Egypt’s geo-strategic location and status as largest Arab power makes it a vital partner to the U.S. military, even with Egyptian diversification policy that includes acquiring Russian jets.
Despite occasional political frictions, military relations between the United States and Egypt remain strong, as CENTCOM signaled when it signed an MOU with the Egyptian Armed Forces on logistics and confirmed its participation in the Bright Star exercise in Egypt this year.
“On April 27, the United States of America and the Arab Republic of Egypt signed a memorandum of understanding to facilitate reciprocal provision of military logistic support, supplies, and services,” according to a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. It noted that “while the MOU does not obligate either side to provide support, it does create a standing mechanism to ensure that U.S. and Egyptian military forces can effectively offer reimbursable support to each other when required.
“The military relations between the two countries have always been excellent. Egypt has been a strong and vital strategic military partner to the United States in combating terrorism, facilitating the passage of U.S. naval vessels the Suez Canal, granting access to Egyptian airspace and bases for refueling and getting supplies,” said Mohammed Al Kenany, military researcher and defense analyst at the Arab Forum for Policy Analysis in Cairo.
Egypt’s policy of diversification of military hardware has posed a challenge to the ties between the two, especially with Egypt’s continued quest to acquire defense systems from the European Union and Russia.
“Despite the close mil-to-mil cooperation, Egyptians insist on diversifying their weapon systems,” said Gawdat Bahgat, professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington. “My understanding is the Egyptians do not want to put all their eggs in the American basket and Egypt has traditionally maintained warm relations with Russia and European powers and they (Egyptians) would like to project power.”
Under the treaty, Egypt started receiving an annual military aid package of $1.3 billion that enabled Egypt over the years to procure advanced American platforms such as the F-16 Block 52 jetfighters, E-2C early warning planes, Apache Longbow attack helicopters, Chinook helicopters, M1A2 Abram tanks and a number of naval vessels.
“U.S. equipment supports the Egyptian Air Force, Land Forces, Navy, and Border Guard in countering threats to Egypt’s security. Defense cooperation with Egypt is a cornerstone of our strategic partnership, spanning counterterrorism, border security, and joint training and planning to address complex geopolitical challenges,” Jonathan Cohen, US Ambassador to Egypt, noted in a statement.
Egypt is a major regional power, with a population that tops 100 million people and possesses the largest military in the Arab world.
The diversification of suppliers has accelerated since 2013, when Egyp began improving its military capabilities with special emphasis on bolstering its power projection capabilities. In the past eight years the Egyptian Navy has acquired two French Mistral-class helicopter carriers, placed orders for at least eight frigates from France, Germany and Italy, in addition to four Type 209 submarines from Germany. Some of the vessels have already been delivered.
During the same period, the Egyptian Air Force procured 24 Rafale multi-role jetfighters from France, 46 Mig-29 M/M2 and 50 Ka-52 attack helicopters.
“Egyptian leaders think of their country as a major regional power,” according to Bahgat who pointed out that the U.S. has an issue with Egypt acquiring the Russian Su-35 air superiority fighter.
Egypt is believed to have signed a contract with Russia for the purchase of 21 Su-35SE, and at least five have been delivered.
“The Egyptian military needs new highly advanced warplanes, which the U.S. refused to provide, especially the F-16 Block 70, and that is why it decided to seek other sources like Russia,” Al Kenany said. “Egypt faces several challenges in the region that necessitate its possession of superior capabilities to maintain a high level of deterrence. So, I believe that Egypt will proceed with acquiring the Su-35.”
As for the naval acquisitions, Al-Kenany told BD that up until 2015 the most modern frigate in the Egyptian Navy was built in the 1980s. “The Navy needed an urgent upgrade and modernization, and it is doing so now, and this is vital for protecting off-shore gas fields and for supporting U.S. objectives of ensuring regional stability and maritime security.”
However, some analysts believe the Egyptian military must pay more attention to closing gaps in its electronic warfare and cyberwarfare capabilities.
“The country has made very limited progress when it comes to cyber, drones or missiles, particularly in comparison with other regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, Israel and the UAE,” Bahgat told BD.