Cairo finalised on Tuesday the purchase of a military reconnaissance and monitoring satellite, the third in a series of deals within the framework of Egyptian-French military cooperation. Last year Egypt successfully concluded contracts for Rafale fighter planes and Mistral-class helicopter carriers.
With this latest deal, France now tops the list of countries to have signed military supply agreements with Egypt during the term of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
During French President François Hollande’s visit to Egypt in April the two countries signed numerous memoranda of understanding, marking increasingly close bilateral relations. At the level of strategic/military relations it is noteworthy that the contract for 24 Rafales is the first time France has ever sold a fighter plane to another country. Egypt has so far received seven of these planes.
The first batch of four, which arrived in August 2015, took part in the celebrations for the inauguration of the new Suez Canal. Three more arrived in January this year. The contract for the two Mistral aircraft carriers, which was concluded in September last year, was valued at 950 million euros.
While France’s La Tribune broke the news of the military satellite deal, Cairo announced that a military delegation, headed by Minister of Military Production General Mohamed El-Assar, would sign the deal on behalf of Egypt. According to La Tribune, the other signatories are Thales Alenia Space (TAS), a Franco-Italian satellite and communications systems manufacturer, and Space Systems Airbus, which specialises in defence equipment.
La Tribune said the contract for the military communications satellite, which it estimated as worth 600 million euros, crowned seven months of discussions and negotiations between Cairo and the two aerospace manufacturing firms. The newspaper added that Paris and Cairo signed numerous agreements during President Hollande’s visit to Egypt on 17 April, which paved the way for this latest deal.
A senior military expert from Egypt cited a source close to El-Assar who confirmed the accuracy of the details reported in the French newspaper. He explained that the satellite Egypt has purchased is very sophisticated. It is, in fact, the most modern of the industrial technologies that Egypt now possesses.
He noted that while the satellite has been classed as military it is capable of performing both military and non-military tasks. It orbits at altitudes above 700 km and is capable of taking images at an extremely high resolution.
“As far as military supplies are concerned, we are not just diversifying our armaments sources we have turned to China, Russia, France and Germany but more importantly there is a focus on upgrading military technologies,” General Hisham El-Halabi of the Higher Nasser Military Academy told Al-Ahram Weekly.
He added that the purpose of purchasing the satellite was to increase intelligence gathering resources to reinforce national security.
General Chief of Staff Mohamed Qashqoush, academic advisor to the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, agrees.
“The purpose of acquiring highly sophisticated technologies is to be able to manage the Egyptian strategic depth with as much precision as possible in the framework of completing our military systems and also military cooperation,” he said.
Qashqoush said that the French satellite will work in conjunction with the Mistral naval vessels and facilitate navigation in the Bab El-Mandeb and in the Mediterranean, where maritime oil and gas fields were recently discovered.
He added that the Russian-made helicopters that Egypt has contracted from Moscow will complete the Mistral weapons system.
Another important dimension of Egypt’s purchases of French-made technologies includes what Qashqoush terms the “African belt in which the French military command has a presence in such countries as Mali, Djibouti and Senegal”.
Egypt’s acquisitions “will enhance our ability to safeguard our western borders with Libya through closer tracking of the movement of extremist elements and enhanced communications with forces on the ground.” Said Qashqoush, “Egypt is situated in an environment teeming with tensions, crises, challenges and mounting dangers.”
According to Qashqoush, French experts will train Egyptian teams in the management of the satellite.
“They have new knowhow in the field that they will impart to the Egyptian side. They will also offer instruction in the process of protecting the information in the satellite,” he said, stressing the need for Egypt to be able to secure information transmitted by the satellite.
The absence of an Egyptian satellite has been the source of considerable controversy in recent years, reaching a peak when it was announced that the research satellite Egypt 2 had gone missing. Experts have openly speculated that Israel was most likely responsible, although there has been nothing to corroborate this. They suggested that the Israelis had probably sent a satellite of their own into the same orbit. In the 1990s Israel obstructed an Egyptian-French deal for the purchase of a satellite.
Israel is certainly interested in Egypt’s recent purchase from France. The Israeli army’s Israel Defence periodical has featured detailed coverage of this deal. It concluded that acquisition of the satellite would give a great boost to Egypt’s military communications. It also remarked on Egypt’s drive to build up its military arsenal. “It has purchased two helicopter carriers from France which were to be sold to Russia. The first of these is due to arrive in June,” it reported.
La Tribune noted that Cairo entered into negotiations with Paris in December 2015 initially for the purchase of two satellites: one for military telecommunications, the other for surveillance. A delegation from the Egyptian army headed to Paris around Christmas but the negotiations broke down over the question of costs.
Egypt decided to postpone the purchase of a military satellite as Russia and South Korea had made less-costly offers. The same newspaper reported that negotiations are still in progress between the Egyptian Defence Ministry and DCNS, the French company that produces the Mistral, over the manufacture of four warships.
Qashqoush told the Weekly that the European offers were better than the Asian ones when post-sale services such as upkeep, maintenance and spare parts were taken into account.
Apparently, space is now an integral part of the Middle East’s arms race, and it is taking place against a backdrop of intractable conflicts. The Gulf countries have obtained similar satellites. The UAE launched a space programme in collaboration with the US many years ago.
Saudi Arabia, too, is now in the running, while Iran entered the arena a decade ago. Since concluding its nuclear deal with the West, Tehran has begun to focus more intensely on its aerospace programme. Last week it announced the test launch of a precision-guided missile with a range of up to 2000 km.
Sources interviewed by the Weekly say the Iranian space programme, despite Tehran’s claims, is primarily for military purposes. Israel, too, has many satellites at its army’s disposal.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly