May 29, 2007:
The second of the new French Mistral
class LPDs (amphibious assault ships), the Tonnerre, has entered service. The
French navy received the first (the Mistral) of these 21,500 ton ships last
year. Both were ordered in 2001.
These two ships will replace two older amphibious
landing ships. This will give France a force of four amphibious ships. The two
new ships are also equipped to serve as command vessels for amphibious
The two ships are similar in design to the U.S. LPD
17 (San Antonio) class. Both classes are about 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. Both have hospitals on board, with the Mistrals being larger. The
American ships, however have more sensors installed, and larger engines (and
thus higher speed.) The LPD 17 can also handle vertical take off 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.
Another thing Americans notice is bars in the two recreation rooms. Unlike
American ships, the French serve beer and wine on theirs. That, plus roomier
living accommodations (made possible by the smaller ships 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.
Armament on both classes are defensive. The
Mistrals each carry two short-range anti-aircraft missile launchers, two 30mm
guns and four heavy machine-guns. The Mistrals can stay out 45 days at a time,
unless replenished at sea, and each cost about $600 million. The first LPD 17
cost nearly two billion dollars, and U.S. admirals are after Congress to adopt
some of the more efficient French procurement methods. The LPD 17s were ordered
in 1996, and the first one entered service two years ago. The navy wants to buy
a dozen of them, and get the unit price under a billion dollars.