Mistral purchase could give Egypt a ‘light’ carrier battle group
Two Mistral-class warships equipped with Russian 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 two Mistral-class amphibious assault warships. Formerly known as the Sevastopol and Vladivostok, the vessels were originally built for Russia. That deal was eventually canceled, following the occupation and annexation of Crimea in early 2014. Financed in part by Saudi Arabia, Egypt will pay approximately US$1 billion total for the vessels.
Displacing 21,000 tons fully loaded, the Mistrals are troop-carrying assault ships resembling a small aircraft carrier and similar to, although much smaller than the U.S. 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.
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. It is developed for naval surface warfare strikes against other warships, 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 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 similar appearance and function to the U.S. Navy Harpoon ASM.
While there is little doubt Egypt eyed the Mistrals’ amphibious warfare capabilities, equipping them with the Ka-52K signifies its 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 onboard command suites for radio and tactical communications can be used to headquarter a land, air or sea combat operation just offshore. This could be particularly useful in the ongoing Egyptian anti-terrorism operations in the Sinai, against radical forces in neighboring Libya, or 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. These are 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 from commercial vessels that have been hijacked and adapted for raiding commercial ships sailing to and from the Suez Canal.
The Mistrals would allow Egypt to carry out airborne sea 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 resembling 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 U.S.’s support of, and the European Union’s 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 U.S. and NATO warships to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, the Suez Canal is a vital artery that Russian President Vladimir Putin would relish having the power to sever.