Chile set on buying French amphibious assault ship

SANTIAGO, Chile, Oct. 17 (UPI) -- Chile is going ahead with the purchase of a reconditioned French navy ship in an $80 million deal that will take the Latin American country a step closer to much needed and delayed military modernization.

Chilean government officials have been hinting at plans for extensive defense modernization but have held back amid unexpected demands for government cash -- from a huge allocation towards rebuilding after the Feb. 27, 2010, 8.8-magnitude earthquake to relief and repairs after volcanic eruptions and other weather vagaries, plus expensive education and economic reforms.


Government money is also being pumped into ambitious energy projects, including a controversial hydroelectric dam complex in the south that has drawn fire from environmentalist groups, opposition critics and the media.

For a country at peace with little sign of an impending conflict, military procurement remains a low priority, despite official statements that call for multibillion-dollar investment into bringing Chile's outmoded defense structure up to speed.

The 1,300-ton amphibious assault ship, currently named Foudre, isn't a great departure for the navy. It will replace a ship that was so overused and old that it had to be decommissioned. The multipurpose Valdivia was a naval workhorse that was extensively used for the transport of troops and military equipment in various peacetime tasks.


The French ship will likely be equipped to handle emergency evacuations of up to 1,600 people. The Foudre class landing platform dock offers a flexible and modular platform that will fulfill the navy's needs in coastal operations.

Navy Commander Adm. Edmundo 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.

The ship will give Chilean navy capacity that it doesn't have. Having the ship in the navy means "we can transport in a single trip the whole population of Chaiten or the island of Juan Fernandez, if a natural disaster were to happen and which we have gone through recently," Gonzalez-Robles said.

Chaiten, in the Los Lagos region north of the mouth of the Yelcho River, was evacuated in May 2008 when the Chaiten volcano erupted for the first time in more than 9,000 years. In subsequent flooding, the river excavated a new course through the town, destroying a major part of it by July 2008.

Juan Fernandez in the South Pacific was hit by a tsunami caused by the earthquake last year, causing at least eight deaths.


Gonzalez-Robles said the new vessel would be "ideal for support of remote or isolated zones as well as an effective transport for marines and army personnel."

Chile hopes to finalize the purchase in November.

The ship, in French navy service since 1990, was offered to Argentina which declined because of concern over asbestos, French defense media reported.

Last year Chile bought a 42,000-ton tanker from the U.S. Navy. AO-52 Almirante Montt replaced AO-53 Araucano, which was decommissioned after 40 years of service.

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