France-Egypt Agree on Mistral-Class Amphibious Assault Ship Deal

Dr. Shaul Shay on France's decision to sell two BPC-210 Mistral Class amphibious assault ships (BPC/LHD) to Egypt, and the Saudi connection

France has agreed to sell two BPC-210 Mistral Class amphibious assault ships (BPC/LHD) to Egypt after their sale to Russia was canceled in August 2014.

The ships will cost Egypt an estimated $1 billion, some $280 million less than the $1.34 billion that Russia was ready to pay.

A French defense ministry source said that the “The ships should be handed over in early March 2016 after the training of about 400 Egyptians and some final tests."

Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi met with his French counterpart Francois Hollande after the United Nations General Assembly Summit in New York on September 28, 2015. El-Sisi thanked Hollande for facilitating the "Mistral deal".

Background

In June 2011, France and Russia have signed a contract for 2 Mistral-class assault ships. France had come under pressure from allies in the West, Eastern Europe and the Baltics to cancel the warship deal as the Ukraine crisis deepened and the Russian role in the breakaway of Crimea was highly suspect. In 2015, the French have held off delivering the two vessels, owing to Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian conflict.

But France also wanted to maintain good relations with Russia and President Hollande’s office said that the Mistral deal was canceled and Russia would be refunded the advance payments.

On August 2015, Moscow and Paris have reached an agreement over the Mistral ships and the French government agreed to reimburse 950 million euros to Moscow and also to repay Moscow's costs, including training 400 sailors and stripping off equipment and shipping it back to Russia. Since then, many potential customers have been identified for the ships.

The BPC-210 Mistral Class Amphibious Assault Ship (BPC/LHD)

Primary mission for these ships are amphibious landing operations. They also provide command and force projection capability.

The Mistral class vessel uses four mechanized landing craft (LCM) or two hovercraft (LCAC) in the stern deck to deliver troops and vehicles ashore. It can carry a full tank battalion with up to 40  MBTs, or up to 70 lighter vehicles. Ship provides accommodation for 450 marines, however surge capacity is 900.

Mistral class LHD has six helicopter landing spots. Up to 16 medium (NH90, Tigre) or 35 light helicopters can be carried and stored in the hangar deck. It is worth mentioning that every helicopter, operated by the French military, can land on these ships.

According to TASS, a Russian news agency, Russia and Egypt had signed a deal for Egypt’s purchase of 50 Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters from Russia. According to the report the purchase could include a variant of the Ka-52 (the Ka-52 Katran), which specifically designed for the Mistrals Russia had intended to acquire.

Ships are equipped with 69-bed hospitals, furthermore hangar can also be converted into a modular field hospital. The Mistral class can be deployed as command and control vessels. Command center can host up to 150 personnel.

The vessel is armed with two Simbad launchers for Mistral surface-to-air missiles and two 30-mm Breda-Mauser guns.

The first of the Mistral amphibious assault ship (LHD) was commissioned in 2006. Three of these ships are in service with the French Navy, named Mistral, Tonnerre and Dixmude.

The French-Egyptian Security Relations

The sale will take the number of French naval vessels sold to Egypt to seven in just two years. Egypt last year bought four small Gowind corvettes, built by Mistral manufacturer DCNS, which is 64 percent owned by the French state and 35 percent by defense group Thales. Egypt is in negotiations to buy two more corvettes, which were options under the approximately €1 billion deal for the four Gowinds. 

It also acquired a French frigate as part of a 5.2 billion euro contract for 24 Rafale warplanes earlier this year, France’s first overseas export of the fighter jet.

France has benefited from what Egypt and some Gulf countries perceive as disengagement from a traditional ally, the United States and Egypt has turned to France and Russia for arms sales.

The Saudi Connection

Saudi Arabia and Egypt have close relations, with Riyadh providing US $4 billion of general funding to Cairo.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have joined forces to a certain degree militarily to attempt to shape the region as they see fit. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have signed a pact in Cairo , the "Cairo Declaration," aimed at boosting military and economic ties between the two Arab allies.

In a statement released after a meeting between President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on July 31, 2015, Sisi's office said the two leaders also will work to create a joint Arab military force.

Several sources are indicating that Saudi Arabia may finance the acquisition of the vessels for Egypt. Saudi Arabia wants Egypt to build a naval fleet that could project power regionally in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

A French diplomatic source said Cairo wanted to base one ship in the Mediterranean and another in the Red Sea, making it available for future operations in Yemen, where Egypt is part of a Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels.

Summary

Ties with the United States plummeted after Egypt's army ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, with Washington freezing its annual $1.3 billion in military aid. Egypt has learned its lessons and decided to reduce the overreliance on one provider (the US) and diversifying the sources of Egypt’s armaments became a strategic priority. As a part of the new Egyptian policy, France became a significant source of arms supply.

Mistral Class ships, designed for a large helicopter aviation role as well as amphibious landing and support of troops, and would improve Egypt's capabilities in these areas.

When this potent aviation punch is combined with the ships’ troop landing capabilities, the new class offers Egypt a whole new dimension of offensive and influence operations.

Egypt has one of the biggest navies in the Middle East and the current arm deal will help Egypt to upgrade and modernize its navy.  Egypt’s navy is currently taking part in a Saudi-led Arab operation against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Even with the rising specter of Islamic extremism in the region it is not clear what Egypt plans to do with two amphibious helicopter carriers.

Egypt could use the two new warships to transport about 1,000 troops, armored vehicles and helicopters to intervene in Yemen, Libya or other countries where Egypt and a joint Arab force might become involved. The addition of the Mistral ships could provide also a counter-balance against increasing Iranian influence in the region.