When Spain recently landed the
contract to build the two Canberra-class LHDs for Australia, it brought to the
attention of many the fact that the United States was not the only country
building large amphibious ships. The Spanish design, the Juan Carlos I class, beat out the French
Mistral-class. These two classes are about the same size (about 25,000 tons) as
the American San Antonio-class landing
platform dock, and similar in function to the much larger (40,000 ton) American
Wasp-class LHD. That said, they have a number of differences, each reflecting
the needs and existing capabilities of the country that has purchased them.
In the case of the Canberra-class LHDs, the Spanish
design was a little larger (27,000 tons), and also it was much more versatile,
and it included a ski-jump aircraft deck on the bow. The Spanish version of
this vessel will be able to carry up to 30 Harrier vertical take off jets. This
means that Spain would have a second carrier to go with the smaller Principe de
Asturias. Australia has not had a carrier since HMAS Melbourne was
decommissioned in 1982. Now, they will have two "Harrier carriers",
which could operate the new U.S. F-35B (which will be replacing a lot of
The French Mistral-class vessel displaces 24,000
tons, carries 16 NH90 helicopters, and lacks any real capability to carry or
operate V/STOL aircraft like the Harrier or F-35B. France, of course, has the
carrier Charles De Gaulle, which operates up to 40 aircraft. In essence, if the
French are going to need to kick the door in, they have a carrier with
fixed-wing aircraft to provide air cover.
So, how do they compare with the American
amphibious vessels? Well, these two classes come in about the size of a San
Antonio-class LPD. That said, they fulfill a very different mission. The San
Antonio-class vessels have more extensive electronics, and typically carry
larger landing craft (like the LCAC air cushion landing craft). Its aviation
facilities are limited to about four to six helicopters on the flight deck and
the hangar. It might displace 25,000 tons, placing it in the same range as the
Mistral and the Juan Carlos/Canberra classes, but it concentrates on getting
troops ashore, not so much the aerial operations the other two classes support.
All three classes carry about a battalion of marines.
A better ship for purposes of this comparison is
the Wasp-class LHD. The Wasp-class LHD usually carries 6-8 Harriers, 12 CH-46s,
4-9 CH-53Es, 4 UH-1s, and 4 AH-1s. However, it was also designed to be capable
of operating as a sea control ship with 20 Harriers and 6 SH-60 helicopters.
The Wasp displaces about 40,000 tons, making it about 50% larger than the
Spanish/Australian LHDs. The Wasp is designed to hold the air element of a
Marine Expeditionary unit. Like the French Mistral-class LHDs, they do not have
ski ramps. If they need significant air support, the United States will usually
send a carrier, with four squadrons of F/A-18 Hornets and F/A-18E/F Super
Hornets to provide backup.
Ultimately, each of these ships fulfills the needs
of their respective countries. The American and French LHDs are designed to work
with carriers, thus they are able to focus more on transporting troops and
maximizing the number of helicopters that can be operated. The Spanish and
Australian vessels are multi-mission because they are the only carriers those
navies will have for the foreseeable future. - Harold C. Hutchison (email@example.com)