Military


Mistral Construction Program

Named Mistral and Tonnerre [Thunder], the first two NTCD were initially slatd to enter service in 2004 and 2005, to replace the TCD Ouragan et Orage. They were commmissioned in 2006 and 2007.

The acquisition by the French Navy of two NTCD served to reinforce both French and European capacities in several fields, thanks to these ships' versatility: amphibious action, helicopter transport of personnel and freight, as well as means of command (headquarters of multinational forces). This acquisition concretized, in the field of maritime strategic transport, the commitment entered into by France at the time of the Conference of engagement of capacities of 20 November 1999. It falls under the dynamics of the declaration of intent of the Ministers for the Defense of Spain, of Italy, of the Netherlands, of the United Kingdom and France, concerning the European amphibious initiative.

The launching of the last phase of the NTCD program was decided in the 2000 budget, and was confirmed in the 2001 budget through the funding of 1,79 billion francs in authorizations program and 842 million francs in payment appropriations. The contract was officialized on 22 December 2000 for a total amount of 3,5 billion francs. The start of work on the first ship was envisaged for the second half of 2001. The contract for the construction of Mistral was awarded to prime contractor DCN, working in partnership with Alstom Marine-Chantiers de l'Atlantique and Thales (for the combat system). This partnership made it possible to have a competitive product meeting the needs of the French Navy and also likely to take a lead on the international market. DCN was retained to ensure control of the design work and the construction of the two ships. The Alstom group's Chantiers de l'Atlantique was tasked with part of their construction, in particular for the hull and front cabin. In spite of a workload particularly charged because of, at the time, a large number of orders for large cruise ships, this civilian building site guaranteed that it would meet the commitments for this program.

The French Minister for Defense, Alain Richard, announced on 07 December 2000, while presenting the Senate with the Finances Bill for year 2001, that the Délégation Générale pour l'Armement (DGA - General Delegation for Armament) and DCN had concluded an agreement in the amount of 3,5 billion francs (530 million euros) on the construction terms for the NTCD program. He indicated that the corresponding contract would come into effect that same December 2000.

These two ships were to be delivered in 2004 and 2005 to coincide with the decommissioning of "l'Ouragan" and "l'Orage". The timeframes for the design and construction work set up appeared relatively short, though design/need optimization and innovative engineering solutions cut construction times and reduced costs by some 30% compared with the earlier Foudre and Sirocco generations.

In October 2004, Mistral, the first of two 'BPC' force projection and command vessels for the French Navy, was launched at DCN's shipyard in Brest. It was then fitted out before proceeding, ahead of schedule, to trials and testing, and then on to delivery later in 2005. In parallel with these activities, construction of Tonnerre, the second ship in the class, progressed rapidly towards its scheduled delivery in 2006. The aft sections of the two BPCs was the responsibility of DCN's shipyard at Brest, whereas the forward sections, which make extensive use of commercial standards, were the responsibility of Alstom Marine-Chantiers de l'Atlantique's Saint-Nazaire shipyard.

On 7 February 2006, the Mistral sailed from Brest on France's Atlantic coast for Toulon, located on the Mediterranean Sea, where it arrived seven days later for additional testing and fine-tuning of onboard equipment, particularly the combat system, prior to its presentation to the DGA for acceptance. On 27 February 2006, DCN presented the Mistral, the first of two BPC-type force projection and command vessels on order, to the French defence procurement agency DGA, the contract principal, for acceptance and subsequent handover to the French Navy.

On 14 February 2007, BPC Tonnerre left Brest for Toulon where the combat system would undergo a final series of tests. The ship was ready and all tests completed on schedule when nonconformities attributed to Chantiers de l'Atlantique (CAT) and its subcontractors were discovered in the accommodation area floors. The repairs resulted in a significant delay. On 01 March 2007, the DGA took delivery of the BPC-type force projection and command vessel Tonnerre built by naval defence group DCN. This important milestone was followed by a formal handover to the French Navy. Delivery to the DGA had previously been scheduled to take place in May 2006.

Between 10 and 13 May 2007, DGA and the French Navy, assisted by DCNS, successfully completed an interoperability test campaign off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, involving Tonnerre and US Navy assets. The tests resulted in the official qualification of BPC-type vessels for operations involving LCAC-type air-cushion landing craft and MH 53E Super Stallion heavylift helicopters, specifically LCAC launch and recovery using the well deck and MH 53E landing and take-off using flight deck spot n°1.

The tests enabled DCNS to demonstrate the performance of the system it developed to cool LCAC exhaust gases (at up to several hundred degrees Celsius) in the well deck. Joint measurements by French and American engineers confirmed that the cooling system performed precisely as predicted, with the ship suffering no damage whatsoever.

As BPC prime contractor, DCNS demonstrated its capacity to design and build ships accommodating all types of equipment. The LCAC requirements had a major impact on BPC architecture and subsystems. This capacity to meet a wide range of force projection needs reportedly raised strong interest in countries from Australia and South Africa to Brazil, Canada and Malaysia.

The construction of the 2 "sisterships" "Mistral" and "Tonnerre" ended up costing French taxpayers 685 Million Euros, after which further construction of these ships was stopped until 2008, when construction of a new ship of the same project was authorzed. Many in the French Navy, disappointed that then President Nicolas Sarkozy had postponed a decision earlier in the summer on whether or not to procure a second aircraft carrier, got a surprise Christmas present in December 2008 when Defense Minister Hervé Morin announced he was ordering a third Mistral-class BPC.

As part of the French Government's economic recovery plan, STX France and DCNS were awarded the contract to build the French Navy's third Projection and Command ship for the French Navy. Work on the third vessel was started in April 2009 in Saint-Nazaire by Hervé Morin, the Defence Minister and Patrick Devedjian, Minister in charge of implementing the recovery plan. While construction of the first two Mistral class vessels saw the front sections of the ships built at the Saint-Nazaire yard of STX Europe and then joined with the aft sections at DCNS, the third Mistral ship was built solely at the Saint-Nazaire site of STX France Cruise SA, jointly owned by STX Europe, Alstom and the French Republic, with STX Europe having the majority stake. While STX Europe built the platform and outfitted the ship in Saint-Nazaire, DCNS, as cocontractor, produced its combat system. The keel-laying ceremony for Dixmude, the third Mistral-class ship, took place 20 January 2010 in Saint Nazaire. Dixmude was launched in late 2010 and commissioned on 27 July 2012 following sea trials at its home port of Toulon, on the Mediterranean, in mid-2011.

French Navy servicemembers were reported to believe the "Mistral" design to be too complicated, overloaded with electrical and electronic equipment, and problematic in service, leading to constant repairs. There have also been complaints about its sea-going capabilities. These reported shortcomings led to its failure in the Australian tender for a new Landing Ship, which was ultimately won by Spanish Navantia with a similar design.



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