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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

The agony of choice: Russia looking for best amphibious assault ship

RIA Novosti

21:42 19/10/2010

RIA Novosti military commentator Ilya Kramnik

October 19 (RIA Novosti) - General Nikolai Makarov, head of the Russian Armed Forces' General Staff, said France, Spain, the Netherlands and Russia itself will bid in a tender for the best amphibious assault ship, due to be adopted by the Russian Navy.

What ship can each contender offer?

Amphibious assault ships are among the most popular items on the international warship market, and the most attractive models are involved in the Russian tender. What are their similarities and difference, and what are their chances of winning the tender?

First, a brief insight into the history of amphibious assault ships will make it possible to choose the right ship for the Russian Navy.

Amphibious assault ships were first developed for the United States Navy which leads the way in the field of amphibious operations. LST (Landing Ship Tanks) class ships were developed during World War II and featured ramps making it possible to land men and equipment onto open beaches.

However, only a small percent of the global shoreline is suitable for such landings. Moreover, beached LSTs were, in fact, sitting ducks for enemy gunners. Consequently, amphibious operations evolved along the following two lines, namely, long-range insertions and expanded landing areas. Helicopters which began to be mass-produced at the end of World War II played a key role in this evolution, winning acclaim as multi-role transport systems and strike aircraft by the early 1950s.

Landing craft capable of ferrying marines and equipment ashore played a no less important role. They are delivered to landing areas aboard floating docks.

Amphibious assault ships combined the potential of floating docks and amphibious assault helicopter carriers with full-length flight decks.

U.S.-made amphibious assault ships have the greatest potential over other ships in this class. They are larger than their foreign equivalents and carry more men, helicopters and other equipment. However, these ships are very expensive and are not sold on the global market.

As far as European amphibious assault ships are concerned, the specifications of French Mistral-class ships, which are most often mentioned as the right choice for the Russian Navy, deserve special mention.

These amphibious assault, command and power projection ships with a gross displacement of 21,300 metric tons are best suited for modern low-intensity expeditionary warfare. They cost less and pack fewer weapons than their U.S. equivalents, however, can successfully conduct long-duration missions in remote areas of the world's oceans and are maintained in a state of permanent combat readiness.

They can carry up to 450-900 marines. The latter option implies less individual comfort and shorter mission-endurance deadlines. The Mistral air wing comprises 16 medium or 30 light helicopters.

The Mistral is also suitable for deployment as a command vessel of a peacekeeping task force showing the flag in conflict zones. Moreover, she can be used as an anchor base or hospital ship in disaster areas.

The ship's design would be improved somewhat for a Russian Navy application. The hull would be reinforced for ice navigation, and the hangar would be 17 centimeters higher to accommodate Kamov helicopters.

Unlike the almost defenseless French version, the ship would be equipped with Russian-made anti-aircraft systems.

By selecting the Mistral as the optimal ship variation, Russian military leaders also hope to obtain the relevant ship-building technology and to gain an insight into state-of-the-art Western control, navigation and telecommunications systems. Russia is to receive two French-built Mistral-class ships in the next 10-15 years, also building two more over the same period.

Spain's Juan Carlos I amphibious assault ship also has impressive specifications. She displaces 27,000 metric tons and can carry helicopters, McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) AV-8B Harrier vertical/short take-off and landing (V/STOL) fighters or Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II strike aircraft.

But the Russian Navy is highly unlikely to order such a ship because this country does not manufacture or develop any V/STOL fighters. It is in no position to join the problem-ridden F-35 program for political reasons either.

The Spanish ship would lose many of her advantages without these aircraft.

The Rotterdam amphibious transport dock (landing platform dock) is a viable rival of the Mistral. Unlike amphibious assault ships, she lacks a full-length flight deck and hangar deck. A large helicopter deck and a four-helicopter hangar are located in her stern and bow sections, respectively.

The Rotterdam is smaller than the 21,300-ton Mistral, displaces 13,000 tons and also costs less. However, this up-to-date amphibious warfare ship has a full-fledged docking chamber and can support a fully-equipped 450-strong marine battalion's operations.

The French ship has a more effective air wing. Russian-French cooperation, a key process in European politics, is a major trump card in favor of the French option.

As of today, the Russian ship-building sector lacks a ready-made amphibious assault ship design, although similar ships were actively developed in the Soviet Union.

Two Project 11780 (Ivan Tarawa) large landing ships, namely the Kremenchug and the Kherson, were ordered but never commissioned due to the break-up of the U.S.S.R.

Displacing 25,000 metric tons each, they fit somewhere between European and U.S. ship designs. Each Soviet ship would have carried two 500-strong marine battalions, up to 30 helicopters and two to four hovercraft, or a larger number of small landing craft.

They would have possessed a number of major advantages over Western ships. Soviet designers specified high-capacity propulsion units developing a maximum speed of 30 knots and more powerful weapons, including medium-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems and an AK-130 multi-purpose artillery system.

All this would have enhanced the ships' survivability and strike potential.

The high-speed Project 11780 ships could also have been used for anti-submarine warfare missions.

This design which utilized 1980s era technology has now become completely obsolete. It would take a lot of time to update the design completely with a slim chance of success.

Consequently, Russian shipyards will only be able to bid in the tender as subcontractors building a foreign-designed ship under a production license.

Russia and France are expected to choose this option, while cooperating on the Mistral transfer issue. The extent of Russian involvement in building the first two ships in France and the scale of production relocation to Russia are the most important aspects.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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