Almaz launches NATO-bound craft

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By VLADIMIR KITOV / The Russia Journal

ST. PETERSBURG – Almaz Shipbuilding Co. officially launched a Zubr-class air-cushioned landing vessel, one of two military hovercrafts commissioned by the Greek Defense Ministry. It will become the first Russian-made ship to be used by the navy of a NATO member country, officials said.

The vessel is capable of carrying out beach landings loaded with three tanks or up to 400 armed troops. According to the deal, worth about $100 million, the St. Petersburg shipbuilding company will provide two of the Zubr vessels to the Greeks by mid-2001.

According to Velis Alurdas of the Greek Defense Ministry, further tests of the craft will be conducted soon in the Baltic Sea, "and hopefully [a] Zubr will be ready to be shipped to Greece by the end of this year."

Work on the second Zubr started at the Almaz facility in May. Almaz officials said the first vessel is an upgraded version of a ship built in 1996 for the Russian Defense ministry, which eventually did not take delivery of the vessel due to a lack of funds, officials said.

The contract for the Zubr ships – between the Greek Defense Ministry and Rosvooruzheniye, the federal agency handling Russian arms export operations on behalf of Russian companies – was signed in January.

The vessel features 2.5 meter high, hard-rubber cushioned pontoons pumped with air. The cushion enables the ship to cruise on sea, sand, ice and marsh.

Dead-weighted at 550 tons, the 57 meter-long vessel does not need to stop before landing and has a maximum speed of 60 knots/h (110 km/h) at sea and 60 km/h on the land.

The combat capacities of Zubr include four sets of Igla 1M anti-aircraft missile launchers, two sets of 30 mm automatic AK-630 guns and two sets of MS-227 unguided missile launchers.

"The Aegean Sea is rather shallow, and there are many small islands there," Velis Alurdas of the Greek Defense Ministry said at the launching ceremony. "We believe that vessels of the Zubr class are most suited to guard our sea boarders."

Another Greek naval official said that, besides the defensive capabilities of the ships, Greece is looking to use them against the growing number of Albanian pirates disturbing civil navigation in the region.

According to Alexei Ponomarev, head of the projects department of Rosvooruzheniye, the fact that a NATO country has purchased a Russian-made vessel shows how developed the Russian shipbuilding industry has become in the past four or five years.

"There are many sound reasons to believe the Greek side will order another two ships of the Zubr class through Almaz," Ponomarev said. "Of course, only the results of the tests [of the first Zubr] will tell us for sure whether our Greek partners will continue cooperation with the St. Petersburg shipbuilders."

According to the Delovoy Petersburg daily, Almaz in May received a 1.2 billion ruble ($43.1 million) credit line from the Moskovsky Delovoy Mir (MDM) Bank to cover its operations expenses.