How regional challenges pushed Egypt to shift its military doctrine to ‘prevention’

New weapons systems have given Egypt greater military capabilities, particularly beyond its borders.
Sunday 28/10/2018
Developing challenges. An Egyptian Air Force fighter jet lands at an undisclosed location in Egypt.(Egyptian Ministry of Defence)
Developing challenges. An Egyptian Air Force fighter jet lands at an undisclosed location in Egypt.(Egyptian Ministry of Defence)

Cairo - Regional unrest and new security challenges have led to a radical change in Egypt’s air and naval defence strategies and the country’s military doctrine, analysts said.

As Egypt marked Armed Forces Day on October 14, it is clear how much Egypt’s military, particularly it’s naval and air forces, have changed in recent years.  Egypt armed forces stand 12th in the world, the military ranking agency Global Firepower said, with Cairo having spent billions of dollars in the past six years to upgrade its military and, in particular, its navy and air force.

The investment, analysts said, was necessary for the Egyptian military to meet developing challenges.

“There was an urgent need for revolutionising the capabilities of these two branches of the armed forces in light of changing regional and domestic conditions,” said retired Air Force General Hisham al-Halabi.

Halabi, who teaches a class on drone warfare at Egypt’s Nasser Military Academy, said Cairo had to upgrade its air force and naval capabilities as quickly as possible, despite the cost.

“Egypt found itself just in the middle of a region boiling with conflicts and this made it necessary for it to move quickly to protect its national security by revamping its military,” he said.

The Egyptian government purchased dozens of advanced fighter jets from Western countries, including dozens of twin-engine Rafale fighter jets and attack helicopters from France, sophisticated air defence systems from Russia and attack submarines from Germany.

The new weapons systems have given Egypt greater military capabilities, particularly beyond its borders.

“The rise of conflicts in a number of Middle East spots is directly affecting our national security,” said retired Navy Admiral Omar Ezz. “Our national security is not restricted to the piece of land our country occupies but it is far beyond this.”

The Egyptian Navy increased its presence off the coast of Sinai to cut off the Islamic State (ISIS) and other terrorist groups operating in the peninsula from receiving supplies or escaping.

The discovery of huge natural gas reserves off Egypt’s Mediterranean coast also expands the Navy’s responsibilities to protection of the gas fields.

The Egyptian Navy has increased its presence in the Bab el Mandeb Strait to protect shipping via the Suez Canal, particularly after Houthi rebels in Yemen attacked two oil tankers in July, which led Saudi Arabia to suspend oil shipments through the strait.

Egyptian Navy commander Lieutenant-General Ahmed Khaled confirmed to local media that the navy’s main responsibilities include protecting Egypt’s 21 ports, the Suez Canal and gas wells off the Egyptian coast.

“We also have to boost security in the southern part of the Red Sea and the Bab el Mandeb Strait,” Khaled said.

Modernisation has allowed the Egyptian Air Force to play a prominent role in the operation against ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula, as well as attacks beyond Egypt’s borders. On February 12, 2015, Egypt bombed ISIS strongholds in Libya’s Derna in retaliation for the killing of 21 Egyptian Copts.

Egyptian fighter jets have been in Libya’s skies several times in the following years, including on May 26, 2017, after ISIS killed 28 Christian pilgrims travelling to a Western Desert monastery.

“The protection of national borders makes it sometimes important for the army to strike targets outside these borders,” said Saad al-Zunt, the head of local think-tank Strategic Studies Centre. “This strategy is very important to nip any threats to national security in the bud.”

The shift in Egypt’s military doctrine was unavoidable to face growing national security threats, observers said.

While Egypt’s armed forces followed a strictly defensive doctrine for decades, the military has moved towards a more “preventative” model to protect Egypt’s national security and interests.

“Regional instability and the penetration of terrorist organisations into some countries have imposed a new reality which demands constant around-the-clock vigilance,” Egyptian Air Force commander Air Marshal Abbas Helmi told the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper.

“Irregular warfare has proliferated, pitting small groups of non-state actors against standing state armies. Our pilots have acquired new skills and combat methodologies while carrying out the additional tasks which have been assigned to the Air Force, not least intercepting arms and drug smugglers.”

The war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthis has seen Tehran extend its influence close to Egyptian waters, particularly the Bab el Mandeb Strait that leads to the Suez Canal.

Turkey, another regional rival, has extended its influence south of Egypt, including taking administrative control of the Sudanese Red Sea island of Suaken creating another threat.

“Egypt’s leadership knows that if it stands idly by and watches dangers rearing their heads around Egypt today, these dangers will be inside Egypt tomorrow,” Zunt said. “This is why it is taking action to defeat the danger at its source by taking the fight outside national borders.”