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Opinion: A Mistral For Canada

Russian Mistral Vladivostok under construction on April 22, 2014. U.S. Naval Institute Combat Fleets of the World Photo

Russian Mistral Vladivostok under construction on April 22, 2014. U.S. Naval Institute Combat Fleets of the World Photo

The September decision by France to withhold delivery of two Mistral-class Landing Platforms Helicopter (LPH) building for Russia is an opportunity for NATO, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and for the French shipbuilding industry and economy. France should not suffer economically for taking a stand against Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine. Rather, NATO, France and Canada can benefit if a little mutually beneficial creativity is applied.

While France desperately wants to complete the two amphibious warships — and get paid for them — NATO and Canada need the capabilities these ships can provide.

For Canada, an LPH would help buttress logistic support for the upcoming Canadian Joint Support Ship (JSS). The replacement to Canada’s fleet oilers originally required a level of expeditionary capabilities which were ultimately not included in the final ship design.

Furthermore, while one of the Russian Mistrals is already undertaking sea trials and the second is scheduled for completion in 2016, the first of three new Queenston-class JSS for the RCN will not even begin building in Vancouver until 2017 or 2018 at best, with delivery by 2019 or 2020.

Yes, there are potential pitfalls that could render this proposal impossible. First is cost. The contract with Russia reportedly runs to $1.76 billion, broken down as $926 million for the first ship and $836 million for the second.

NATO member states would have to come up with the cash on the same schedule called for in the Russian contract. Additional costs are associated with outfitting to NATO- standards, base infrastructure and entry into service, including assembling and training multinational crews.

Enter the Mistrals

After transferring ownership of the program to NATO, the first Mistral building for Russia, now completing at the STX Europe shipyards in Saint-Nazaire, France, would enter Alliance service on schedule in 2015, based in Europe and manned by a French-heavy multinational crew representing most member states.

The second Russian Mistral — slated for delivery in 2016 — would be operated by the RCN on a renewable five-year lease, based on the East Coast at Halifax. Under terms of the lease, this LPH would share commitments between NATO and Canadian national taskings.

The NATO Mistral would operate according to proven operational and management models employed by the NATO AWACS force and the NATO Heavy Airlift Wing (HAW) equipped with C- 17 Globemaster III heavy airlifters. Mission tasking and program management would fall to a specified element within NATO HQ. In fact, this may be the appropriate time to place all three of these Alliance-operated assets under a single ‘Critical Enabler’ authority in Brussels.

Taking these ships into NATO service would strengthen exactly the multinational rapid reaction areas stressed by the Readiness Action Plan (RAP) that emerged from the NATO Summit in Wales on Sept. 5. The RAP stresses new rapid reaction and reinforcement capabilities in the form of rotational troop deployments; air, maritime and land forces operations and exercises; and the establishment of pre- positioned assets and new military infrastructure in eastern and southern frontier areas.

In announcing these measures, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen highlighted not just the conflict in Ukraine, but also growing instability and the rise of extremism in the Middle East and across North and West Africa that directly threaten the security of member states.

A Canadian Mistral 

Mistral-class ship, 'Sevastopol' configured as a NATO/Canadian Navy ship. CASR Image

Mistral-class ship, ‘Sevastopol’ configured as a NATO/Canadian Navy ship. CASR Image

The same NATO body that manages the Alliance LPH would manage NATO missions for the RCN ship, with Canada retaining control over national tasking. Commanded and manned by RCN personnel, the ship’s company should initially include a French Navy core team familiar with the vessel and key NATO exchange officers and petty officers from member states like the UK, Germany, Denmark, Norway and the US.

The joint and combined multirole capabilities an LPH can provide the RCN include:

  • Amphibious and SOF support, including NEO and CSAR operations;
  • Humanitarian response – transporting and operating equipment, including landing craft, boats, helicopters and vehicles, while offering medical facilities and serving as an afloat base and operational HQ;
  • Arctic operations support – serving as a forward deployed afloat base for multi-agency sovereignty operations and exercises and for combined exercises and operations with US, Danish and Norwegian forces; SAR response to air and maritime disasters; and duty as a platform for regional development and law enforcement activities;
  • Task Force flagship/mothership for anti-piracy, sea control, ASW and other maritime operations;
  • Training and Engagement – serving as the RCN training ship; and as a platform for regional engagement missions, embarking training teams and equipment for cruises tailored to the training needs of friendly forces in areas such as the Caribbean, Central America and West Africa.
  • Transport of vehicles, aircraft, equipment, containers and personnel in support of global deployments.


The Mistral LPH design incorporates a well deck for transporting and launching up to four landing craft; a flight deck and hanger for more than 16 helicopters; a vehicle deck for up to 60 vehicles, including Main Battle Tanks; troop berthing for 450-900; a Role 3 hospital; and the comprehensive Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence (C3I) systems and spaces required to support a joint force headquarters.

A RCN Mistral could operate the full range Canadian helicopters, including CH-148 Cyclones and CH-147F Chinooks. Ideally, Canada should obtain 6-8 additional Cyclones configured for the Commando Helicopter role as part of a financial settlement with Sikorsky over the Maritime Helicopter Program (MHP). Commando Cyclones would be optimized for Special Operations, tactical assault, medical evacuation and utility missions, with troop seats in place of maritime sensors, though retaining the CH-148’s FLIR system.

The make-up of a Tailored Air Group (TAG) for the RCN LPH would depend on the mission. A mix of Commando Cyclones, Griffons and Chinooks for amphibious, SOF, Arctic support and humanitarian operations. Cyclones for maritime security and ASW task forces. Exchange aircrew from the US Marine Corps, the Royal Navy Commando Helicopter Force and the Royal Danish and Norwegian Air Forces should be embedded within the Cyclone squadron forming the core of the TAG. This is critical for building expertise and interoperability among Arctic and NATO partners. By way of building a more direct partnership, Resolute could regularly embark RDAF EH-101 Merlin tactical helicopters and MH-60S Seahawk maritime helicopters.

Not least of the challenges facing the RCN would be manning. Fortunately, Mistral was designed from the beginning to operate with a small crew – just 20 officers, 80 petty officers and 60 sailors.

The foremost challenge for Canada may be convincing the government and the public that obtaining a Mistral LPH for the RCN is sensible and affordable, despite being outside the NSPS construct. Given the challenges now emerging for NATO member states and for Canada itself, the answer is surely a resounding ‘Yes’.

The Queenston-class Joint Support Ships that will eventually be built in Canada are still urgently required for their primary role of underway replenishment, but a RCN Mistral in service as soon as 2016 would provide the ability to support a wide range of NATO and Canadian expeditionary and contingency operations.

Of course, President François Hollande may well decide to proceed with the sale of these two dynamic warships to Russia once “peace” is restored to Ukraine, thereby making this proposal a dead letter.

For the larger benefit of NATO, Canada and France let’s hope not.

  • I don’t think Canada or NATO can afford them. They are too expensive and Canada doesn’t have the Manpower for an LHD

    • Mac

      Canada does now, both AORs and two of the three Iroquois class ships are being retired over the next year. Announcement came yesterday. Could Mistral fill the role of Refuelling a task group? at least four years until the First of two Queenston class hits the water.

      • Jeff

        They are retired as of now. Actually they’ve effectively been retired for some time.

      • Don Clark

        Yes they can provide replenishment, both vertical and by hose, although no where near as efficiently. Instead of leasing a couple of ships, buy these.

    • Guest

      Too expensive? Compared to the amount we waste on social programs and welfare this is chump change.

      • Canada can’t afford the Mistral LHD. If Canada is looking Amphibious capability to do HA/DAR and Amphibious ops. Then they need to look more towards the San Antonio class LPD or Endurance class LPD. That would be more suited for Canada’s needs and can be used for Amphibious ops, Sea Control and HA/DAR ops.

        • Don Clark

          But they aren’t any cheaper than the Mistrals, half of which have been built in cheap labor Russian shipyards. And without any doubt the Mistrals are better sea lift ships.

          • I think what Canada really needs is a LPD similar to the Endurance class LPD or San Antonio class LPD.

  • waltermitty2012

    Italy might be a better fit for these ships. Italy is already planning to replace their 3 San Giorgio LPDs with something in the 20,000-ton class. The Mistrals would have to be refitted with western electronics to be compatible with NATO. Plus, Italy has carrier experience operating the Giuseppe Garibaldi and now the Cavour.

    Like Canada, Italy also operates CH-47. Italy also operates the NH90 and AW101 helicopters. Plus, Italy operates the AV-8 and plans to buy the F-35B. Granted the flight decks of the Mistrals would have to be hardened to operate the F-35B.

    Italy is a much better fit and it keeps these ships close to where most likely be needed the most.

    • Ruslan Gaynutdinov

      But Italy ain’t got the cash necessary to buy those ships. They are already taxing ppl, who do not even live in italy, for holding Italian citizenship

  • Chris Altvater

    Selling the ships to Canada is one solution for France, but it will kill any political solutions to repairing relations with Russia. The Russians are very insecure and they are threatened by the expansion of NATO to their boarder. Putin has played upon this fear and losing these ships will add to his popularity. With the technology transfers, Russia knows how to build these ships now and sections of the ships were built in Russia. So if a NATO country ends up with these ships, then Russia will just build their own and Russia’s good friend, India, will probably cancel a major aircraft contract with France. There are no good solutions to this problem.

    • James Hasik

      What evidence shows that the Indian government would cancel its contract with Rafale?

      • Chris Altvater

        It has been reported. The sale of Rafale jets to India is huge deal for France. Canceling the Russian deal will only hurt France’s reputation as a reliable arms exporter. If there is a conflict between India and Pakistan, then India will need a guarantee of delivery. Besides, India wants to maintain its good relations with Russia.

  • Earl Tower

    Once the smoke settles down from the latest Russian antics in the international news the French will go right ahead with the ship sales. They want long term new markets for their defense goods, and the Russians offer that market. The US and UK have been crowding the French out of arms markets for years. Things like the new wars against Islamic fundamentalist will be just what the French need to pull media attention of their sales. By year’s end the Russians will be taking delivery of their first Mistral .

  • DeeEight

    The Harper Conservative government just announced the early decommissioning of two of the Iroquois-class DDGs and both of the replenishment ships, which combined have about 1600 crew members. One of the destroyers is already announced to be paid off in January. We will obviously have the sailors available to re-assign to an LPH, and the government is already projecting a several billion dollar surplus so we might as well buy the second Mistral outright (836 million is a reasonable price tag). We can provide crew to the first one to build experience to bring back to canada when we take delivery of the second one. As to the need for new fleet oilers, the UK is replacing several so maybe we could lease the ones being replaced as an interim measure until our new ones are built.

    • Jeff

      Dream on, my friend, dream on. Remember the test: If it makes any sense at all, they won’t do it.

  • DeeEight

    Also since NATO has been whining that Canada needs to spend more on defence, buying the second mistral outright will silence those critics.

    • Jeff

      The current regime couldn’t care less about those critics. They’re not even background hum for the cacophony of criticism they’re getting at home.

  • Chris Altvater

    On Sept. 22, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said that Russia can do without the French-built Mistral ships and Russia is up to building their own. As for France selling the ships to another country, he said one third of the ships were built in Russia and France would have to tear out the stern sections. That tells a lot about how the Russians will respond. If these ships are sold to another country, they will be the biggest targets in the next war.

    • optionrider

      If there’s a next war and if Russia survives long enough to retaliate.

      • Chris Altvater

        If it comes down to that, then they will use the last option. With a nuclear stockpile of around 8,000 warheads, the odds are in their favor that they will get lucky with a few of their SLBMs.

        • optionrider

          Unfortunately, but Putin, as most bullies, is an inner coward. He also doesn’t have all the power. It’s getting interesting, anyway, as Ukrainians are not going to let Russia conquer their homeland. We’ll see if Putin survives the next round of sanctions that are right behind the corner and the global recession that may be triggered by them. The west will survive as many severe crises before, as it has cushioning mechanism well developed and proven before, while Russia is totally defenceless if energy and other commodity prices nosedive and stay there for a few years.

  • Jeff

    The multi-national C-17 wing (which is only three aircraft) is not part of NATO like the AWACS unit. Ten of the 12 members are also members of NATO, but two are Partnership for Peace nations. The wing is not part of NATO’s command structure.
    I assume this article was written before Canada announced that its two supply ships, HMCS Preserver and Protecteur, are being retired (along with two destroyers). In fact, neither has been in service for some time, one due to a major engine room fire and the other has major corrosion. This will increase the urgency for the Joint Supply Ships, but military procurement in Canada occurs at a (pre-global warming) glacial pace. The last time there was anything close to an impulse buy was in 1969 when Lockheed declined an order for four C-141A Starlifters because it was too small to reopen the line and five Boeing 707s became available from a cancelled order. The (Liberal) government of the day bought the airliners instead of the Starlifters. Every other DND procurement has been measured in decades. There is no chance of the current government swooping in and buying these ships. 2015 is an election year and they have cut DND’s budget, as well as failed to spend all of what it got each of the past few years, in their quest to balance the budget and appear fiscally responsible to the voters. Paying out the kind of money a Mistral would cost is simply inconceivable for the current regime.

    • fixerdave

      “Paying out the kind of money a Mistral would cost is simply inconceivable for the current regime.”

      I don’t know about that. They’ve been laying it on thick the last while, and I’d be surprised if a couple of home-built fleet tenders didn’t add up (in the end) to more than what these boats may go for. I mean, a decade or so of our standard canceled contracts and re jigging adds up the dollars. Now, budget-fudging is not my area of expertise, so maybe the scheme outlined here is how it will go down. A big “oh, we’re just leasing them for cheap” right alongside a big “see how great we are supporting the navy” until after said balanced-budget election.

      Then there’s the C17 purchase… Hillier saying we need more Hercs instead, but being told to shut up. Funny thing was, the US news was on about how the C17 line was going to be shut down because the US had too many… and suddenly all these allies, like Canada, suddenly realize they need heavy lift. That’s politics. These boats are politics too.

      I don’t know the mechanics of power, but it’s been pretty obvious for a while now that we’re getting prepared for these boats.

      • Jeff

        “Laying it on thick”? If you mean defence spending, they have cut it, not boosted it in the past few years and because DND hasn’t spent all of it budget each year, it effectively reduces the defence budget even further. There’s an election next year and defence is always the target when the government in power wants to tell the voters it cut spending. The current regime desperately wants to campaign on that, so expect further cuts, not any “laying it on thick”.

        And if you mean the Mistrals when you say “it’s been pretty obvious for a while now that we’re getting prepared for these boats”, you might want to see if any berth in either RCN dockyard can actually accommodate them. The two about-to-be-retired USN supply ships that have been proposed as interim replacements for the AORs won’t fit, either.
        The C-17s were and continue to be needed and we should buy one of the remaining “white tails” Boeing built on spec before they’re all gone. Pretty soon, the four we have will start cycling through heavy maintenance and the fleet will be down to three for several years, assuming all are serviceable every day.

        • fixerdave

          They have been laying on the propaganda thick… sorry if I was unclear. And, yes, the C17 fleet is useful, but we were managing without it, just like we are managing without the military freight capability the Mistrals offer… we contracted out. My point in bringing them up was as an example of a politically motivated purchase. They were bought ahead of other things that were more needed.

          As for fit… Yes, they are pretty big by Canadian standards. But, I don’t think either coast would balk at having to re-jig the berths to make room. I doubt keel depth is an issue. There have been a few DND recommendations to purchase Mistral class boats, long before this Russia bit started. Even Andrew Leslie suggested it at one point. In the end, we’re talking about the Canadian Armed Forces. They will make the best out of whatever they get, whether they actually want it or not.

          All I’m saying is that I keep seeing news reports come up and they appear to be nudging the public along toward making this purchase.

          Take the ship retirement announcement for example. As you said, we’ve not actually had fleet tenders for a while, but rather than just letting that slide along, the politicians make a very news-orientated announcement. Why announce that they are retiring needed boats without even getting their act together enough to start production on the replacements? It just makes them look bad. Maybe, just maybe, they want us to go “oh, wait, why don’t we buy a Mistral or 2?” I feel WE are being prepped by the politicians.

          • Don Clark

            Sealift has been on the Canadian shopping list for a long time now. Canada had to settle for the Berlin class AOR because a JSS was too expensive. Buying the Mistrals with AOR is actually cheaper than buying the more expensive JSS.

      • Robert Crawford

        Canada should buy the new Dutch JSS Carl Doorman at half the price of one Minstral. Buy 65 Supper Hornet. Buy 1more C17 , buy 70 Parana 5 , Increase Reserve by 4000.

  • Secundius

    Canada may have a small Navy, as compared to other Western Countries. But, at least its a GOOD ONE.

  • fixerdave

    Oh, surprise, surprise…

    The propaganda prep-work for this has been laid on thick for months. What do you think all that “Canada doesn’t spend enough to meet NATO commitments” was about? And that was just the last round. Oh, sorry, the retirement announcement was the last round, NATO was the one before. This deal has been in the works for a while now.

    They just have to figure out a way to ratchet up to “phase 3 sanctions,” whatever that is, such that the legal penalties become null and void. Then, the Russians can only protest and go after French assets in Russia rather than fighting uncomfortable legal battles in French courts.

    Get ready for another round of sanctions… and get ready to pay for a couple of sweet boats, even if they were made to Russian specs.

    • Don Clark

      At the moment they are also built to NATO standards, the French haven’t delivered these ships to the Russians for the final Russian fit out of command and control electronic systems. NATO systems can be installed in the final fit out either in France or Canada.

  • Addy

    The ships are build by Russian standard for their vehicles and they are useless for NATO use, some part of those ships are build in Russian ports as well. Modifying them will cost a fortune and will double their price. Also the French will be hit hard by fines for violating the deal, each day will cost them millions in fines. The ships will be delivered to Russia maybe delayed few months but in the end Russia will receive them because the cost will be to high for the french. Their reputation as well is being damaged from the cancellation, the deal for supplying India with 122 fighter jets worth $ 30 billion now is in doubts.

    • Don Clark

      BS. These ships were built to western standards, using western machinery. However, since France hasn’t delivered the ships, they still need fitting out with Russian, now NATO command and control electronic systems. Canada could have delivery after final fit out probably in a year or so.

  • Secundius

    @ Chris Altvater.

    What do you mean France repairing relations with Russia??? Shouldn’t it be the other way around, Russia repairing relations with the rest of the world!!! It’s going to be decades, before anyone trusts Russia, again.

    • Chris Altvater

      I meant repairing relations between Russia and the West. Repairing relations takes an effort on both sides. If we think that our sanctions will change the Russians, then we have a long wait. In the end, the Russians will get their ships either by delivery or by building their own.

      • optionrider

        We can’t change the Russians but we can render Russia bankrupt again.

        • Chris Altvater

          Sanctions are hurting Russia, but Russians are used to economic hardships. The problem is that the EU will lose the Russian market and other countries like China will buy Russia’s natural resources.

          • optionrider

            Russia isn’t a big trading partner for Europe anyway. if it weren’t for Russian energy, it wouldn’t have been totally marginal. China needs Russia’s resources for cheap, but this will benefit others, as commodity prices are set globally by market forces and will go down globally.

            Russia deserves to suffer, as most Russians support the psychopathic midget with rat’s eyes ruling them from the Kremlin. Europe will turn to North America and Japan as well as China even more, as these are its major trading partners. Russia has already shot itself in the foot, while the EU will survive without Russian consumer markets, and investment capital already invested in Russia will be quickly re-allocated.

  • Jeff

    You might want to check and see if either RCN dockyard (Halifax and Esquimalt) can actually accommodate their length and draft.

    • Mac

      Mistral has been in Halifax twice, No problem accommodating them.

      • Don Clark

        A Mistral boarded a army regiment at Ville de Quebec too at the cruise ship pier. No problem.

  • Ruslan Gaynutdinov

    Harper has been shrinking military budget for years and recent proposal at NATO summit to have 2% of GDP military budget was settled as “aspirational” hence Canada won’t be able to afford those ships. Plus France would face additional expenses for breaching its contract with Russia.

  • Betsi Rosse

    Definitely NO to NATO. These were built and paid for by Russia. France should honor the contract and deliver the ships to Russia. It is dishonest to try and wiggle out of the deal. Deliver the ships to Russia according to the contract.

  • DG

    As a Canadian, I am opposed to any further militarization of Canada. Canada needs to return to being a peacekeeping nation is once was. Many people here can’t wait to vote Harper (the PM militarizing Canada) out of the office.

    • Guest

      You cannot peacekeep if you do not have the logistics to do so.

      Harper is one of the best leaders we’ve had in decades. Just wait until there is a resurgence of ‘trudeaupia’ you’ll be wishing for Harper to come back in a heartbeat.

    • SamR

      I always hear about Harper’s just about to be voted out of office then he wins the next election.

    • jackcanuck

      In my opinion, the Mistral class warships are ideal for peacekeeping and disaster relief roles in the world’s littoral areas. Canada should buy them now!

  • Александр Хроленко

    Do you want to bankrupt the Russian bear in Russian taiga ?!

  • Thomas Borgsmidt

    Well lets look at the strategy a bit!
    The basic scenario as far as I can acertain is a forward stop on a Russian attempt to break out in the Atlantic from Murmansk etc. The forward patrol line for both surface ships and and submarines is Lincoln Sea, Greenland, Svalbard, Hammerfest (Norway). That will be covered by Denmark and Norway. with Thetis-class, Nansen-class and Knud Rasmussen-class. True the Russians have icebreaker – still som of the terrible Arktic-class nuclear monstrocities, but if you think hydrophones don’t notice at vodka-boiler breaking 10′ of ice – you are very much mistaken. A Seahawk with missiles will make a very long and cold walk home. The Norwegean ice-free side we’ll just leave to the Norwegeans: I doubt very much any but a bloody minded Norwegean would ever contemplate fighting in the Barents Sea.

    You can’t exclude the possibility of something actually getting through that line, so there will have to be some frigates patrolling and fighting further south and advancing to kill off Ruskies – weather permitting – of course. That line will be South Greenland, Iceland, Fairisles, Shetlands (Orkney), Norway. This string of lands and islands will permit extended patrols and protection of even the slowest and most inept navigation across the Atlantic.

    The trick is that any ship is only half a day out from replenishment even at 10 knots with slopes on the sea (that IS the way the Norwegean love it). Air support would come from Danish, Canadian and Norwegean F-35’s from Thule, Sdr. Stromfiord, Keflavik or Ørland.
    The Mistal would transport – at the outside – a batallion of light infantry, which should cover a bad case invasion invasion anywhere in that rather vast region – if anybody would be so foolish – it has happened.

    Now that would solve the endless misery of the Canadian Iroquis-class that needs a tugboat (oiler actually) to provide the professional help carrying helicopters that the Canucks so deperately need.

    Now for the real challenge: The frigates of the RCN: May I propose ordering a dozen Huitfeldt-class – available at a reasonable price provided the armament can be canibalised from the sailors torment: The Halifax-class and get something that just might simulate persistence.

  • Robert Crawford

    Conservatives have turned there backs on the defense of Canada. Total incompetence. Hopefully Andrew Leslie will fare better than Dianne Finley. I say again, if the Ukraine is alowed to join Nato, third world war.

  • RM

    These particular Mistrals were designed and planned for Russian military needs.Wouldn’t some kind of redesign have to be done?That costs francs.

    • Don Clark

      Not much. Russian hasn’t received the ship to do the final command and control electronic systems fit out. NATO systems can be fitted easily in either France or Canada. Plus Canada should be able to buy these ships at a fire sale price.