Mistral Construction Program
Named Mistral and Tonnerre [Thunder], the two NTCD were to enter in service into 2004 and 2005, to replace the TCD Ouragan et Orage.
Acquisition by the national Navy of two NTCD take part in the reinforcement of the French and European capacities in several fields, thanks to the versatility of these ships: amphibian action, helicopter transport of personnel and freight, and means of command (headquarters of multinational forces). This acquisition concretizes, 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 amphibian initiative.
The launching of the last phase of the NTCD program was decided in the 2000 budget, and was confirmed in the 2001 budget by the funding of 1,79 billion francs in authorizations program and 842 million francs in payment appropriations. The contract was notified on 22 December 2000 for a total amount of 3,5 billion francs. The beginning of work of the first ship was envisaged the second six-month period 2001. DCN is Master Constructor of the NTCD, whose realization will be done in co-operation with the Chantiers de l'Atlantique (realization of the front part) and with Thales (for the system of combat). This partnership makes it possible to have a competitive product meeting the needs for the Navy national and likely to take a lead in the international market. DCN was retained to ensure the control of work of the design and the construction of the two ships. The Chantiers de l'Atlantique of the Alstom group will take part in their construction, in particular for the hull and front cabin. In spite of a workload particularly provided because of many commands of large cruising ships, this civil building site guaranteed that it could keep to these commitments for this program.
The Minister for Defense, Alain Richard, announced on 07 December 2000, at the time of the presentation to the Senate of the bill of finances for year 2001, that the General Delegation for Armament (DGA) and DCN concluded an agreement from an amount of 3,5 billion francs (530 million euros) on the conditions realization program NTCD. He indicated that the corresponding contract will come into effect the current of December 2000.
These two ships were to be delivered in 2004 and 2005 at the moment of the withdrawal of "l'Ouragan" and "l'Orage". The times of setting up the work of the design and construction appeared relatively short. 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. Then began the fitting out before proceeding, ahead of schedule, to trials and testing, and 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 contract for the construction of Mistral was awarded to prime contractor DCN, working in partnership with Alstom Marine-Chantiers de l'Atlantique and Thales. The aft sections of the two BPCs are the responsibility of DCN's shipyard at Brest, whereas the forward sections, which make extensive use of commercial standards, are the responsibility of Alstom Marine-Chantiers de l'Atlantique's Saint-Nazaire shipyard.
On 27 February 2006, DCN presented the Mistral, the first of two BPC-type force projection and command vessels on order, to French defence procurement agency DGA, the contract principal, for acceptance and subsequent handover to the French Navy. On 7 February 2006, the Mistral sailed from Brest on France's Atlantic coast for Toulon on the Mediterranean 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 01 March 2007 French defence procurement agency DGA took delivery of BPC-type force projection and command vessel Tonnerre built by naval defence group DCN. This important milestone wwould be followed by formal handover to the French Navy. Delivery to the DGA was previously scheduled to take place in May 2006. 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. Formal delivery meant that ownership of the Tonnerre has been transferred to the DGA prior to handover to the French Navy.
Between 10 and 13 May 2007, defence procurement agency DGA and the French Navy assisted by DCNS successfully completed an interoperability test campaign off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, involving BPC-type force projection and command vessel Tonnerre and US Navy assets. The tests resulted in the official qualification of BPC-type vessles 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 has 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 is arousing 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 president Nicolas Sarkozy 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 Vessel 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. Construction of the first two Mistral class vessels saw the front sections of the ships built at the Saint-Nazaire yard of STX Europe. These were then joined with the aft sections at DCNS. The third Mistral will be built solely at the Saint-Nazaire site of STX France Cruise SA, which is jointly owned by STX Europe, Alstom and the French Republic, with STX Europe having the majority stake. While STX Europe build the platform and outfit the ship in Saint-Nazaire, DCNS, as cocontractor, will produce its combat system. The keel-laying ceremony for Dixmude, the third Mistral-class ship, took place 20 January 2010 in Saint Nazaire, western France. Dixmude is scheduled to be launched in late 2010 and commissioned in 2012 following sea trials at its home port of Toulon, on the Mediterranean, in mid 2011.
French Navy servicemembers are said to believe the "Mistral" design is too complicated, overloaded with electrical and electronic equipment, and problematic in service, which leads to constant repairs. There are also complaints about its sea-going capabilities. These shortcomings led to its failure in the Australian tender for a new Landing Ship, which was won by Spanish Navantia with a similar design.