The Mistral, a French amphibious assault ship and helicopter carrier that has unexpectedly leapt to fame and sparked a furore in Estonia and other countries since 2010, is a warship that is capable of four functions: deploying ground troops, carrying attack helicopters, and serving as a command centre and floating hospital. In essence, this is an enhanced helicopter carrier.

The ship can carry 450 amphibious landing troops (and up to 900 men for brief periods), up to 16 helicopters with a total mass of 12 tons (the ship has a 1,800 sq-m hangar for these). The ship has a length of 199 metres, beam of 6.3 m and draught of 6.3 and displacement, depending on its load, is 16,500 to 32,300 tons. Its top speed is 19 knots, and the crew numbers 160 (the staff quarters can hold an additional 200). One ship costs 600 million euros. The ship carries artillery and missiles.

France itself has built three such ships in Brest (the DCNS contractor) and Saint-Nazaire (Alstom) – the Mistral, the Tonnerre and the Dixmude, which at the current time serve in France’s Navy. The first two were completed in 2006, and the last one earlier this year.

On 25 January 2011, Defence Minister Alain Juppe and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin signed an agreement in Saint-Nazaire whereby France would build two such ships for the Russian Navy. It is planned that French-Russian joint venture will build two more of the same type of vessel in the Baltic shipyards in St. Petersburg. Russia will buy the Mistrals along with the navigational and technological infrastructure, but all of the weapons systems and the helicopters will be supplied by Russia. The construction of both vessels will begin this year.

The commanders of the fleet have communicated that the first two (which already have names, the Vladivostok and the Sevastopol) will be sent to the Pacific Fleet. The countries on the Baltic Sea are interested most of all in where the Mistral class ships to be built in St. Petersburg will be headed. Will they be deployed in the Arctic or Black Sea, or remain in the Baltic?

The sale of such assault vessels has attracted much notice among NATO members and Russia’s other neighbours. The US’s hackles were also raised. But France remained cool, as such orders provide jobs for thousands of French workers and traditionally Russia and France have had good relations. Moreover, Russia is no longer a NATO enemy, n’est-ce pas? Even so, France is a NATO member and sale of military technology to Russia is naturally a sensitive subject. It was especially unacceptable to the countries along the border of Estonia’s eastern neighbour, including Estonia.

An unanswered question initially was the matter of whether France would sell the ships along with the requisite technology, weapons and communication systems or whether the Russians themselves would have to furnish the empty hulls.

As to Estonia and the other Baltics, we were naturally made anxious by the fact that the Baltic fleet on the Baltic would start using such floating assault craft. Georgia would also be concerned if such a warship appeared on the Black Sea under the Russian flag.

Still, we can breathe more easily as according to preliminary information it can predicted that the two Mistral type ships that started to be built in St. Petersburg earlier in 2012 will be completed and battle-ready only in 2015, no earlier. For Russia additional problems stem from the refitting and modifications that will have to be made to the ships by the Russians in connection with differences between Russian helicopters compared to French ones. That is to say nothing about the ground-based infrastructure for maintenance and other servicing of the Mistrals. It took three whole years for France to build and arm its own three Mistral-type ships.

Second, the current information is that, of the warships ordered thus far – and construction has not started – one is to be based in the Arctic Sea and another in the Black Sea. So it is Georgia and Ukraine that should be concerned. The Black Sea variant is still doubtful.

As to why Russia needs such assault ships in the first place and how this could affect the balance of power worldwide, this matter requires a lengthier and more detailed analysis.

Hanno Ojalo is a Board Member of the Estonian Academic Military 
History Society