A Russian broadsheet recently reported that it has acquired a shareholder’s report of the aircraft manufacturer company Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG (RSK MiG). According to its findings, the report outlined contract details of a lucrative deal with an unspecified buyer. As per the report, the deal includes the production of 92 engines that are typically used in the manufacturer’s flagship aircraft, the MiG-29 fighter jet. With two engines in each fighter jet, a consignment of 46 MiG-29 aircrafts seems to be underway for an undisclosed buyer. In the same article, the broadsheet goes on to speculate potential clients of this lucrative deal. After gauging the probability of Russia’s Asian client states like India and China, and Middle Eastern client states like Iran and Syria, It zeroes-in on Egypt as the most probable client in this case. The broadsheet substantiates the same by citing a report by Vedomosti newspaper in May last year, regarding a $3.5 billion arms deal signed by President Putin and President al-Sisi of Egypt in April 2015. Further, it states:
“Any potential deal with Egypt would make good, geopolitical sense. Moscow is working to solidify its role as partner and arms dealer to Sisi’s government: taking advantage of a void left by the United States, which began distancing itself from Egypt after Sisi came to power in 2014.”
Egypt does figure as the most probable client in this case as reports of the aforementioned arms deal check out in leading defence news publications like Jane’s Defence Weekly as well. As for the void, it is a serious break away from the conventional military partnership between Egypt and the United States.
Traditionally, Egypt has been pivotal to the United States’ policy of being an offshore balancer in the Middle East. At the center of which has been Washington’s massive military aid to Cairo – second only to its aid to Israel. Between 1948 and 2015, the United States provided Egypt with about $76 billion in foreign aid, including $1.3 billion a year in military aid starting in 1987. The 1979 Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt, brokered by President Jimmy Carter ushered in the era of U.S. financial support for peace between Israel and her neighbors. Although, the United States is not a legal party to the aforementioned treaty, which also does not include any aid obligations for the United States, it has traditionally provided foreign aid to both Israel and Egypt to “ensure a regional balance of power and sustain security cooperation with both countries.”
Today however, Egypt is turning to powers like Russia and France when it comes to arms procurements, in order to convey its indignation towards Washington – first sparked during the Arab Spring.
In 2011, under the Egyptian edition of the Arab Spring, the concurrent images of U.S.-made tanks and gas canisters being employed by the Mubarak administration against protestors in Tahrir Square, rightfully brought “scrutiny upon the historical and remarkably constant U.S. military assistance to Egypt”. This led to the Obama administration’s stance of favoring the “Egyptian people’s hunger for change” over its long-standing ally President Mubarak. Later in 2013, the Egyptian military performed a coup to overthrow the democratically elected government of President Muhammad Morsi, and Defence Minister Abdul Fattah al-Sisi ascended to power. In view of the same, the Obama administration launched a review of U.S. assistance policy towards Egypt. This review was instituted with regards to the “legality of continued assistance to Egypt’s government given U.S. law prohibiting assistance to any government whose duly elected leader is deposed by military coup or decree.” This prompted the Obama administration to momentarily freeze the dispensation of any further military aid to Egypt, to express displeasure with Egypt’s military crackdown on street protests.
Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies maintains that Egypt’s shift away from the United States following Sisi’s ascendence to office came as a “wake-up call” for Egypt. He adds, “(The Egyptian military) started to look at the rupture with the United States as a possible opportunity to diversify their military suppliers.” In February 2014, the Egyptian military strongman (eventually President) Abdul Fattah al-Sisi chose Russia as the destination of his premier visit to a non-Arab country since the military coup that oversaw the ouster of President Muhammad Morsi. In 2014, in an op-ed entitled “Tilt towards Russia” in the Al-Ahram, retired Egyptian General Mahmoud Khalaf, a military consultant and strategic expert at Nasser Military Academy, said “(U.S. suspension of arms in 2013) paved the way for interim president Adly Mansour and then defence minister Al-Sisi to resuscitate ties with Russia, a move that had strong public support.” According to one Egyptian professor, “diversifying the sources of arms is an important issue for Egypt to free it from subordination to the United States.” Egypt also procured arms from France during that period. In 2014, France sold Egypt four naval frigates (corvette) in a deal worth $1.35 billion.
However, claims of diversification are rather baseless since Egypt’s military arsenal has been substantially diverse through its transitions from being a Soviet ally during the early years of the Cold War, to the shift of being allied with Washington post the Camp David Accords of 1978. As a report in the Defense Industry Daily enunciates, the Egyptian Air Force boasts of a fleet of around 18 Mirage 2000s, 200+ F-16s, and over 100 Russian MiG-21s, and recent license-built Chinese J-7 counterparts. On land, Egypt hones about 3,000 American-built tanks like M1 and M60 tanks, and M113-derivates. In addition, 1,200 Soviet tanks upgraded to Ramses II (T-55) or RO-120 Mk.III (T-62) status, and older OTR-60 family, BTR and locally produced Fahd APCs. Diversification has been a rather usual trend amongst the Egyptians – even under during the Obama administration. For example, back in 2010 Egyptians “flirted” with the Pakistanis over a Sino-Pak version of the F-16 called the JF-17.
The United States eventually overturned the freeze in 2015. President Obama personally conveyed the overturning of the freeze in a phone call with President Sisi. As part of the reaffirmation of Washington’s commitment, the United States released 20 Harpoon missiles, 12 F-16 aircrafts and 125 M1A1 Abrams tank kits. It also reiterated its commitment to maintain Egypt as the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign military financing.
However, Egypt continued with its “diversification”. According to a February 2016 Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report entitled ‘Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations’, in February 2015, Egypt purchased 24 Dassault Rafale multirole fighters, a frigate, and missiles from France in a deal worth an estimated $5.9 billion. France delivered the first three planes in July 2015. Further, in April 2016, France signed deals worth $2.26 billion with Egypt during a visit by French President Francois Hollande to Cairo. The deals included contracts for a military telecommunications satellite expected to be built by France’s Airbus Space Systems et Thales Alenia Space. In June 2016, Egypt received first of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers from France, the second carrier is slated to arrive later this month. The deal was reached in fall last year at a price of $1 billion.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Egypt became the third largest client between 2011-15, for France’s international arms exports. As per the February 2016 SIPRI report, Egypt accounted for 9.5 percent of France’s 5.6 percent share of international arms exports between 2011-15. Arms imports by Egypt grew by 37 percent between 2006-10 and 2011-15. They rose “particularly steeply” in 2015.
As for Russia, back in 2014, Alexander Fomin, head of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation announced that Russia and Egypt have initialed arms contracts worth $3.5 billion, to cover small arms, air defense systems and artillery. In a deal with Russia, Egypt will receive 46 Ka-52 Alligator helicopters which can operate on the Mistral-class helicopter carrier. From Russia, as mentioned earlier, Egypt also moved to acquire 46 MiG-29 multirole fighters, in a contract signed in early 2015, and Antey-2500 (S-300) anti-ballistic missile system, in a contract worth $1 billion to be fulfilled by end of 2016. In addition, reports have surfaced stating Russia’s willingness to refurbish and update Soviet-era weaponry that has been in service with the Egyptian army for over four decades.
Egypt regularly cites security threats on multiple fronts in its justification of large and varied arms acquisitions. France in its expedited sales to Cairo reciprocates by citing Egypt’s urgent needs in view of the “threats that it faces.” In February 2015, President Hollande told reporters in Brussels, “I believe that, given the current context, it’s very important that Egypt is able to act to uphold stability and to be in security, not only stability on its own territory, but stability in the region” However, experts have raised questions over that rationale. In a report in Le Monde, titled “La claque de l’Egypte à son allié américain” (The Slap of Egypt to its American ally), Robert Springborg, a professor at France’s Science Po argued that Egypt didn’t need the Rafale jets to confront threats, as its air force already has as many as 230 F-16 fighter jets.
Thus, Egypt’s recent overt attempts to “diversify” its arms acquisition aren’t to tackle any functional urgencies or threats, but to send Washington a message regarding its continued indignation with the temporary suspension of American military aid in 2013. Although, with deals clocked at over $15 billion dollars with Russia and France, it is a very expensive message to send.
Kashish Parpiani is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. His primary research interest is the United States’ Primacy and Grand Strategy. This piece was written in consultation with Mr. Yiftah Shapir, Head, Military Balance Project at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv, Israel.