How serious is the Egypt – Russia Rapprochement?
Not since the Anwar Sadat expelled Russian advisors has the Egyptian government shown so much interest in a closer relationship with Russia. The Russian foreign and defense ministers visited Egypt this week as the new leadership in Cairo searches for new allies in order to lessen military dependence on Washington. A sign of that new relationship was the arrival of the Russian missile cruiser Varyag for a six day stay in the port of Alexandria, Egypt – the first major Russian naval vessel to visit an Egyptian port since the end of the cold War.
A major driver in the visit is the cold attitude towards the new Egyptian leadership by the Obama Administration, which has stopped its $ 1.3 billion in military assistance to Egypt. The high level Russian delegation has made it clear that the purpose of this visit is to strengthen relations and expand military/technical cooperation, which means arranging to sell Russian arms to Egypt.
This is a clear slap in the face to the Obama Administration. But, how serious is it? Does this mean that Egypt will once again become a client state of Russia and primarily use Russian weapons systems?
Probably not. Changing arms producers is much harder than simply buying a new car for one’s family. Egypt has billions of dollars invested in American and Western arms – acknowledged to be better than Russian weapon systems. In addition, Egypt has been relying on American training for the last third of a century, so there are very few officers or soldiers who are competent to operate the Russian arms currently in the Egyptian arsenal.
And, although the Egyptian still have a lot of Russian arms in storage, much of that is obsolete. Even the rifle and handgun calibers of the Russian small arms of the Cold War have changed, which means that just pulling them out of storage and putting them in active duty with Russian supplied parts and ammunition isn’t an easy alternative.
There is also the fact that the current relations freeze with the US is primarily due to Obama and he will be out of office in 3 years. A new American administration would probably be friendlier and more willing to restore military aid. Should the Egyptian government spend billions just to turn around again in 3 more years?
However, in the meantime, there some items of military hardware that is high on Egypt’s shipping list.
The most important would be new air defense weapons. Although the US has been generous in supplying Egypt, it was less than eager to help modernize Egypt’s air defense system, lest it be able to stop Israeli aircraft. Consequently, the Egyptian air defense network relies on antiquated Soviet missiles and radar, which is desperately in need of modernization. That means that Egypt is ready to invest in Buk M2, Tor M2 and Pantsir- S1 air defense systems, providing the financing can be found.
Another Russian weapons system at the top of Egypt’s shopping list is the MiG-29 M2 fighter jet, an advanced version of the Soviet-designed aircraft. Egypt is interested in 24 of the warplanes, a package that may be worth US$1.7 billion.
But, is Egypt ready for a major modernization program that relies primarily on Russian weapons?
Let’s look at each branch of the Egyptian military and review its status.
The Egyptian Army is the largest in either the Middle East or Africa. Although it once relied heavily upon Russian arms, it’s now is supplied by a mix of NATO countries, including the US, France, and Britain. Other major suppliers are Brazil and China. It also has a large domestic arms industry and manufactures the American M1A2 Abrams tank.
The small arms of Egypt are decidedly NATO in origin. Their pistols come from Italy, submachine guns from Germany, assault rifles from the US and Italy, and machineguns from Belgium. Those Russian style arms like the Misr Assault Rifle that are still in use are styles that were abandoned by the Soviets decades ago. They still in use older Russian calibers and were actually manufactured in Egypt by Egyptian military factories. Since Russia no longer offers free weapons, there is little advantage to moving to Russian small arms.
Although the Russian RPG-7 remains in the Egyptian arsenal as an anti-tank weapon, the more modern anti-tank weapons like the Milan (French) Swingfire (British), and TOW (American) are NATO standard. A move to Russian anti-tank weapons would negatively affect Egypt’s relations with France and Britain more than it would hurt the US.
Egypt has a large and very modern tank force thanks to the US decision to allow Egypt to buy and build the modern M1A1 Abrams tank. Consequently, Egypt’s tank force is only second to the Israelis in terms of numbers and quality.
Although Egypt has older Russian tanks in reserve, they are obsolete in terms of the Abrams or any Israeli tank they would go up against. The most modern Russian tank in Egyptian service is the T-80, which was introduced in 1976. It has a bad reputation of high fuel consumption and poor combat performance. In fact several were given to South Korea by Russia to pay off some old Soviet debts.
The Egyptians also have the Ramses II, which is an updated Soviet T-55, as well as some old Soviet T-62s. These have been modernized by NATO countries like Britain, Germany, and Italy and would benefit little from additional Russian military assistance.
Since the war in 1973, which saw the triumph and the destruction of some of the Soviet equipment, Egypt has become increasingly reliant on NATO weapons supplied from nations that Egypt wishes to maintain friendly relations with. Only some of the modern Russian weapons offer a quantitative edge over the NATO equipment. In addition, much of the older Soviet era equipment is domestically supported and not in need of Russian modernization.
Egyptian Air Force
Although not the region’s largest air force, the Egyptian Air Force is one of the largest air forces in the region. Currently, the backbone of the EAF is the F-16. The French Mirage 2000 is the other modern interceptor used by the EAF. The Egyptian Air Force has 216 F-16s (plus 20 on order) making it the 4th largest operator of the F-16 in the World. It has about 579 combat aircraft and 149 armed helicopters having 35 Apache’s AH-64D as it also continues to fly extensively upgraded MiG-21s, F-7 Skybolts, F-4 Phantoms, Dassault Mirage Vs, and the C-130 Hercules among other planes.
Egypt still uses the older Mig-21 aircraft that was given to them in the 1960s by the Soviets. However, their airframes are getting old and an attempt to modernize them with Ukrainian help was not terribly successful.
The decision by the Obama administration to stop F-16 shipments has definitely made the Russian Mig-29 (which was designed to counter the US F-16) more attractive.
But there may be more to this deal than meets the eye and it may be more in Russia’s interest than Egypt’s. Financial problems have made it hard for the Russian air force to buy as many modern Mig-29 aircraft as they need, which means that additional business from the Egyptian Air Force would be a welcome benefit to the Russian military as it would lower the cost per aircraft. However, since the Russians are stretched financially to buy Mig-29 for themselves that limits the financial terms they can offer the Egyptians, unless Egypt finds a financial supporter like Saudi Arabia to pay for the Migs. Otherwise, the aircraft offered to Egypt will be older Russian Mig-29s that will be replaced in the Russian Air Force by newer Mig-29 models.
If Saudi Arabia will be the financier of the Egyptian aircraft purchase, it seems more likely that they will make a deal with a NATO aircraft manufacturer that will supply fighter aircraft to Saudi Arabia. That will allow them to make a better deal for their own air force as well as buying Egyptian aircraft.
The biggest problem for the Egyptian Air Force is pilot training and maintenance. Egypt has the highest F-16 accident rate, which indicates systemic problems with the Egyptian Air Force organization and operation. The addition of Mig-29s to the inventory will not solve that problem and may cause more trouble as maintenance organization are forced to rely on another logistical system for parts and maintenance.
However, military aircraft are a very visible acquisition, make headlines and are a point of national pride. That means this may be one way that Egypt and Russia can snub the US and make headlines while doing it. However, traditionally, aircraft acquisitions take years for delivery and pilot training to take place.
Considering the other navies in the Mediterranean like the US, Russian, British, Italian, and French fleets, the Egyptian navy is relatively small. Most of these vessels were built by NATO countries and use NATO standard guns, missiles, radar, and electronics.
Russian naval vessels have never been in the same class as NATO countries in terms of quality and any movement to Russian ships would be a serious step down and threaten the logistical support of their current fleet.
The only benefit the Russian have to offer in terms of naval support would be if they build some sort of maintenance facility at an Egyptian port that would be available to Egyptian naval vessels. However, how good that maintenance support would be for NATO ships is questionable.
Will Egypt Become a Major Russian Customer?
The short answer is may be. Russia can no longer afford to give away weapons as they did in the Cold War. They are also having financial problems modernizing their own forces, which limits their largess.
Egypt meanwhile has a major arms industry that needs adjustments if Egypt started buying from Russia. Such purchases would also impact relations with other NATO countries that Egypt has no desire to alienate.
Egypt also knows that it has an edge in terms of American relations. The US eventually is concerned about maintaining the Camp David accords and that means continuing to give military assistance to Egypt. To totally cut off Egypt might put these agreements at risk. It would also mean economic problems for several American defense companies that are located in states that might go Republican if their economies deteriorate any more.
Undoubtedly, Egypt and Russia have decided it is in both their interests to improve relations at this time. It allows Egypt to scare the US a bit and gives the Russians a chance to embarrass the Americans. Another favorable dimension complementing relations is the Russian grain that Russia has been exporting to Egypt for long time and It was reported by Stratfor analysis that :
“Russia can support Egypt with larger grain exports. In the 2012-13 grain season, Russia made up a third of Egypt’s grain imports, approximately 2.7 million tons. Russia is currently having a healthy year for grain production at home, with a rise in exports for 2013-14 expected. The problem in recent months between Egypt and Russia has been the price — Cairo has been unable to afford Russian grain, which is more expensive than grain from countries such as Ukraine. An agreement for discounted grain is a possibility going forward.
Greater Iraqi–American Cooperation Needed on Counterterrorism, Syria, and Iran
By James Phillips
November 5, 2013
Issue Brief 4079
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki came to Washington last week in search of greater U.S. security assistance in battling the al-Qaeda-led insurgency that increasingly threatens Iraq’s internal security as well as regional stability in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The United States shares Maliki’s goal of defeating al-Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq, which has expanded into neighboring Syria. But it should be assured that Maliki’s Shia-dominated government does not use U.S. arms to crush the legitimate rights and aspirations of Iraq’s Sunni Arab, Kurdish, and Christian minorities, which are enshrined in Iraq’s constitution. Washington should also press Maliki to distance himself from Iran’s outlaw regime and halt Iraqi smuggling operations that undermine international sanctions against Iran.Read more…
A Strong and Focused National Security Strategy
By Jim Talent and Jon Kyl
October 31, 2013
When President Obama took office, the armed services of the United States had already reached a fragile state. The Navy had shrunk to its smallest size since before World War I; the Air Force was smaller, and its aircraft older, than at any time since the inception of the service. The Army was stressed by years of war; according to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, it had been underfunded before the invasion of Iraq and was desperately in need of resources to replace its capital inventory. Since the President took office, the government has cut $1.3 trillion from defense budgets over the next ten years. The last such reduction was embodied in sequestration. At the time sequestration was passed, the top leaders of the military, and of both parties (the very people who enacted sequestration), warned that it would have a devastating effect on America’s military.Read more…
Solving Egypt’s Subsidy Problem
By Dalibor Rohac
November 6, 2013
Subsidies to consumer goods, including fuels and food, account for almost one third of Egypt’s public spending, or 13 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Not only are subsidies highly ineffective in helping the poor, they are also an increasingly unsustainable drain on the country’s public finances and its foreign reserves. Yet reform remains a thorny issue in Egypt’s unstable political environment—mostly because subsidies are the main instrument of social assistance used by the government. Subsidies to consumer goods and fuels have existed in the country since the 1920s. Various approaches are available for scaling them down or eliminating them altogether. However, most of the prior attempts to reform the subsidy system in Egypt have failed. Cash transfers targeted at the poor would be a superior policy relative to the status quo.Read more…
Saudi Arabia and the Arab “Frontline” States
By Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
November 4, 2013
The United States needs to rethink its attitudes and polices towards Saudi Arabia and the Arab “frontline” states. The “Arab spring” has not become some sudden window to democratic reform. It has instead unleashed a broad pattern of regional instability in an area already deeply destabilized by extremism and terrorism, growing religious struggles between Sunni and other sects as well as between Sunni extremists and moderates, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its removal as a military counterbalance to Iran, a growing Iranian set of threats at every level, and massive demographic pressures on weak structures of governance and economic development. The day may come some years in the future where the resulting convulsions in states like Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen produce the conditions for effective reform: political parties capable of producing effective leaders and governance, politics based on compromise rather than a history of conspiracy and winner’s take all, elections that produce national rather than ethnic and sectarian tensions, and a rule of law rather than winner takes all and repression. Today, however, upheavals mean political instability and violence, massive new economic problems, power struggles, repression and refugees. The issue is not democracy and the more ideal human rights, it is the most basic set of human rights: security and the ability to lead a safe and secure life.Read more…
One Word Will Define Egypt’s Constitution
By Nathan J. Brown
November 1, 2013
Those interested in following every word of the work of the Committee of 50 drafting comprehensive revisions to Egypt’s constitution now have a variety of sources to follow: one “official” twitter feed; an “unofficial” one; and the latest addition, an “official” Facebook page. But the most important word governing Egypt’s future constitutional order will not be mentioned in any of those places. Indeed, it will not even be placed in the final text scheduled to be submitted to voters next month. That fateful word will be spoken only by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and it will be a simple “yes” or “no” concerning his candidacy for the presidency of the Egyptian republic.Read more…
How the West should Stop Crippling the Syrian Opposition
By Jean-Pierre Filiu
German Marshall Fund
November 06, 2013
Since its start in March 2011, the Syrian revolution has presented a challenge to classical interpretations of political protest and conventional attitudes toward armed insurgencies.
The markedly grassroots nature of this popular uprising has made the quest for a monolithic leadership elusive. In addition, the various underground groups that make up the opposition have nurtured complex dialectics with exiled militants. The Syrian National Council (SNC) that was established in Istanbul in October 2011 was, therefore,
a self-proclaimed patchwork, whose doors were left open to other groups.
John Kerry’s Wishful Thinking About Egypt
By Lee Smith
November 5, 2013
Last week, in the midst of his latest trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry told Egypt’s ruling military junta to keep up the good work. The Obama administration wants General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the man who removed Muslim Brotherhood affiliated president Mohamed Morsi from office in a coup on July 3, to return Egypt to civilian rule as quickly as possible. And that road map, said Kerry, “is being carried out to the best of our perception.” In reality though, it looks as though Egypt is heading in exactly the other direction.Read more…
Ankara’s Middle East Policy Post Arab Spring
By Soner Cagaptay
When Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) entered office in 2002, it launched an ambitious plan to become a regional power. Aided by phenomenal economic growth, Turkey ultimately became the Middle East’s largest economy with a foreign policy based on wielding soft power to gain influence. To this end, the new elites in Ankara pursued deep economic and political ties with the region’s governments, including Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Syria. Nevertheless, the events of the Arab Spring and the subsequent emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a hardline political force in the region have shifted the trajectory of Turkey’s rise to regional preeminence. Turkey realized that its soft power is not readily transferable to hard power, a realization that has prompted a pivot in Ankara’s foreign policy over the past two years.Read more…
Kerry’s Visit to Morocco and Algeria: Navigating Between Competitors
By Vish Sakthivel
November 4, 2013
Over the past few days, following the State Department’s announcement that Secretary John Kerry would be making his first official visit to North Africa, Morocco temporarily recalled its ambassador from Algeria. The symbolic gesture came after the two countries exchanged insults over Western Sahara, accusing each other of hegemonic ambitions and disregard for human rights. Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s statement about the urgency of dispatching human rights monitors to the disputed region, which triggered Rabat’s reaction, coincides with three imminent events: the U.S.-Morocco Strategic Dialogue, the annual summit that Kerry will inaugurate during his current trip to the region; Kerry’s visit to Algiers, also scheduled for later this week; and an expected mid-November visit to the United States by Morocco’s King Muhammad VI. Indeed, this latest squabble was aimed squarely at agenda-setting. In responding to the brouhaha, the Obama administration should be mindful of the complicated diplomatic and security issues at play, careful in its reassurances to committed allies in Morocco, and realistic about the limits of potential cooperation between the two countries.Read more…