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Friday, 28 July 2017

Egyptian Navy upgraded - Seeking for security or an indication of strategic aspirations?

Written by Theodore Bazinis*

''A navy is a state’s main instrument of maritime force. What it should do, what doctrine it holds, what ships it deploys, and how it fights are determined by practical political and military choices in relation to national needs. Choices are made according to the state’s goals, perceived threat, maritime opportunity…'' [1] (Baer, 1994)

Some of the most modern additions to the Egyptian Navy, Type 209/1400
submarine, Ezzat class missile boat and Aquitaine class frigate
Are the recent Egyptian naval procurements in coherence with the above mentioned words? On March 17, the first Gowind Corvette of the Egyptian navy successfully completed the first phase of sea trials and will soon be fully operational. Furthermore on April 19, the second Submarine Type 209/1400 was acquired. During the last five years the Egyptian Navy has materialized procurements which have upgraded its capabilities. What’s the ultimate purpose? Just seeking for Security, reflect of extensive strategic aspirations or political oriented decisions?


Geopolitical Situation and Strategic Threats and Challenges in Maritime Domain.

Sitting astride on one of the most valuable geostrategic point, Egypt is a node between Europe, Asia and Africa. Her geographical position gives the benefit of control over one of the most important choke point: the Suez Canal and simultaneously provides a key role to the security of the northern approaches of Bab el Mandeb Strait. As a consequence, threats emerging from the maritime environment affect Egyptian interests and security directly. Threats deriving from failed states, interstate contests for demarcation or exploitation of maritime zones, interstate conflicts and rivalries, civil wars (Syria), insurgencies (Yemen), terrorism (ISIS), piracy/armed robbery, humanitarian crisis, illegal migration and trafficking, security of energy resources and infrastructures in Mediterranean and Red Sea as also Illegal Unregulated Unreported Fishing (IUU), are some of the threats and challenges originated from a complex geopolitical environment.
  
Location of Egypt


Major naval procurements

New vessels acquired and the ongoing procurements, except from upgrading naval capabilities have also reduced the over-reliance from one provider (you can see the whole Egyptian fleet as of 2017, here). New assets (already delivered or upcoming), are:
  • 2 Mistral class amphibious warfare ships (France)
Mistral class ENS Gamal Abdel Nasser leaves Saint-Nazaire port to go on sea trials.
ENS Anwar El Sadat is seen in the background.
  • 1 (+ 1) Aquitaine class frigates (France)
Tahya Misr frigate of the Egyptian Navy. More information here.
  • 4 (+2) Gowind 2500 (El Fateh) class corvettes (France)
El Fateh, the lead ship of the Gowind 2500 class corvettes
  • 4 Ambassador Mk III (Ezzat) class fast attack missile craft (USA)
Ezzat, the lead ship of the Ambassador Mk III class FACM. More information here.
  • 1 Molniya class fast attack missile craft (Russia) 
The sole vessel of the Project 1242.1 Molniya class FACM
  • 2 (+ 2) Type 209/1400 submarines (Germany) 
S41, the first boat of the new submarines for the Egyptian Navy
  • 2 Osprey class minehunters (USA) 
USS Cardinal before its transfer to the Egyptian Navy
  • 10 (?) Swiftships patrol coastal boats (USA)
Swiftships delivers the first two patrol coast craft to Egyptian Navy. [2]
Adding also the recent information oriented by Zelenodolsk Shipyard annual activity report due to which Egypt is interested to order a number of Russian-built  Buyan-M class corvettes. [3]

Buyan-M class corvette of the Russian Navy, armed with Kalibr cruise missiles


Critics made regarding the Mistral acquisition

Although Egypt is the first Arab country to have acquired Landing Helicopter Deck (LHD) vessels, the decision provoked negative comments, focused on the following points:
a. Egypt lacks experience to operate efficiently such a ship.

b. Egyptian crew’s deficiencies in terms of technical skills will deprive the full exploitation of vessel’s capabilities.

c. Lack of experience in amphibious operations and integrated Task Force operational procedures, particularly on the ability to create a comprehensive aircraft carrier battle group.

d. It was an exclusively political decision in discord with Egyptian interests.
 Although critics refer to real facts, I feel that the most of them are based on misperceptions:

a. Acquisition of modern naval equipment ‘’builds’’ or/and reinforces abilities in tactical level, though this procedure is always arduous and long-standing as was mentioned by the father of history Thucydides. So even if Egypt has a long way to go now it’s in her hand to “shape” her naval ambitions.

b. Actors on the strategic chessboard move their pawns due to estimations made on capabilities rather than on abilities.

c. Mistral vessels have such capabilities which could provide Egypt with the opportunity to get involved in regional theaters (for example in Libya, Syria, Yemen) and assume Operations such as humanitarian / disaster relief, non- Combatant Evacuation (NEO), Peace (Keeping, Enforcement, Support),resulting to reinforce her strategic role in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), let alone her position as leading nation of the Arab world.

d. Due to the operational theater in which Mistrals are planned to operate it’s easily seen that the threats are asymmetrical in nature rather than conventional. Considering that a comprehensive battle-group is not absolutely necessary. My point here is that Mistral could perform solely or escorted by a small number of Frigates and Fast Missile Crafts.

e. Mistral vessels as part of a comprehensive naval modernization program are (or could be) an indication of a strategic decision and not just a political motivated one.


Rating Future Egyptian Navy

After the completion of this ambitious modernization program I could assume Egyptian navy as either a ‘’Green Water Navy’’ or due to G. Till categorization standards as a ‘’medium level naval power capable to project power offshore in a regional range.’’ 


An adjustment to strategic challenges or a response to threats?

Even if everyone recognizes the importance of Suez Canal for Egyptian prosperity the answer to the question “if Egyptian strategic aspirations are limited just in securing Suez Canal and its approaches’’ is rather negative. If the opposite was the case then vessels like Mistral, Fremm, Gowind or even Perry class frigates would be completely improper. Security of the just immediate maritime sphere requisites lighter and faster vessels like Ambassador Class, FPB or even coast guard patrol craft, in other words it demands assets of a brown water navy.

Egypt is a historic and critical actor for the regional stability and security. Foremost Egypt has never concealed her interests and pursues to exercise a leading role in MENA region.

Above mentioned facts imply that naval modernization is not a haphazard decision or driven by diplomatic considerations, but a holistic strategic approach in alignment with contemporary and future geopolitical demands and a response to dynamics arising from maritime environment. While thus far Egypt is occupied with her inland security and stability, building a ‘’green navy’’ signals a U-turn, in pursuit of an enhanced role in the area in order to:

a. Establish a robust presence in Eastern Mediterranean where contests in the maritime domain are undercurrent.

b. Be a reliable partner for external actors who have interests and are involved in the region (USA, Russia, EU, China).

c. Be capable to perform duties so as to protect sovereignty of Egypt and enhance law enforcement and ensure good order at sea.

d. Assume commitments to protect the SLOC, providing energy security services, such as safeguarding pipelines and energy infrastructures at neighboring seas.

e. Secure Bab el Mandeb where turmoil caused by Houthi insurgents and Somali pirates could pose a serious threat for global shipping and Suez Canal traffic.

f. Balance Iranian expansionism in the East Mediterranean and Arabic peninsula.

g. Participate in crisis management, conflict resolution and disaster relief operations.

h. Participate in initiatives that enhance regional maritime cooperation and security.

Beyond the arguments about Egyptian navy five facts are for sure:

a. Contemporary challenges in maritime environment affect all political entities. Capability to respond, rewards with exaltation of geostrategic value.

b. In a globalized world naval power is a critical indicator of state power.

c. Everyone do it care of you in contingencies (and not in absolute power).

d. Navies are able to project power over a large space and more importantly create potentiality for alliances.
Egyptian Navy warships in formation.


* Theodore Bazinis is a Political Scientist –International Relations (MA) and Researcher in the Institute of International Relations in Athens, at Maritime Strategy and Security Department.  

Sources:
1. Baer, G. W., 1994. The US Navy, 1890-1990. One hundred years of Sea power. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press
2. http://www.defenceweb.co.za, access 27 July  2017
3. https://www.menadefense.net, access 13 July 2017

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