Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 26 November 2020

Egypt-Russia naval exercises highlight Cairo’s defence ambitions

Cairo may be sending a message to regional rivals with recent naval drills

Egyptian Navy vessel the 'ENS Gamal Abdel Nasser'.
Egyptian Navy vessel the 'ENS Gamal Abdel Nasser'.

On Monday, several Egyptian warships were spotted en route to the Black Sea, where they are set to link up with Russian forces for a joint exercise called Bridge of Friendship 2020.

That might unsettle some observers in Washington.

Over the decades, the United States has prioritised military aid to Egypt, allocating $40 billion since 1980, according to the US State Department.

High-profile arms transfers have included America’s M1 Abrams tanks, which the Egyptians now manufacture locally, and Apache helicopters, nicknamed “flying tanks".

But some may be surprised to know Egypt also maintains a large “blue water” navy.

Since 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has pushed for modernisation of the country’s naval fleet, much of which consists of older vessels transferred from the US.

At least one of the vessels in the current drill dates back to the 1990s: an Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate, one of four obtained from the US by Egypt following closer naval co-operation between the two countries.

But two other, more modern vessels headed to the Black Sea highlight Cairo’s ambition.

The older US frigate is accompanied by a Gowind-class corvette, probably one of several boats purchased for €1bn ($1.19bn) from French company Naval Group in 2014. The vessel is armed with anti-ship missiles and torpedoes.

An Ambassador MK III fast missile craft joins them, one of four vessels designed to order for the Egyptians by US company VT Halter Marine.

Keeping things ship-shape

The Black Sea exercise is not geopolitically insignificant.

Russia and Egypt have been strengthening military ties, with recent high profile arms deals involving a $2bn order of Russian SU-35 jets in 2019, which reports suggest caused some consternation in Washington.

But the joint exercises should be seen in the context of routine drills by the Egyptian Navy with numerous other nations.

Earlier this month the British Royal Navy also held drills with the Egyptian Navy, while James Heappey, UK Minister for the Armed Forces, met Egyptian senior naval officers.

Two British warships and the Egyptian Mistral-class helicopter carrier ENS Anwar El Sadat, which was purchased from France, also took part in those exercises. The Royal Navy tweeted an image of one of its ships alongside the Egyptian carrier.

In October, Egyptian vessels took part in exercises with the Spanish Navy and in July 2019 Egypt held the joint exercise Eagle Response 19 with the UAE and US. The exercise included live fire drills, according to analyst Mahmoud Gamal.

Egypt is also diversifying naval equipment suppliers among its allies.

In 2018, Germany finalised a deal to sell four frigates to Egypt at a total cost of $2.7bn. One of the ships will be built in Alexandria in partnership with German company ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems.

Mr El Sisi no doubt hopes these modernisation and training efforts will give regional foes second thoughts about challenging Cairo’s interests in an increasingly contested Mediterranean.

But observers should not read too much into a specific joint exercise. Cairo will likely continue to pursue balanced foreign relations, especially in the realm of defence.

Updated: November 17, 2020 06:06 PM

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