Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Wanted: Big Amphibious Ships

There were two news items earlier this week discussing naval powers looking at big amphibious ships. The first is Russia, who is currently enjoying the visit by the French amphibious vessel Mistral. The Russians have an interesting way to put the capabilities of the Mistral in context.

Russian officials have said they were planning to make their first arms deal with a NATO country by buying a French ship like the Mistral — a 23,700-ton (21,500-metric ton), 980-foot (299-meter) vessel able to carry more than a dozen helicopters, or land forces, hospitals or refugees, among other things.

It is the "Swiss army knife" of military ships, said Bruno Daffix, spokesman for the French Defense Ministry's export and sales agency.

The head of the Russian navy has said that, within 40 minutes, a Mistral-class vessel could put as many troops in Georgia as it took the Russian Black Sea Fleet to land in 26 hours during the nations' August 2008 war. Russia, Georgia and Ukraine all have Black Sea coastlines.
The last paragraph is intentionally provocative, but it takes a great deal of training and preparation to be accurate. While there is obvious improvement in the Russian Navy with more frequent forward deployments, I have not seen anything from the Russian Navy that suggests a level of preparation that would allow for such a rapid operation. Capability is a hell of a lot more than just equipment, and I don't see how simply acquiring a Mistral class vessel will give Russia this capability.

Like many, I have a high opinion of the Mistral class despite some rather obvious weaknesses. With that said, it should be noted that everyone from Saudi Arabia to South Africa to Turkey and now Russia has been rumored at one time or another to buy a Mistral class from France. As there have been no exports yet, I remain a bit skeptical.

But that isn't really the big news on the amphibious ship front. The big news comes from Japan.
The nation's Maritime Self-Defence Force is reportedly planning to construct a new 284 metre long destroyer capable of transporting 14 helicopters, 4,000 people and 50 trucks.

The purchase is part of a wider military build up in which the Defence Ministry has sought funds to purchase around 40 F-35 fighter jets which will become the future mainstay of the nation's air force, according to Kyodo News.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), is projected to cost around £61 million (nine billion yen) and is currently being developed by the United States, with Britain and Australia as founding partners.

Japan's decision to expand the role of its military despite its pacifist post-war constitution is a reflection of growing concerns surrounding military tensions with regional neighbours.
In plain and simple terms: China. This is a policy the US will welcome, because the more Japan and China balance themselves against one another, the easier it is for the US to be a stabilizing factor in the Pacific. Two regional powers that are skeptical of each other is much better than one regional power in geopolitics.

But back up a second... 284 meters? What? The Wasp class is 257 meters, and the often discussed British CVF is expected to be 287 meters in length. In other words, Japan is looking at a Helicopter "Destroyer" that will be larger than every naval ship afloat today except a Nimitz class carrier, and only barely shorter than a British CVF should that vessel ever be built.

Only 14 helicopters? 4000 people? A one ship battalion landing team platform? The design is going to be interesting for sure.

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