Marines: The Vladivostok Class

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April 2, 2013: The Russian Navy intends to have its version of the French Mistral amphibious ships (the Vladivostok Class) carry 30 helicopters (compared to 16 on the French version) and have several other modifications to the ship itself. The Vladivostok Class ships will be armed with two AK-630 multibarrel 30mm autocannon for anti-missile defense. There will also be two quad-launchers of shoulder fired type anti-aircraft missiles (with a 5 kilometer range and does well against helicopters) and two or more DP-65 55mm grenade launchers for defense against divers.

The Vladivostoks will also be winterized for use in arctic conditions. The hull with be strengthened to deal with ice and the well deck door will completely close. The flight deck will have a deicing system and the ship will be modified to operate for extended periods in arctic conditions. There is also different electronics and this means a different arrangement of radomes and antennae.

In the aircraft handling areas below the deck, height will be higher for the taller Ka-52K and Ka-29 helicopters. The Ka-52K is a navalized version of the Ka-52 that went into production last year. In addition to being equipped with coatings to resist sea water corrosion, the K model will also have a lightweight version of the high-definition Zhuk-AE AESA radar used on jet fighters. This radar currently weighs 275 kg (605 pounds), but the helicopter version will weigh only 80 kg (176 pounds) and enables the Kh-52K to use the Kh-31 anti-ship missile. This weapon has a range of 110 kilometers and travels at high speed (about one kilometer a second). The Kh-52K can also carry the sub-sonic Kh-31 missile, which has a range of 130 kilometers. Both of these missiles weigh about 600 kg (1,300 pounds) each.

The Ka-52 is actually a Ka-50 variant, nicknamed the Alligator. The Russian army is already using the Ka-50. Some have seen action in Chechnya. The Ka-50 is not considered a replacement for the larger Mi-24 gunship but rather serves as a scout helicopter. The Ka-50 weighs 11 tons, has a top speed of 350 kilometers an hour, and can carry up to two tons of weapons or additional fuel. Normal operating range is 260 kilometers, but with additional fuel tanks it can stay in the air for up to four hours. The Ka-52 variant has two seats, so that a commander can be carried. Normally, the Ka-50 operates with one pilot. Weapons carried include 30mm or 23mm automatic cannon plus bombs, missiles, and rockets.

Despite its designation as a scout helicopter, the Ka-50 is similar to the U.S. AH64 Apache, which weighs ten tons and can carry about the same amount of weapons. However, the AH-64 has a lower max speed (300 kilometers an hour) and has a two man crew. The Ka-52K enables the Mistral amphibious carriers to defend themselves, to some extent. Against large warships with anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, the Ka-52K would just slow down the destruction of the Russian Mistrals. But the Russians don’t expect to send their Mistrals against major naval opposition but rather smaller nuisances in their own back yard.

The Ka-29 is an assault version of the Ka-27 and can carry 16 troops. Ka-27 is a 12 ton chopper than can carry up to four tons. It can stay in the air about four hours per sortie and cruises at 205 kilometers an hour. The Ka-27 has been used by the Russian navy since the 1970s, usually for ASW (anti-submarine warfare) and transport.

Russia is buying two French Mistral class amphibious ships for $1.7 billion. This is the largest Russian purchase of Western weapons since World War II. The deal was delayed for a long time because the Russians demanded the transfer of shipbuilding and electronics technology (which is now agreed to).

The French navy received the first of the 21,500 ton Mistrals in 2006, with the second one arriving in 2007. Both were ordered in 2001. These two ships replaced two older amphibious landing ships. This  gave 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 200 meters (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. That, plus larger living accommodations (made possible by the smaller ship's 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.

After the first two, additional Mistrals for the French Navy are being built using more commercial techniques and are expected to cost closer to $500 million each. France has three Mistrlas with several more on order. Russia says it plans to base some of its Mistrals in the Far East, where there is an ongoing dispute with Japan over Japanese islands Russia occupied after World War II and never gave back.

 


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