Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Big Shift

Egypt to Boost Military Presence in the Eastern Mediterranean

For the foreseeable future, Egypt’s Armed Forces tend to embark on increasing deliveries of French military hardware.

The LHD “Vladivostok” originally built for the Russian Navy can accommodate up to 30 helicopters, 40 tanks, and 600 troops.
(Photo: Courtesy of DCNS)

Decisive Element

Increasing purchases of ships, missiles, and airplanes – as observed since early 2014 – are  just a small part of a planned modernisation of Egypt’s Armed Forces. Political circles in Cairo stated that the goal, likely to take a decade or more to realise, is to transform the country’s Armed Forces into capable ones and prepare them for new roles. New fighters, intelligence aircraft, satellites, helicopters, ships, and precision strike missiles are playing a central role within this scheme. This new thinking by the el-Sisi government to increase its military influence in the region is now going to sorely test that rule. Cairo needs to boost its military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea as it faces an unstable Libya to the west and threats from militants linked to Islamic State group in its Sinai Peninsula to the east, and to protect commercial shipping in the Suez Canal.
With the recent decision to buy the two “Mistral” class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships from France that were originally built for Russia, the Egyptian military obtains a bundle of completely new naval capabilities, which would help Egypt gain increasing political influence in the region. The two LHDs were ordered by Moscow, based on a €1.2Bn (US$1.32Bn) contract, to “combine” the mission-proven design of the French Navy’s “Mistral” class LHDs with “a good percentage of shipboard sensors and weapons of Russian origin”, officials in Moscow said. However, their delivery was postponed in 2015 following the annexation of Crimea by Moscow in March 2014.
The reality is that Cairo’s decision to obtain the two LHDs from France is a genuine success story. The Egyptian Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that without these modern amphibious projection and command ships, plans for Egyptian naval infantry and supporting aviation would have little relevance, particularly as the Egyptian Navy has no comparable amphibious projection platforms, except 13 ex-Soviet Navy Landing Craft, Utility (LCUs) and three ex-Polish Navy Landing Craft, Tank (LCTs). While nations with a history of naval expeditionary warfare such as France and the United Kingdom (UK) began investing in these capabilities several decades ago, the range of new threats arising from developments in the Mediterranean and adjacent regions in the Middle East have stirred other countries in the region – like Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – to consider how to deal with the new generation of amphibious assault ships. Egypt is exactly on the perceived front line of these new threats.

Gathering New Abilities

The “Mistral” class LHDs now on delivery to Egypt offer a radical capability increase to the Egyptian Navy. The el-Sisi government gave ‘green light’ to the approximately €950M (US$1.1Bn) deal in September, arguing that this is a “clear effort to join the [new] partner [in Paris] at a time when both nations are drastically increasing military ties” and “preparing for new responsibilities in the unstable [Eastern Mediterranean] region”. One result of this development is France’s radical path to sell defence materiel worth many billions of Euros to Cairo, including, besides the two LHDs, up to 24 RAFALE fighter jets whose combat capabilities have been proven in Afghanistan, Libya, and Mali, C-295 transports, a single FREMM multi-mission frigate, and missiles. The contract for the supply of the RAFALE fighters and the FREMM frigate “Normandie”, worth some €5.44Bn (US$6Bn), was signed on 16 February 2015. Although her full-length A70 Vertical Launch System (VLS) for accommodating SCALP Naval land-attack cruise missiles has been removed before delivery, the ship will significantly enhance the Egyptian Navy’s capabilities mainly in the fields of medium-range air defence (by using ASTER 15 missiles), Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), and Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW). Additionally, the government in Cairo found France’s GOWIND 2500 multipurpose corvette equipped with DCNS’ SETIS Combat Management System (CMS), MBDA’s VL MICA air defence system, and THALES Nederland’s SMART-S Mk2 surveillance and target designation radar an attractive option to bring extra capabilities. This is a game changer for France’s defence industry. According to security circles in Paris, this contract could be expanded in the near future covering additional fighter aircraft, air defence systems, artillery systems, and small arms. French officials estimate that €12.6Bn (US$13.88Bn) will be spent on new equipment between 2016 and 2023.

Probably More

This figure is also a game changer for Russia. With the abortion of the “Mistral” deal with Paris and the loss of the two new power projection assets, Moscow might not be completely wrong that Egypt would be in favour of Russian rotary-wing aircraft that can be operated from the two LHDs. In September 2015, the government in Cairo ordered 50 Kamov Ka-52K Katran attack helicopters for delivery between 2016 and 2019. As in the case with France, Russian manufacturers have to go where the market is, offer competitive products, and hope their government will support them when needed.
According to France’s shipbuilder DCNS, up to 30 helicopters can be operated from the ships while deploying landing craft and amphibious vehicles from the stern well deck. Now on order from Russian Helicopters, the Ka-52K attack helicopters, which were specially developed to operate from the LHDs, will be able to support naval infantry landings with precision strike and enemy observation. It was reported that a prototype was completed for trials in 2014. Modified with folding rotor blades, fuselage structural reinforcement, and anti-corrosion applications, the Ka-52K provides an anti-ship missile guidance capability useful against small- to medium-sized surface threat estimations, such as missile-armed fast attack craft (FAC) and patrol boats with limited defensive surface-to-air capability. It was reported that the Ka-52Ks to be delivered to Egypt will be equipped with the new ECO-52 electro-optic (EO) sensor turrets manufactured by Russia’s Research and Production Corporation Precision Instrumentation Systems company.

Deliveries of 50 Ka-52K attack helicopters to Egypt will be completed in 2019.
(Photo: Courtesy of Russian Helicopters)

Broken Ties

Before the end of 2014, observers noted that increasing military cooperation between France and Egypt could lead to a “defence-industrial strategy” for decades, whereby Egypt’s relationship to the United States would be “easily dismantled”. One thing is clear: Cairo, since about the early 1990s, maintained close military ties with Washington. Before the Obama Administration suspended the F-16C/D Block 50/52 (Peace Vector VII) deal with Egypt in 2014, following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, the popularly elected leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, this is exemplified by the Fast Missile Craft (FMC) project. Built by US-registered VT Halter Marine (VTHM), the four AMBASSADOR MkIII missile craft delivered to Egypt were armed with the standard in US naval weapons, mirroring the close military ties between the United States and Egypt over decades. Now, the delivery of mainly French-originated hardware, including the two “Mistral” class LHDs, is about to break the US monopoly over arms sales to Egypt.
The four missile craft that joined the Egyptian Navy in 2013 and 2014 were managed by the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) under a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) case, with over US$805M spent by the US government. With the US refusing to allow defence equipment like F-16 fighter aircraft to be transferred to Cairo, there were fears that the delivery of the missile craft could also be delayed or even aborted. It was reported that Cairo needs the missile craft to improve security of territorial waters in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and to protect commercial shipping in the Suez Canal. Robert Camp, VTHM’s Director Government Projects, told NAVAL FORCES that the FMC does have the technologies to fit into this scheme. “The approximately 780 tons [full displacement] boats will allow the Republic of Egypt to maintain security of its coastal regions for both itself and friendly countries, while denying access to the areas by any potential adversary”, he said.
By Stefan Nitschke

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