Written by Ahmed Sayed exclusively for SouthFront; Edited by Brian Kalman
On the 5th of January, 2017, the Egyptian President Abdel el-Sisi visited the port city of Safaga on the Red Sea and announced the establishment of the Southern Fleet. The backbone of the new fleet will be the two Mistral LHDs acquired from France. The vessel can carry up to 16 attack helicopters, 70 combat vehicles (including 17 main battle tanks) and approximately 450 marines. The vessel has a length overall (LOA) of 199 meters, a beam of 32 meters, a displacement of 22,000 tons and a cruising speed of 19 knots.
Since his inauguration, the government of el-Sisi began an ambitious plan to expand the power and scope of the capabilities of the nation’s navy. The Mistrals, a FREMM multi-purpose frigate, four Gowind 2500 Class corvettes, and four German made Type 209 diesel electric attack submarines (SSK) are at the heart of this effort. These investments exhibit an increase in coastal patrol and reconnaissance, and a marked focus on anti-submarine warfare (ASW). The FREMM frigate design is the result of a collaboration between DCNS of France and Armaris and Fincantieri of Italy, while the Gowind 2500 is a DCNS design.
Egypt leveraged its cordial and cooperative relations with both the French and Russian governments to reach an agreement to purchase both Mistral class vessels for only $750 million USD. The Egyptian government made the decision to realign its arms acquisitions from arms manufacturers in France and Russia, after relations with the United States became heavily strained after the deposing of Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013. The Russian government was pivotal in securing the deal between DCNS and Egypt after the French government refused to honor a contract to deliver the first two “Russian Mistrals”. In the wake of the Ukrainian crisis and the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and the resultant EU sanctions regime, France reneged on the legal contract to supply the two vessels and technical support services. The contract amounted to over $1.3 billion USD. Russian shipbuilders are currently working on a number of LHD designs to replace the Mistrals.
In fact, the Egyptian Navy requires the active support of the Russian Navy to properly learn how to use the Mistrals, as they were built to specific Russian standards, for use by Russian crews. If Egypt were to remove all of the Russian tailored systems from the vessels, the cost and extent of the refit would render the vessels useless for all practical purposes. Russia did not agree to help Egypt remove such systems, yet has agreed to sell Egypt a full complement of the Ka-52K naval attack helicopters that were originally designed to be used on the ships. The contract to build and deliver the Ka-52k helicopters includes maintenance and technical support.
In turn, the Egyptian Navy will allow Russian naval architects and technical personnel full access to the vessels in support of Russian efforts in designing and producing indigenous vessels of a similar pattern. Thus, Egypt and Russia have joined in a strategic partnership that will aid both in achieving the goal of strengthening the naval capabilities of their respective nations.
Why Purchase the Mistrals?
Why did the Egyptian leadership decide to purchase two large and complex vessels, a type that the nation’s navy has no technical or practical experience operating, especially considering that they were tailor made for the Russian Navy? On the surface the decision seems quite perplexing. As stated earlier, both Egyptian and Russian strategic interests must be considered in formulating a rational explanation for such a substantial national defense investment.
The recent discoveries of substantial natural gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea within Egypt’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and the desire to secure these assets, especially considering they lay between the EEZs of Egypt and Turkey, offers one insight into strengthening of Egypt’s naval power projection capabilities. Egypt was forced to negotiate a maritime demarcation agreement with both Cyprus and Greece to avoid future disputes over the rights to the natural gas, and a number of cooperative commercial agreements were signed regarding any future energy extraction endeavors.
The ongoing crisis in Libya, and the substantial support on the part of Egypt for the Libyan National Army in its fight against non-state actors and terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, may one day lead to an Egyptian military intervention in Libya to preserve Egypt’s national security interests in safeguarding the country’s western border and preventing radical groups from obtaining a foothold there. Another essential reason behind the expansion of the Egyptian Navy, which explains the European support for it, is the current flow of migrants from North Africa. The EU wants to work with Egypt in a similar fashion to how it has dealt with Turkey, to limit the flow of migrants from Libya by sea. The EU would like a strong Egyptian naval presence in the southern Mediterranean to interdict migrant trafficking and to possibly play a role in returning migrants back to North Africa. In such a way, a strong Egyptian Navy will play a stabilizing factor for Europe.
Strategic Importance of the Horn of Africa
The Horn of Africa is a key geographical region in controlling world maritime trade. It lies near an important global trade route, positioned at the nexus of the Strait of Aden (the southern approach to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal), the Strait of Hormuz, and their openings to the Indian Ocean. This region witnessed growing importance and military conflict in the 1980s and early 1990s, between the proxies of the USSR and the United States. The Somali strongman, President Mohamed Siad Barre, first worked with the Soviet Union in maintaining power, yet switched sides in the late 1970s to find the United States a more than willing sponsor. Siad Barre was deposed in the early 1990s when the nation was wracked with internal conflict and a number of warring factions vied for control. The power vacuum left by the breakup of the Siad dictatorship has yet to be filled, and the resulting failed state has become a haven for many Islamic terrorist groups and crime organizations that rely on kidnapping, extortion and piracy.
The current state of affairs in Somalia and its destabilizing influence on the strategically important Horn of Africa, has forced both regional and global powers to establish a foothold in the region to protect their interests. The United States, Saudi Arabia, France, China and the United Arab Emirates have all established naval bases in the area. The United States operates the largest military base in Djibouti, Camp Lemmonier, with approximately 4000 personnel assigned to the base.
The Iranian-Saudi tensions in the area, with Iran allegedly transporting weapons and ammunition to the Houthi Saleh alliance via the maritime route and Saudi Arabian naval vessels supporting the pro-Hadi coalition, have increased since the latter’s intervention in Yemen since March of 2015. Additionally, growing tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia started with Ethiopia’s construction of the Renaissance dam. The dam will reduce the supply of water from the Nile River to Egypt, and may very well lead to a humanitarian crisis in the country.
It is obvious that the current Egyptian authorities want to play a more definitive role in shaping regional and global policies effecting the region. The possession of the two Mistrals and their future use in the region will undoubtedly strengthen Egypt’s political position in dealing with global powers such as the United States, Russia and the E.U., and will restore Egypt to its traditional influential role in the region, especially considering a president that is seen as more friendly to Egypt, Donald Trump, became president in January, 2017.