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Chile on track to buy another French assault ship

July 1, 2013 at 3:22 PM   |   Comments

SANTIAGO, Chile, July 1 (UPI) -- The Chilean navy is on track to buy another reconditioned amphibious multirole assault vessel from France, Chilean defense media reported.

Purchase of the Sirocco 12,000-ton vessel was delayed through 2012 and this year as the Chilean navy considered various options for equipping Chile's year-old Amphibious Expeditionary Brigade. The force eventually will have at least 1,400 troops in its ranks and an unspecified number of ships, helicopters and armored vehicles.

President Sebastian Pinera and aides see the expeditionary force as a prestige addition to the military infrastructure, to be used for a range of missions from disaster relief to international peacekeeping under U.N. auspices.

In 2011 Chile acquired another Sirocco multirole ship from France, previously called the Foudre. The vessel was renamed Sargento Aldea after it entered Chilean naval service and heralded the launch of the Amphibious Expeditionary Brigade.

Chilean officials have not yet discussed details of the second purchase. The Foudre was sold to Chile for $80 million but it's far from clear if the same price will apply to the second ship. The Foudre was involved in an incident while pursuing French military operations in west Africa in 2009. On Jan. 17 that year, one of the ship's helicopters crashed off the coast of Gabon, killing eight French military personnel. Casualties during the ship's previous operations in Ivory Coast and during the NATO operations in Yugoslavia were not discussed.

The Sargento Aidea operates out of Valparaiso, Chile's historic transit point for ships operating between the Pacific and the Atlantic via the Magellan Strait. The waterway has assumed strategic importance for Chile as it projects its military and political presence in the Antarctic and surrounding regions.

Official consideration of the second purchase was also held up amid leadership changes in the Chilean navy. This month Adm. Enrique Larranaga Martin took over as the new naval chief, replacing Admiral Edmundo Gonzalez-Robles. Military analysts say with that change at the top the stage was set for completing the purchase.

The French navy plans to retire an amphibious assault ship later this year.

Progress on the Amphibious Expeditionary Brigade has been slow. The Sargento Aidea still is being refurbished and may add more helicopters to its inventory. At full capacity, the Foudre-class vessel can carry up to seven helicopters, about 100 armored vehicles and transport up to 450 troops, Chile's Defense and Military blog said on its website.

Chile regards the amphibious ships as valuable to its program of developing patrol duties along the Pacific coast, enhancing the ship's role as a hospital on the move to cater for outlying inhabitants along the coast and perform other peacetime security duties.

There are plans also to acquire more helicopters and armored vehicles.

Chile would be able to move its Amphibious Expeditionary Brigade many thousands of miles, and be able to support it with armor and logistical units, the blog said.

"But the brigade still would lack one of the key elements of a true blue water navy: warplanes," it said. Chile has no plans to acquire vertical-takeoff planes such as Harriers to give its marines an air-attack or air-superiority arm. Instead, the brigade is being built to serve as a peacekeeping force, though it certainly could be used in case of armed conflict.

Former Navy Commander Adm. Gonzalez-Robles said the Foudre's purchase was more than a new acquisition.

"What we are doing is recovering the capacity we lost when Valdivia after fifteen years in service was decommissioned," he said, citing the former U.S. Navy ship acquired by Chile in 1995 and retired in January 2011.

Earlier Chile bought a 42,000-ton tanker, Andrew J. Higgins, from the U.S. Navy. Renamed Almirante Montt the vessel replaced AO-53 Araucano, which was decommissioned after 40 years of service.

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