Mistral purchase gives Egypt a ‘light’ carrier battle group

World Review – January 13, 2016.

Since this was published, Egypt has taken delivery of both Mistrals. Cairo is now working out with Moscow, the delivery of Ka-52K naval attack helicopters, and the Russian combat systems suites were originally to have been installed, before France suspended the delivery of the vessels to Russia over the annexation of Crimea.

Two Mistral class warships equipped with Ka-52K naval attack helicopters can enhance Egypt’s naval capabilities with what is essentially a “light” carrier battle group, says freelance writer on geopolitics and military events Kevin Brent.

French President Francois Hollande announced on September 23, 2015 that Egypt had agreed to buy the two Mistral Class amphibious assault ships. Formerly known as Sevastopol & Vladivostok, the vessels were originally built for the Russian Navy.

That deal was canceled, following the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea in early 2014. Financed in par by Saudi Arabia, Egypt will pay approximately $1 Billion total for the vessels.

Displacing 21,000 tons fully loaded, the Mistrals are troop carrying amphibious assault ships resembling a small aircraft carrier and similar to, although much smaller than the US Navy LHA and LHD type warships.

Each Mistral can carry 16 helicopters, four landing craft and 13 main battle tanks in addition to 450 troops (up to 900 troops or 40 tanks in a contingency operation) and is equipped with a 69 bed hospital. The French Navy operates three Mistral class vessels of its own.

Russian helicopters

Russian Ka-52K

Immediately after the French-Egyptian deal, Russia agreed to sell 50 Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters (NATO reporting name Hokum B) to Egypt to equip the air wings of the Mistrals. Specifically mentioned was the two-seater Ka-52K; the navalized version of the single seat Ka-52. The Ka-52K was developed specifically for strikes against warships at sea, and equipped with folding rotors and reinforced landing gear.

Russia is the only naval power to have redeveloped a land attack helicopter with naval surface warfare in mind, that can be operated from aircraft-carrying vessels in squadron vessels in squadron sized units.

The Ka-52 entered Russian service in 1995. It was designed in the 1980s. specifically as a “tank-killer” for land warfare, with the additional capability of engaging opposing forces helicopters with air-to-air missiles.

The Ka-52K carries two Kh-35 (NATO reporting name AS-20 Kayak) jet powered anti-ship missiles (ASM) as its primary weapons. This missile is sometimes referred to as the ‘Harpoonski‘, due to its similarities in appearance and function to the US Navy Harpoon ASM.

Versatile weapon

While there is little doubt Egypt eyed the Mistrals amphibious warfare capabilities, equipping them with the Ka-52K signifies the intent to deploy the Mistrals as platforms for naval surface warfare as well.

In the amphibious assault role, the Mistrals will provide Egypt with an option to execute light intervention in neighboring hot spots, perhaps cooperating with Arab allies in ventures to curb the expansion of Iranian proxy forces in the region, including Yemen.

The Mistral’s command suites of radio and tactical data communications can be used to headquarter a land, air or sea combat operation just offshore. This could be particularly useful in Egyptian anti-terrorism operations, or against radical forces in Libya and elsewhere in the region.

However, equipped with Ka-52K naval attack helicopters, Egypt would also have the option to use one or both Mistrals in surface sea control operations. They would prove vital in protecting the Mediterranean and Red Sea entrances to the Suez Canal from a naval surface threat.

Such a threat would most likely come from the Red Sea, perhaps by Iranian warships, or commandeered commercial vessels outfitted for commerce raiding against merchant shipping transiting to and from the Suez Canal. A mode of warfare employed by the Germans in both the First and Second World Wars.

Political undercurrents

The Mistrals would allow Egypt to carry out airborne surveillance and naval strikes in a way similar to large modern aircraft carriers equipped with fixed-wing fighter jets.

Egypt would not be able to oppose a modern carrier battle group on remotely even terms. However, Egypt has no other regional adversary that possesses anything approaching a Mistral, much less two, equipped with naval attack helicopters.

That said, Washington and Brussels must understand why the Kremlin is so eager to beef up its long-lost Mistrals for Egypt. It wants to further drive a wedge between Cairo and the West. Egypt resents the US support of, and the EU indifference to, the now deposed Muslim Brotherhood, which very nearly made Egypt a vassal state of Iran.

As a transit route for European global commerce and US & NATO warships to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, the Suez Canal is a vital artery that Russian President Vladimir Putin covets the power to sever.

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