October 3, 2015 By Pierre Tran - Defense News
PARIS — Constructions Industrielles de la Méditerranée (CNIM) will pitch a lightly modified version of its L-CAT landing catamaran in an expected US Army tender worth some $450 million for 37 new landing craft, said Philippe Neri, the French company's vice president for naval sales.
Minor modifications on the L-CAT are aimed to cut costs, meet requirements and pitch a “compliant and affordable” vessel in a competition likely to be launched toward the end of the year, he said.
The US Army is looking to buy a fleet of the Maneuver Support Vessel (light), or MSV (L), to replace the Vietnam-era “Mike boat,” or Landing Craft Mechanized 8 (LCM-8), Army acquisition officials said in August.
Speaking from the Toulon base, Adm. Denis Beraud, head of the French Naval Action Force, recalled an incident last winter when an L-CAT encountered some light fire from factions as it sailed from the Dixmude helicopter carrier to evacuate French nationals from Yemen.
“It was a little operation but it showed how useful it is to have ships widely deployed,” he said. In 2012, the Navy also drew on the L-CAT to evacuate foreign nationals from Lebanon.
The catamaran’s 30-knot high speed allows the Mistral, the mother ship, to stay off shore at a safe distance while being able to deliver a relatively heavy load of equipment to the beach, he said. “That saves a lot of time.”
France's Navy has four L-CATs as the government ordered that number for the Mistral projection and command warships and canceled options for two more. “I wish I had six,” Beraud said.
The Navy uses the L-CAT for Army training exercises, deploying troops along the Mediterranean coast. The vessel sails from Toulon to Corsica, runs beach reconnaissance and serves as a logistics platform by deploying six containers on the island, he said. Such exercises are part of the “shore-to-shore” approach.
The L-CAT, a variable shape ship with an adjustable deck designed for the “ship-to-shore” landing craft mission, could meet the US Army’s requirements for the more autonomous shore-to-shore operation, Neri said. The vessels can be fitted for crew accommodation and sail loaded for 500 nautical miles.
CNIM hopes to sign a partnership agreement on the L-CAT with Fincantieri in the coming weeks, Neri said. The Italian shipbuilder would be prime contractor and CNIM subcontractor under the deal.
A US Army selection is expected an estimated two months after the request for proposals is launched. The services stand to lose budgets if they have not been committed by the summer.
The Army program is due to run for 10 years, with a three-year engineering, manufacturing and development phase producing a prototype, followed by low-rate initial production of four boats and full production after five years. The service is also expected to order medium and heavy versions of the boat, so the pick of the first model is seen as key amid lively competition.
CNIM sees Southeast Asia as a promising market as the L-CAT could serve as a vessel for disaster relief alongside its military mission. The Middle East is also viewed as a key region for sales.
The landing craft carries a civilian certification that allows the Navy to sail it up rivers as well as unload supplies in harbors, Beraud said.
In a separate deal, two L-CATs that were part of the canceled sale of the Mistral to Russia are now part of Egypt’s announced plan to buy the two helicopter carriers, said an industry executive, who confirmed a report in Challenges business magazine.
President François Hollande said he and his Egyptian counterpart have agreed that Egypt will acquire the two Mistrals from the canceled Russian deal. A contract with Cairo is due to be signed with prime contractor DCNS and delivery of the helicopter carriers is due in the first half of 2016, the executive said.
DCNS and CNIM are covered by Coface, the French export credit agency, for the cancellation of the Russian deal, according to a Sept. 29 report from the French Senate finance committee.