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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Greece Signs $200M Hovercraft Deal

Russia and Ukraine will deliver four Zubr hovercrafts to the Greek navy in a first-ever export of the world's largest landing craft, developed by the Almaz Central Maritime Design Bureau of St. Petersburg for the Soviet navy in the early 1980s.

Russia's arms exporter, Rosvooruzheniye, and its Ukrainian counterpart, Ukrspetsexport, on Monday signed a deal worth a total of $200 million with the Greek government in Athens to deliver four Zubrs, NATO code: Pomornik, by 2002, officials said.

Ukrspetsexport of Kiev will buy two Pomorniks from the Ukrainian navy to have them modernized at the Morye Shipyard of Feodosia, Ukraine, said Alexander Lazarev, acting general designer of the Almaz bureau.

Rosvooruzheniye will buy one craft from the Russian navy's Baltic Fleet and order another from Almaz's parent company, the Almaz Ship-Building Co., Lazarev said in a telephone interview Monday.

"We are very lucky to have signed a deal with a NATO country," Lazarev said. "I think some NATO partners will not be happy to see them coming," the designer added, but would not elaborate.

Greek Defense Minister Apostolos-Athanasios Tsokhatzopoulos told reporters in Athens the four ships will be used to reinforce the Greek armed forces' capabilities in the Aegean Sea. He said Greece is also to procure some smaller hovercrafts, dubbed M-10Cs, from Great Britain.

Lazarev said Greek navy officers had visited St. Petersburg and personally went out on one of the Baltic Fleet's Zubr crafts for a high-speed voyage. The Greeks were "happy with what they experienced" and will return to St. Petersburg this year to undergo training to operate the Zubrs, Lazarev said.

The Zubr that is to be taken from the Baltic Fleet was commissioned back in 1991 and needs to be modernized, Lazarev said.

He said the ships' air propellers will be overhauled to become more powerful and heat resistant, and alterations will be made so that the machines, crew and assault troops can operate in the Mediterranean heat, Lazarev said.

He said the all-new Zubr, which is yet to be assembled at Almaz, and the two Pomorniks that will be delivered by Ukrspetsexport will also be able to cope with high temperatures and will have more powerful engines.

Almaz will also set up a special facility in Greece to maintain and service the four Zubr craft that are to be delivered by 2002.

One Almaz design bureau official doubted, however, that his company's St. Petersburg plant will be able to manufacture one Zubr from scratch in the next 18 months, as required by Monday's contract.

"Even in the good old Soviet times it took them two years to assemble one ship, and now when they have seen some of their workers leave it would be even more of a challenge for the plant to do it in 18 months," said the official, who declined to be identified.

The official also noted that the Zubr is "quite an expensive toy" and doubted that Rosvooruzheniye would be able to sell more of them soon.

Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said Tuesday in a telephone interview the Zubr and M-10C landing ships will enable Greece to rapidly deploy infantry needed to defend some of its disputed small islands in the Aegean Sea.

Each ship can carry up to 360 assault troopers, three T-80 main battle tanks or up to 10 BTR-70 armored personnel carriers at speeds of up to 60 knots to a distance of up to 640 kilometers, Lazarev said. Zubrs are 57.3 meters long, 25.6 meters wide and 21.9 meters high and have a full displacement of 550 tons.

The craft is armed with two multiple-rocket launchers and two 30-mm AK-306 guns, and is also capable of laying mines and providing fire support for ground troops operating on the enemy's shores, according to Rosvooruzheniye's 1999 arms catalogue.

The craft's Achilles' heel is its air cushion, which can be pierced by automatic fire. Also some of the alloys that have been used to manufacture the ship are flammable.

It was these demerits that prevented one of the Black Sea Fleet's Zubrs from rescuing Georgian President Eduard Shevarnadze when he was trapped by Abkhaz separatists in the port of Sukhumi in September 1993. The ship was dispatched from the fleet's main base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol to arrive at Sukhumi at night, but failed to advance close enough to pick up the Georgian leader as Abkhaz forces started showering the sea with large-caliber guns.