Egypt’s Acquisition of the Mistral Amphibious Assault Ship: An Operational Analysis

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The protracted “What happens to France’s two unwanted Mistrals” saga has seemingly drawn to a close with the agreement by Egypt late last month to acquire the highly capable amphibious assault ships (LHDs) for a total of €950 million. A number of commentators have argued that the rationale behind this eyebrow-raising decision is for Egypt to attain a maritime power-projection capability so as to hedge against rising Islamist violence in the region and a resurgent Iran. Indeed, one prominent defense journalist wrote of Egypt using the French-made Mistrals to quell trouble in neighboring hot-spots. In the same vein, another commentator spoke of the vessels giving their owners the ability to conduct expeditionary missions with significant ground and aerial assets.

That being said, the aforementioned statements are based on the assumption that Cairo would be able to effectively deploy the two ships in the first place. This is highly contentious, at least in the near term, for a number of reasons. They include Egypt’s dearth of experience in large amphibious-vessel and naval aviation operations, among others.

The Mistral’s Capabilities

Defense analysts often speak of the Mistral in glowing terms. Indeed, much has been made of the platform offering almost the same capabilities as the United States Navy’s potent Wasp-class LHD, but at only one-sixth the cost and crew size. And even though France officially calls the Mistral a bâtiments de projection et de commandement, or “projection and command ship,” it can also perform several other roles such as amphibious/heliborne assault and humanitarian

France's Mistral-class Dixmude warship in Jounieh bay, Lebanon. (Source: Wikicommons)
France’s Mistral-class Dixmude warship in Jounieh bay, Lebanon. (Source: Wikicommons)

assistance and disaster relief. With 69 beds for patients, it can even act as a hospital ship. An important component of the Mistral is its air wing, which consists either of 16 heavy or 35 light helicopters. It can also accommodate 450 troops (900 for surge operations), four small landing craft or two hovercraft, and a 40-strong Leclerc main battle tank (MBT) unit.

In recent years, France has put its Mistrals to good use in support of its foreign policy. For instance, during the 2006 Lebanon War, the lead ship of its class, the Mistral, was involved in the evacuation of French citizens from the Levant nation. Two years later, the same vessel provided humanitarian aid supplies, albeit indirectly, to victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. And in 2011, the Tonnerre was deployed with Tigre helicopter gunships off the Libyan coast to support France’s military intervention in that North African country.


Ship Handling:

At first glance, therefore, the introduction of the Mistral into Egypt’s order of battle would seem to boost considerably the latter’s expeditionary capabilities. However, a more critical assessment  reveals that this would not be the case. Firstly, Egypt simply lacks the experience and know-how in handling a vessel like the Mistral. Warships are highly intricate technological entities. As cited in Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-first Century (Routledge, 2013):

To… operate [warships] requires a mass of technical, industrial and professional skills, ashore and afloat, and a sophisticated system of management to mold them into an effective whole… Ships can be constructed relatively quickly, but the skills and capabilities which make up an effective navy can only be built up with long years of investment.

Indeed, Cairo’s experience in handling warships is limited warships significantly smaller than Mistral. The Egyptian military’s current largest amphibians are its three Polnochnys. This Polish-made landing ship is some 70 meters long and displaces 830 tons; in stark contrast, the corresponding figures for the Mistral are 200 meters and 21,000 tons. Furthermore, the mainstays of the Egyptian surface fleet – the formerly Knox- and Perry-class frigates procured from the U.S. Navy ­– are around 4,000 tons in displacement. Even the largest warship currently in Egyptian service is nowhere near the specifications of the Mistral. Egypt’s sole FREMM frigate, which is 140 meters long and displaces 6,000 tons, was commissioned into service only in June this year.

This dearth of experience in operating a large and complex multi-purpose naval platform like the Mistral would arguably be exacerbated by a failing that plagues most Arab militaries: their personnel’s deficiency in terms of technical skills. In Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991 (University of Nebraska Press, 2004) Kenneth M. Pollack maintains that Arab armed forces, including Egypt’s, often show an inability to fully exploit the capabilities of the military hardware they possess. The Middle East defense expert adds that this lack of technical skills and other military weaknesses of the Arabs are likely to persist.

Then again, even First-World countries with highly educated citizens who are familiar with advanced technology can struggle with regard to operating LHDs. The time-frame in which Australia hopes that HMAS Canberra will achieve initial operational capability (IOC) and final operational capability (FOC) is illuminative of the challenges Egypt might face with its Mistrals. The Canberra – the lead ship of a new LHD class – was commissioned last November, and Australia is working towards its IOC and FOC to be attained in late 2015 and late 2017 respectively. In other words, Australia is hoping that HMAS Canberra will only be fully deployable a good three years after its commissioning.

That being said, media reports state the Mistrals will be delivered to Egypt in March next year and that their future crews have already begun training. To be certain, nobody will claim that Cairo could get its LHDs up and running within a meager six months. However, Egypt’s technical deficiency means that it could take a longer than than Australia to achieve operational capability with their LHD platforms. Furthermore, it must be noted that the Royal Australian Navy possesses some institutional knowledge in handling flat-tops, having operated light carriers during the Cold War. In stark contrast, Egyptian expertise in this area is essentially zilch. The crew of the two Mistrals will therefore need significant assistance from France and also Russia, as there are several Russian systems on-board the vessels.

Amphibious Operations:

A key mission the Mistral is expected to carry out is amphibious operations, and specialist skills and training are essential to the success of such endeavors, according to esteemed naval commentator Geoffrey Till.  Though Egypt has a small marine force, a Stratfor analysis suggests it is not proficient enough to deploy optimally from the Mistral. This particular report, however, does

Amphibious Operations aboard a Mistral during Exercise LION MISTRAL in 2014.
Amphibious Operations aboard a Mistral during Exercise LION MISTRAL in 2014.

not differentiate between the scales of amphibious operations to be conducted. Does it apply for large- or small-scale landings? It is certainly true that Cairo lacks experience in major amphibious operations. As a matter of fact, a Jane’s report argues that the Egyptian military cannot conduct “unilateral, opposed beach landings”, adding that it can only perform small-scale amphibious operations such as infiltrating special forces teams. Such an assessment is hardly surprising considering the fact the Polnochny landing craft can carry a maximum of 180 soldiers and six MBTs, while the Egyptian navy’s other amphibious asset, the Vydra landing craft of which it has nine, can deploy only 100 troops or three MBTs.

However, the Mistral is not built solely for major troop landings, but a range of missions scalable for different objectives. Indeed, Middle East security expert Ahmed S. Hashim believes that the platform would be used extensively for special forces ­­missions to combat Islamist extremism in the region. Such small-scale operations usually involve helicopters, but Egypt does not have the requisite experience vis-à-vis missions of this nature that are launched from ships at sea.

Sea-Based Aviation

This shortfall is manifested in the fact that Egypt’s sea-based aviation experience consists merely of operating an anti-submarine warfare helicopter or two from each of its formerly Perry- and Knox-class frigates. To be sure, the flight-deck and hangar-bay choreography on helicopter carriers like the Mistral is not as complex as that on regular flat-tops. That being said, operations involving several ship-borne helicopters – the Mistral has six launch spots on its flight deck for them ­– are nevertheless challenging, even more so for a navy with limited experience in sea-based aviation like

Flight Ops aboard Mistral during LION MISTRAL 2014.
Flight Ops aboard Mistral during LION MISTRAL 2014.

Egypt’s. To compound matters, the Arab nation will have to train the crew for the navalized Ka-52K helicopters – an asset currently not in its order of battle – which could be procured for deployment on the Mistrals.

Integrated Task Force Operations

Finally, the Egyptians do not have any experience organizing their warships into task forces centered on a capital unit like the Mistral. The LHD makes for an inviting target for adversaries and hence has to be screened by consorts such as frigates and other surface craft as part of a task force. Having a fully operational entity of this sort, however, requires the Egyptians to imbibe the intricacies of maritime task force operations, and this would involve learning from scratch the doctrinal and technical expertise critical to such endeavors. For instance, each component of such a task force will have to train and operate together so as to improve their ability to fight as a coherent whole.

Much has been said about the uphill task the People’s Liberation Army-Navy, which had no experience with flat-tops prior to the commissioning of the Liaoning, is facing in creating a viable aircraft carrier battle group, and the consensus is that this could become a possibility only after several years of concerted effort. The same goes for any Egyptian Mistral task force becoming an effective fighting force. The Egyptian fleet’s lack of operational experience as a whole further complicates the issue. Indeed, it was only tangentially involved in the various Middle Eastern conflicts during the Cold War. In the post-Cold War period, Egyptian warships have been largely placed in the back-burner and have not even joined international peacekeeping missions.


Rounding up, Egypt’s acquisition of the Mistral seems to mark a quantum leap in its capacity to project force; the platform offers multiple capabilities previously unavailable to Cairo. Nonetheless, Egypt is unlikely to utilize the Mistral optimally because of its lack of experience in such crucial areas like handling such a sizable and complex vessel, ship-borne helicopter operations, and integrated naval task force maneuvers. With these in mind, it would be an extremely steep learning curve for Egypt vis-à-vis her most ambitious naval acquisition so far. While most nations, including advanced ones, also struggle with regard to adopting new military technology, Egypt’s case is especially pronounced considering its people’s general lack of technical proficiency.

Going forward, there has been talk of the Egyptian Mistrals operating with Saudi units as part of a joint Arab force; after all, Saudi money is believed to be behind the procurement of these platforms. However, “jointness” is difficult to achieve even between the service arms of a particular country, let alone with another country. Such an arrangement, if it ever materializes, is likely to further complicate Egyptian Mistral operations.

In the final analysis, it is worth noting that countries that are able to operate effectively aviation-capable platforms like the Mistral belong at least to the category of nations regarded as “medium powers”. Think Japan with its Izumo-class “helicopter destroyers” and South Korea with its Dokdos. This invariably raises the following question: was the Egyptian Mistral acquisition grounded in operational realities, or was it an vainglorious decision conditioned by the fact that large amphibious warfare ships are so du jour nowadays? During the Second World War, there was a famous saying in Japanese naval circles that went: “The three great follies of the world are the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids and the battleship Yamato.” In the near future, could this statement be modified to include the Mistral? Based on the current state of affairs, it is highly probable.

Ben Ho Wan Beng is a Senior Analyst with the Military Studies Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies; he obtained his master’s degree in strategic studies from the same institution. He would like to express his heartfelt gratitude to colleague Colin Koh Swee Lean for providing his insights on this article. Ben can be reached at 

Where is Defence in Canada’s Federal Election?

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The following piece is written by the Conference of Defense Associations Institute’s David McDonough, and can be found in its original form here. It is republished with their permission.

On 2 August 2015, Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked Governor-​General David Johnston to dissolve Parliament – and dropping the writ for what promises to be one of the longest election campaigns in recent history. As I write this, the election is now in full swing, with the first leaders debate having taken place a few weeks back (and an unknown number to go), all parties ramping up their fundraising and “ground game,” political ads increasingly dominating the airwaves, and still with almost two months to go.

All three major political parties (Conservatives, NDP, Liberal) have already staked out different positions on key security and defence issues. The Conservatives have now promised to expand the Reserve Force from 24,000 to 30,000 personnel in its next mandate, which represents a return to its original 2008 Canada First Defence Strategy promise, albeit at a much quicker rate. The Liberals, on the other hand, have pledged $300 million annually for military support programs, including lifelong pensions for injured veterans.

Of course, it remains to be seen if the next government’s funding envelope will increase sufficiently to fulfill either campaign promise. Interestingly, rumours already abound that the NDP may soon propose a small increase in defence spending, which would represent an important turnaround for a party historically ill-​inclined towards national defence and overseas military operations. But whether such rumours materialize as campaign promises, and are actually acted upon, is more uncertain.

Yet what is most noticeable about the campaign so far is that defence has been a relatively quiescent topic – a fact that many informed commentators have noted. Even in the 2011 election, political leaders were quick to raise the issue of Canada acquiring the controversial F-​35 aircraft (or, in the case of the government, to defend that decision).

Today, the government faces an even more uncertain procurement record – not least when it comes to fleet replacement for the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), evident in the continuing delays in the acquisition of major surface combatants, Arctic ships, and supply ships.

Members of Her Majesty's Canadian Ship SASKATOON carefully maneuver the ship around a large piece of ice while travelling through the Amundsen Gulf on August 22, 2015 during Operation NANOOK. Photo: Cpl Donna McDonald, AETE Imagery Data Systems. ET2015-5751-04
Members of Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship SASKATOON carefully maneuver the ship around a large piece of ice while travelling through the Amundsen Gulf on August 22, 2015 during Operation NANOOK.
Photo: Cpl Donna McDonald, AETE Imagery Data Systems.

Indeed, some worrisome gaps in naval capabilities have now emerged, given the decommissioning of its supply ships (sorely needed for the RCN’s blue-​water operations) and destroyers (with their crucial command and control and area air defence capabilities). The sole remaining destroyer, HMCS Athabaskan, was damaged in a storm earlier in the year and is currently being repaired in Halifax. But some say the ship is no longer seaworthy, and even with repairs, few people expect it to remain operational for long – perhaps not even until its planned retirement in 2017.

The procurement problems might be most acute for the RCN, but they are far from confined to naval matters. One need only look at the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF) fighter-​aircraft replacement. Several years after announcing the F-​35 with great fanfare, we appear to be no further along in selecting (let alone procuring) a replacement aircraft for our aging CF-​18 fighters and the government continues to meagrely extend the life of its current air fleet.

Fortunately, we have had some recent good news on procurement, such as the long-​delayed acquisition of the CF-​148 Cyclone maritime patrol helicopter and the commissioning of an interim supply ship to be built at Davie Shipyard (as well as leased ships from Spain and Chile to handle refueling along the east and west coasts, respectively). Furthermore, the successful HCM/​FELEX modernization of RCN frigates, which will entail crucial command and control upgrades and improved air defence systems, partially compensates for the loss of our destroyers.

Yet such announcements do little to hide the many procurement failures over the past several years. The government even seems to have tacitly accepted such a criticism, as shown by their efforts to fix defence procurement with the 2014 Defence Procurement Strategy, although little in the way of concrete evidence on improved efficiency and effectiveness has resulted.

To be sure, it is still very early in a rather extensive election campaign. As such, discussion on the absence on defence issues seems premature. The Munk Debate between political leaders scheduled for September will focus on foreign policy, and one would expect that defence procurement and the country’s broader security policy will be discussed in more detail. Neither the NDP nor the Liberals have put out their own defence policy platforms, and both will likely speak more openly about such issues once their platforms are finally released.

Even then, however, defence issues will likely remain far from the forefront of policy platforms in this election. Simply put, as important as such issues may be, elections are almost never won or lost on defence, national security, or foreign policy in Canada – as all political parties are well aware. It is the economy that has been the pivot by which elections are often determined, even if a case can be made that security and defence should then be a close second. However, one needs to go back to Diefenbaker’s defeat in 1963 for the last time such issues took centre stage in Canada.

On top of that, as Steve Saideman has recently said, 2e1ax_vintage_entry_maclean-s-election-debate-1“[n]one of the three parties are going to want to actually talk about this.” The Conservatives are unusually weak on the defence procurement file, so it is only natural that they would prefer to focus on other issues. The NDP might be keen to criticize the government’s handling on this issue. But their supporters will likely be wary of the party drifting too close to the military, especially in light of the more centrist positions the party has staked on economic matters in recent months. And the Liberals have their own historic baggage, given that it was under Jean Chrétien that many of the challenges facing the Canadian Armed Forces began to mount.

Still, if it was only a question of procurement management, both the NDP and Liberals would likely show greater emphasis on this issue, especially as it does not reflect well on the Conservative claim of being competent and sound managers of government. But, as the Parliamentary Budget Office notes, the real challenge facing Canadian defence policy and procurement is a financial one – specifically a budgetary shortfall of between $3342 billion, which ongoing procurement delays and management issues have increased. Consequently, it is likely that neither opposition party will be eager to address such an issue; not the NDP, which have never been close to the military and are now eager to show their fiscal bona fides, and not a Liberal Party currently reminding the electorate of their past stewardship of the economy.

In that sense, the absence of defence issues in this election really comes down to a question of money. Simply put, addressing defence challenges requires a greatly expanded defence budget (or at least a significantly altered force structure, which might no longer be “multi-​purpose” or indeed “combat-​capable,” if one is not careful). And it is likely that no political party would be willing to countenance such a prospect.

The Conservatives would prefer to offer promises of significant funding in the future, with no guarantee such a promise would be kept. If rumours are to be believed, the NDP might accept a minor increase in funding – although this will likely result in a modified force structure geared towards less combat-​focused operations, as described in a recent Rideau Institute-​CCPA report – and which I have criticised elsewhere (here and here). It remains to be seen what approach the Liberals will ultimately pursue, but it is difficult to be optimistic.

Political parties focus on getting votes. And unless voters cast their ballot on issues on security and defence, such matters will remain of secondary (if not tertiary) importance. This is an unfortunate situation. It would certainly behoove politicians to treat such issues with both thought and seriousness, as part of their responsibility to safeguard the country and its citizens. And, given the sizable number of serving and retired military personnel and their families, many of whom still pay close attention to such issues, they might even find an unexpected electoral benefit of treating security and defence like a statesman rather than a politician.

Of course, if the past is any indication, I also don’t really expect things to change any time soon. It is not without reason that Winston Churchill stated that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

This article originally featured at the CDA Institute and can be found in its original form here

David McDonough is Research Manager and Senior Editor at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, and a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies. He received a PhD in Political Science from Dalhousie University in 2011. He tweets at @DS_McDonough. (Candidate Image courtesy of Mark Blinch/​Reuters; Images of Vessels courtesy of the Royal Canadian Navy webpage).

Tuning into Tunisia: An Assessment of Tunisia’s Naval Forces

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While much international attention is directed toward the flow of refugees from Syria and Iraq to Europe, which has prompted the partial suspension of the European Union’s Dublin Regulation by the German and Czech governments and even sent shockwaves through Canada’s ongoing federal election, hundreds of Libyans continue to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. Kos Island has become famous around the world as the front line of the migrant crisis,

Migrants wait at a Lampedusa holding center. (Click image for source)
Migrants wait at a Lampedusa holding center. (Click image for source)

yet Italy’s Lampedusa continues to face an overwhelming number of both political refugees and economic migrants fleeing Libya in the wake of that country’s civil war and resulting unrest.

The Libyan Navy is in no position to be of assistance in managing the crisis. While it has a single Soviet-built Natya-class minesweeper still in operation, the remaining vessels of the Libyan Navy, comprised of a Soviet-built Koni-class anti-submarine warfare frigate and two Polish-built Polnocy-C-class landing ships, are reportedly undergoing refits in Malta and France. Though the Libyans doubtless possess some collection of small patrol craft, the force has thus far been unable to effectively police Libyan waters. In March 2014, an oil tanker from the rebel-held port of Sidra successfully evaded a Libyan Navy blockade, leaving a team of United States Navy SEALs to intervene and seize the tanker.

Fortunately, the Tunisian National Navy has proved itself to be a reliable partner in securing the Mediterranean and averting humanitarian disaster. In August 2015, Tunisia commissioned its first locally built patrol boat, Al Istiklal (Independence). This development made Tunisia the first country in the Arab world to develop a shipbuilding industry of its own and only the second in Africa, following South Africa’s lead. Reportedly, Al Istiklal is an 80-ton patrol boat that measures 26.5 meters in length and is 5.8 meters wide, enjoys a top speed of 25 knots and a range of 600 nautical miles, all while equipped with a 20mm cannon, two machine guns, and a thermal imaging camera. This expansion of  Tunisian maritime capabilities was bolstered by four patrol boats of unidentified classification from the United States Navy (USN) earlier in 2015, with a further three boats expected for delivery by the end of 2016.

It is difficult to accurately assess the size of the Tunisian National Navy, but best estimates place the total number of vessels operated by Tunisia at 40 gunboats or patrol

One of Tunisia's Combattante IIIM Class Fast Patrol Boats with MM-40 Exocet missiles. (La Galite 501 pictured)
One of Tunisia’s Combattante IIIM Class Fast Patrol Boats with MM-40 Exocet missiles. (La Galite 501 pictured). (Source: World Military Intel)

boats, one landing craft, and six other non-combat vessels. The largest vessel operated by Tunisia’s maritime forces, President Bourgiba, was a decommissioned Edsall-class destroyer escort, USS Thomas J. Gary, which was transferred to Tunisia in 1973 and rendered no longer operational by a severe fire in 1992, having served at sea for almost 50 years in total. Since then, the largest vessels operated by the Tunisian National Navy are its six Albatross-class fast attack craft manufactured in Germany by Lurssen, with a displacement of almost 400 tons each. In short, Tunisia’s maritime forces are non-expeditionary and have been focused entirely on coastal defense for more than two decades.

It is unclear whether the US sees the transfer of defense equipment like the aforementioned patrol boats as part of a broader effort to counter al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or other militant Islamist groups. But it certainly has paid dividends in rescue efforts. As recently as June 2015, Tunisian patrol boats saved some 650 migrants and refugees bound for Lampedusa on unsafe rafts. A June 2015 attack on a Tunisian beach resort by Libya-based terrorists, in which 38 people were killed, demonstrated how closely connected Tunisia’s security is with that of its neighbors, Libya and Algeria. As such, Tunisia is bound to continue to play a significant role in securing the North African coast. Nonetheless, it would be prudent for European members of NATO to press for a formalization of this relationship, similar in many respects to the Tactical Memorandum of Understanding struck with the Kingdom of Morocco in 2009 to secure Moroccan participation in Operation ACTIVE ENDEAVOR, NATO’s ongoing maritime mission to monitor traffic and combat terrorism in the Mediterranean. With or without European recognition, Tunisia appears set to be a maritime leader in its own right.

Paul Pryce is the Research Analyst for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program and a long-time member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).

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