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Saudi Arabia and Egypt want to buy the Mistral vessels which France originally agreed to sell to Russia. Stratfor sources in the region have largely confirmed French media reports, indicating that there is at least a preliminary interest in acquiring the vessels. Despite the considerable obstacles that Riyadh and Cairo would have to surmount before they could effectively utilise Mistral-class ships, the vessels could eventually offer these Arab countries increased capability to respond to varying threats in the region. Analysis on next page.
Saudi Arabia is making considerable efforts to bolster its air and land forceÂ capabilities, and now Riyadh appears increasingly focused on investing in its navalÂ forces. The acquisition of potent new ships easily fits within the envisaged SaudiÂ maritime upgrade. Mistrals are flexible amphibious assault platforms that are idealÂ for the projection of force in littoral waters. In missions of short duration, aÂ battalion - approximately 400-900 troops - can deploy from the Mistral, usingÂ landing craft or helicopters. In addition to carrying an infantry-based force, the
vessels can be configured to lift significant numbers of vehicles (armored orÂ otherwise) that can deploy by landing craft to a designated landing zone. TheÂ helicopter air wing aboard the Mistral can also be configured to the task at hand,Â with the ability to deploy large numbers of anti-submarine warfare helicopters forÂ sub-hunting missions. However, the vessels have little self-defense capacity andÂ rely on other surface warships to escort them and to provide protection.
There is definitely a requirement for Mistral-type ships in Riyadh's arsenal. The vssels, if correctly manned and equipped, would have been very useful in the Saudi-led coalition's operations in Yemen. It often takes offensive action for an armed force to understand that a capability gap exists, and the ability to project force from sea to shore is critical for a modern military. The Saudis could also benefit from using the vessels in and around the Persian Gulf, especially close to the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs islands. These islands are disputed by Iran as well as the United Arab Emirates, but Riyadh could very rapidly deploy forces from a Mistral to capture terrain.
As Stratfor has noted in the past, Saudi Arabia has a strongÂ desire toÂ set up a joint Arab intervention force to counter threats to individual andÂ collective interests in the region. The U.S. rapprochement with Iran and increasedÂ Turkish assertiveness mean that the Saudis are looking to their Arab brethren toÂ reinforce their own military alliance system. As alluded to in the French reports,Â the Saudis may be interested in procuring the Mistrals as part of the greater jointÂ Arab force project.
Military capabilities alone are not enough to create a viable and effective jointÂ force - that requires strong political will. Indeed, there are several obstaclesÂ that work against the success of a joint Arab interventionÂ force, especially one whereÂ Riyadh is vying for leadership. The Sunni Arab states, though willing to workÂ closely on occasion, have disparate goals and interests that will continue toÂ undermine their unity. Egypt would likely host the envisaged joint Arab force, andÂ it would make considerable sense to base the Mistrals in Egypt. In this case, one or
both of the Mistrals would be docked in Egypt close to the headquarters of the ArabÂ force. Alternatively, one could be stationed in Egypt while the other would beÂ deployed with the Saudi navy. This raises the question, would Cairo be willing toÂ foot the bill for one or both of the Mistrals?
Financing the Purchase
The Egyptians lack money and are principally concerned with countering threats inÂ their immediate locale. Therefore, Cairo would be unlikely to go ahead with anyÂ purchase without Saudi financial backing. Assuming the Saudis fund the purchase, theÂ Egyptians would benefit from the considerableÂ prestige ofÂ maintaining one or both Mistral vessels within their own fleet. Furthermore, EgyptÂ is involved in a number of regional conflicts where the deployment of a MistralÂ vessel might be useful, the Libyan conflict being the most obvious example.
While Saudi Arabia may be willing to finance the acquisition of the Mistrals, thereÂ are several obstacles that will continue to hamper the Saudis and the Egyptians whenÂ it comes to using the equipment. The biggest obstacle is the absence of trainedÂ crews to operate the vessels, and even more important, well-trained forces to deployÂ from the Mistrals. While both Egypt and Saudi Arabia maintain small marine forces,Â neither nation has previously operated large amphibious assault vessels and willÂ need considerable time and investment to build up the necessary institutionalÂ knowledge to use the Mistrals effectively.
Furthermore, procuring the Mistrals is only the first step. The Saudis and EgyptiansÂ would still need to purchase the associated specialized helicopters and landingÂ craft that would operate from each Mistral. Additionally, the Mistral vessels inÂ question were specifically built for the Russians, and Riyadh and Cairo willÂ undoubtedly have to refurbish the ships and modify them to suit their own particularÂ command, control, communications and climate requirements.
Despite these constraints, there is a high likelihood that Egypt and Saudi ArabiaÂ will purchase the Mistrals. Assuming Riyadh is willing to fund their purchase andÂ associated costs, in time the Egyptians and the Saudis could have a considerableÂ rapid response force ready to deploy from these vessels for missions across the ArabÂ world. That would fit in neatly with the current Saudi-led efforts to create aÂ potent unified Arab force that would help safeguard shared interests across theÂ region.
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