly problems to be ironed out—chiefly maintenance and close-in survivability issues—it will be fascinating to watch how these naval assets shift the geopolitical balance of the region.