France: Mistral-Class
Mar 15, 2007

The French Navy’s surface fleet has recently undergone critical re-structuring through acquisition of a series of newly-designed, state-of-the-art vessels, aimed at meeting maritime challenges well into the 21st century:

  • two 22,000-ton LHDs, Mistral and Tonnerre, will replace the two existing LSDs, Ouragan and Orage in 2006-2007.
  • the 7000-ton Horizon-class air-defence frigates Forbin and Chevalier Paul will replace the existing frigates Suffren and Duquesne in 2008-2009.
  • 17 multi-mission FREMM-class 6000-ton frigates will begin to replace 10 anti-submarine frigates, (Tourville-class and Georges Leygues-class) and the 17 Aviso type frigates, beginning in 2011.

Mistral Programme
The multiplication of international crises since the fall of the Berlin wall has demonstrated the requirement for vessels with the dual capability of both transporting intervention forces and, in times of emergency, evacuating nationals from conflict zones. Unanticipated natural disasters such as earthquakes, tidal waves or cyclones, further require deployment of these kinds of multi-tasked amphibious vessels as a means of assisting civilians.

The Mistral-class LHD-LPD was designed to meet these variable and multi-dimensional operational requirements. Responding to the constraints of Naval budgets, the Mistral programme utilizes technological advances to reduce vessel operating costs by as much as 30%, including, among other means, substantially reduced crew numbers and life cycle maintenance requirements.

In September 2004, acceptance trials of the first of the new Mistral-class vessel (aptly named Mistral) began at Brest, involving 14 separate and intense sea voyages. After these trials, Commanding Officer Frédéric Jubelin, familiar with amphibious vessels as the Commanding Officer of Ouragan LSD, expressed his opinion that Mistral was endowed with superior qualities and outstanding potential.

This was confirmed by three critical tests – the sea-going endurance trials initiated at the beginning of 2006; the 45-day operation to evacuate French nationals from Lebanon in July and August 2006; and the international exercise Brillant Midas, held in the Mediterranean in October 2006.

Endurance Trials and Military Assessment
Contracts Acceptance between the Government and Purchasers through official technical and builder trials, followed by official naval tests, performed from Brest in three phases – functional testing of the platform and platform equipment up to peak values; testing of barge and vehicle embarkation and disembarkation; testing of deck landing and take-off of both Navy and Army helicopters.

A three-month voyage checked the vessel’s overall endurance capabilities, its ability to navigate in tropical climates, and its preventive maintenance policy. Contract specifications were then re-checked, point-by-point and finally, a favourable recommendation for commissioning issued by France’s Joint Navy/ Procure­ment Office Commission (Commission Permanente des Programmes et des Essais).

On February 26, the admiral commanding ALFAN (Force D’Action Navale à Toulon) took over Mistral for the official military assessment phase and, from May to July 2006, the ship operated in intense military scenarios to confirm compliance with naval performance requirements.

The Navy’s conclusions were highly favourable, with the assessment that “the platform installations meet the military requirement to a high level of satisfaction. The concept of an electrical vessel is very successful as well as the highly advanced automation of the installations.”

Civilians evacuated from Lebanon into the helo hangar.

Humanitarian Mission in Lebanon – Baliste
Sea trial results were put to the test in the Lebanon crisis in the summer of 2006, culminating in the rescue of thousands of French nationals and foreigners trapped in the conflict zone in operation Baliste. The operation turned into a life-sized validation of Mistral’s design through the evacuation of nearly 5,000 refugees and the transportation of over 1,500 pallets.

Several important lessons were learned from the Lebanon crisis:

  • Simultaneity of Operational Activities: The Baliste operation demonstrated the feasibility of conducting a range of amphibious operations simultaneously (landing of heavy materials by round trips of the barges from the dock apron); heliborne operations (flight deck showed very high potential); command functions; hospital missions; at the harbour and at sea.

Through computer control of the pods and the bow thruster, the dynamic positioning system kept the ship automatically either at a fixed position given at a preferential heading, or at an imposed course and speed, in order to compensate for wind and drift, keeping the platform within a small zone. This facilitated the manoeuvring of both helicopters (subjected to wind and platform movement) and shipborne barges.

The Lebanon crisis proved that Mistral could simultaneously disembark a large armoured force (armoured vehicles, lorries, engineering equipment) and evacuate refugees using its helicopter fleet (20 to 30 depending on the type).

  • Joint Forces Command: Approximately 100 persons participated in equipping the 800 square metres Command Centre, making sure that the links between the Command & Information System and the Air-Land and Joint Operations theatre were working correctly. The data were transmitted in real-time to Paris (France).
  • Life on Board: The troop accommodation facilities met the needs of 450 forces personnel for 45 days, in addition to the 160 crew members – 610 persons permanently on board. Moreover, the crisis demonstrated that it is possible to transport up to 1,500 refugees for 24 hours (transit of about 1,000 km).

In brief, the evacuation of thousands of civilians from the Lebanon conflict zone was managed successfully, with 45 days of non-stop operations completed efficiently and with the highest humanitarian standards possible under trying circumstances.

Brillant Midas International Exercise
European naval forces are currently engaged in an intervention-capacity-improvement process aimed at enhancing the ability of NATO and the U.N. to respond to various levels of theatre crises and situations of armed conflict. The French Navy is intimately involved in this exercise, providing power projection (aircraft-carrier) and force projection capabilities (amphibious vessels) as part of the European engagement.

As part of this process, the Brillant Midas joint exercise in October 2006 brought together 35 vessels of 10 different nations (USA, Italy, Spain, Norway, the Netherlands, etc.), with the French Navy commanding amphibious forces for Air-Land operations.

Army helicopter lifted up to the flight deck. (Photos © Marine Nationale)

Mistral’s Command and Control Centre united 150 officers and senior ratings from these various countries to monitor the disembarkation of 1,600 men with their 115 vehicles and hundreds of helicopter manoeuvres – by day and by night.

Night operations (watercraft, helicopters) under Mistral’s lead proved to be a great operational asset for special operations, fast surprise landings, and more. In 11 days of intensive operations. Mistral, in full configuration, used up less than 10% of her endurance capacity without re-supply.

Excellent Results
This brief summary has shown that the Mistral-class can transport and support armed forces required for international peace-keeping and reinforcement missions.

In the event of a humanitarian disaster, a tsunami, an earthquake or an epidemic, the ship can be transformed into a fully-fitted floating hospital, with support infrastructure virtually comparable to that of a town of 25,000 inhabitants. The ship can be available in a few days with helicopters and ambulances to transport the wounded. Mistral has the endurance ­necessary to remain at sea for extended periods and to deploy assets with great efficiency and without tiring the crew.

A successful military vessel lives up to the expectations of the Navy that ordered it. As this report shows, Mistral meets those requirements and fulfills the modern Navy’s strategic needs.
CV (R) Michel Perchoc is the former Commanding Officer of Ouragan LPD in Kosovo.
© FrontLine Defence 2007