April 25, 2009:
After the second of the new French Mistral class LHDs (amphibious assault ships), the Tonnerre, entered service two years ago, plans were made to build the third one using less expensive techniques, and more quickly. The French navy received the first (the Mistral) of these 21,500 ton ships in 2006. Both were ordered in 2001. These two ships replaced two older amphibious landing ships. This will give France a force of four amphibious ships. The two Mistrals are also equipped to serve as command vessels for amphibious operations. The French have been very happy with how the Mistrals have performed.
The Mistrals 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 (2,650 square meters for the Mistrals, room for nearly a hundred trucks, or 60 armored vehicles). Both have hospitals on board, with the Mistrals being larger (69 beds). The American ships, however have more sensors installed, and larger engines (and thus higher speed.) The LPD 17 can also handle vertical takeoff 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.
The third and fourth Mistrals are being built using more commercial techniques, and are expected to cost closer to $500 million each.