By Murielle Delaporte
02/12/2012- Onboard the multipurpose amphibious assault ship BPC Mistral (BPC stands for “Bâtiment de projection et de commandement”) – which starts its tenth month of continued deployment -, the French Navy and Army prepare to play a major role in Bold Alligator 2012. The USN-USMC team and the French have worked together most recently in Libya, and BA-12 provides an opportunity to enhance joint and coalition capabilities. In addition, the French are testing some new capabilities, including for the first time the landing craft EDA-R, of interest to the US side as well.The photos in the slideshow below were shot during the week of January 22, as SLD was engaged with the BPC and the French team for three days.
Credit: MD, off the shore of Norfolk, Virginia, January 24th-26th, 2012
First ships in the French Navy to use azymuths thrusters which enhance their manoeuvrability and allow them to dock without tug, four BPCs are planned by 2020, the third one is to be commissioned within the next six months. They were designed with four major missions in mind:
– Command and control
– Landing helicopter assault
– Amphibious operations and troop carrier
– Medical support.
Command and Control (photos 1,2,3): Even though the US and the French Navies are used to work together, the scale of this exercise makes it unusual. The main goal on the French side is to test and develop interoperability at various levels, but especially in terms of links and communications: at the French level between the Navy and the Army components of the amphibious operation (unlike the United States, the French landing forces are part of the Army, which when on board the BPC is subordinated to the Navy Command, until a transfer of authority is done when the ground operation per se starts) and at a bilateral level between each US and French player. Indeed as the French CATF (Commander, Amphibious Task Force), Capitaine de Vaisseau Emmanuel Gué, stresses : « the BPC was initially designed with the objective to achieve full operability with the United States and enjoys state-of-the art fiber optic communication cables allowing to operate separated protected networks (NATO, France, internet). » The BPC relies on the Syracuse 3 satellite system. What makes the BPC different from a regular LHD (Landing Helicopter Dock) and makes it unique even compared to the French aircraft carrier, is in actual fact its C2 function as it can operate with a complete embarked operational command : 850 square meters are dedicated to this function alone if need be.
LHA (photos 0 [homepage], 4,5,6,7,8): During the Lybian operation, the BPC Mistral fully played its role as a helicopter carrier and was loaded to its maximum capability with at some point up to 19 helicopters, including a French Air Force Search and Rescue Caracal. For Bold Alligator, the French helo fleet includes two reconnaissance and attack Gazelles which can carry Hot missiles and four Pumas, one of them potentially dedicated for Medevac missions. In the above pictures taken on January 24th, the goal was training as well as transporting the French military leadership back and forth to the shore to meet their American counterparts. The deck has six landing spots, but depending on the size of the helicopters, more can fit (e.g. Gazelles). The elevators connecting the hangar to the deck are inside the ship.
Amphibious operations and troop carrier (photos 9 to 20): The well deck can host four landing crafts maximum. For Bold Alligator, the Mistral came with two CTM (« Chaland de Transport de Matériel ») and the new French landing catamaran EDA-R («engin de débarquement amphibie- rapide»). The French L-CAT is still in the process of military capabilities assessment, as it is the first time the EDA-R is used in such a context and in the Atlantic Ocean: last week was an opportunity to test its performances to load and unload personnel and equipment in new conditions between the ship and the shore. One of the skill to acquire is to balance the load as best as possible with the heavier equipment up front. Besides its speed compared to its French predecessors, one of the advantage is its quick loading time eased by the fact that there is no need to hook the equipment to its deck as well as because of its ability to enter backward into the well deck (as seen in photo # 14), thus preventing long and strenuous manoeuvering by heavy vehicles usually obliged to load in reverse. This first week in Norfolk waters was also meant to do cross certifications with the American LCAC, which can operate on the BPC and will interact during the exercise to carry French landing forces to the shore. The two vessels are complementary in terms of speed and beach access and two LCATs are not a luxury to bring close to 400 personnel and 90 vehicles. About ten waves are necessary in addition to helicopter lifts. The training for the exercise itself took place on January 25th and 26th and was an opportunity to test tactical links between the ship and the tactical command post set up on the ground. In particular, the French Army wants during BA2012 to experiment further use of its new network-centric capabilities with the extension of the NEB (« numérisation du champ de bataille » which means digitisation of the battlefield). The scenario of Bold Alligator goes beyond a short-term amphibious operation, as the French forces must seize a strategic position and secure the area to allow the Marines to engage. The USMC Anglico (Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company) intervenes along with the French forces ahead of everybody.
Medical support (photo 21): The fourth major mission of the BPC is to provide full medical support not only for its own sake, but in the context of a major operation whether combat or humanitarian. The ship hosts the equivalent of a field hospital capable of performing complex surgery and with a capacity of 69 beds (which can be augmented by using the hangars if need be). In the case of Bold Alligator, the medical antenna is not at its full capacity and is mostly meant for the ship’s needs, but the exercise planners may want to inject a medevac into the scenario as it unrolls next week…
Another interesting aspect of this exercise is the mix of real capabilities and simulation, which has allowed the French Navy-Army and the US Navy-USMC teams to work closely in the past months to be ready on D-Day, i.e. February 6th…