French-made Rafale fighter jets make it to Egypt’s skies
Cairo - Three French-made Dassault Rafale fighter jets appeared in Egypt’s skies on July 21st, one day after the military received them in ceremonies at a French airbase.
The two-engine jets thundered towards a base on the outskirts of Cairo as residents of the capital rushed to balconies to see the source of the noise.
The warplanes are the first of 24 Egypt purchased from France in a $5.6 billion deal signed in February. The deal includes a multi-mission frigate and missiles.
Egyptian pilots specially trained by the French Air Force took charge of the three jets on July 20th. The planes are to be part of an August 6th ceremony marking the opening of the new Suez Canal project in Egypt.
The new Rafales, according to military analysts, serve Egypt’s desire to boost its air force and diversify its arms suppliers.
“Diversifying arms suppliers is very important if we really want to break monopolies in this regard,” Nabil Abulnaga, a retired army general, said. “The new warplanes are advanced and will contribute to defending Egypt’s sovereignty and that of other Arab states.”
Egypt is the first country to order Rafael jets from France, which has been using them in its air force since 2002. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi signalled his country’s desire to obtain the jets in September 2014 when he met French President François Hollande on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
The fact that the warplanes were delivered only five months after the deal was signed reflects France’s desire to bolster ties with Egypt, said Ehab Badawi, Egypt’s ambassador in France.
He said the planes were manufactured for the French Air Force but France decided to sell them to Egypt, which should expect delivery of the rest of the Rafales by the end of 2019.
Egypt is looking to Europe, Russia and China for arms supplies at a time of high tension in ties with the United States, Cairo’s traditional ally and arms supplier since the 1980s, following the ouster of Islamist president Muhammad Morsi in July 2013.
Soon after Morsi’s ouster, the Obama administration withheld some arms deliveries to Egypt and cut back hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid. The United States offers Egypt $1.5 billion, mostly in military aid, every year.
“The stance of the US towards Egypt’s political developments at the time was totally uncertain,” political analyst Abdel-Monem Halawa said. “This forced the new regime in Egypt to search for alternatives to the US as an arms supplier.”
The Rafale warplanes — 16 two-seaters and eight single-seaters — give the Egyptian Air Force the latest generation multi-role fighters capable of meeting the country’s operational requirements and enabling Egypt to secure its geostrategic position in the region, according to Dassault, the jets’ manufacturer.
The delivery of the jets comes at a time of high regional turmoil. Egypt, which has been unstable since the 2011 uprising that ended the rule of Hosni Mubarak, has been working to prevent unrest from seeping out of neighbouring Libya and regional countries, such as Syria and Iraq, into its territory.
Egypt faces a major security challenge in the Sinai — in its north-eastern part on the border with Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip — where a militant group linked to the Islamic State (ISIS) has attacked army and police personnel.
The Rafales are not expected to help Egypt a lot in its battles against the militant group in Sinai, Abulnaga said.
“Sinai is about guerrilla warfare, which means that the war there is only about guerrilla tactics,” he said.
Halawa, meanwhile, says the long-range planes will help Egypt defend its interests in the Gulf, strike targets deep into Libya, where ISIS is taking root and growing, and also defend the Bab el Mandeb strait.
“The air force will be the backbone of any action in this regard,” he said.
Egypt is part of a Saudi Arabia-led coalition attacking — from air only so far — the Shia Houthi militias in Yemen.
The insurgents took control of Sana’a, in September 2014 and then moved on to expand their influence to other parts of Yemen, giving fears to predominantly Sunni Gulf states.
Egyptian warships are also deployed in the strait to prevent effects from the war in Yemen on the Suez Canal, its indispensable waterway.