Looking south: The expansion of Egypt’s naval operations

Ahmed Eleiba , Sunday 15 Jan 2017

President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi raising Egypt's flag over the Mistral-class helicopter carrier Gamal Abdel-Nasser (Photo: EAF page on Facebook)

The Egyptian Navy’s Southern Fleet Command was officially inaugurated on 5 January in a ‎ceremony attended by the president and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, the prime ‎minister, the minister of defence, the army chief-of-staffs, the commander-in-chief of the navy ‎and senior military officers.

The creation of the new command signals a qualitative leap in the ‎capacities of the Egyptian navy in terms of planning, organisation and military hardware.‎

The Southern Fleet is composed of destroyer, missile craft, coastal patrol and special forces units. ‎Of particular note are the Mistral-class helicopter carrier the Gamal Abdel-Nasser and the ‎Russian-made Molniya-class missile craft, the Ahmed Fadel, which Moscow presented to Egypt ‎in August 2015.‎

‎“The Southern Fleet Command, with its new naval formations, offers a powerful shield against ‎anyone who might venture to violate Egyptian territorial waters,” said Commander-in-Chief of ‎the Egyptian Navy Rear Admiral Ahmed Khaled Hassan Said, adding that such a shield was ‎crucial at a time “when the region is awash with threats and challenges to Egyptian national ‎security”.‎

The navy has recently undertaken a series of parallel programmes “to bolster weapons systems, ‎build the individual combatant and develop the infrastructure of ports and naval bases,” said Said. ‎

In addition to the Mistral-class helicopter carrier and the Russian-made P-32 Molniya-class ‎missile craft, Said listed other new additions to the fleet including the Suleiman Ezzat missile ‎craft, the FREMM multi-purpose frigate Tahya Misr, the Mistral-class helicopter carrier the ‎Anwar Sadat, a number of Swift craft as well as the recently acquired Type 209/1400-class ‎submarine.‎

Another crucial component of the navy’s development is the local manufacture of military ‎vessels, from high-speed coastal patrol craft, tugboats and escort boats to Gowind corvettes, ‎manufactured by the Alexandria Arsenal company.

The commander of the navy also noted that ‎Egypt will soon receive another French-made Gowind-class corvette after which three more ships ‎of this class, manufactured locally in partnership with France, will be added to the fleet later. He ‎added that with these systems Egypt will have laid the foundations of a modern navy capable of ‎carrying out all the tasks assigned to it by the general command of the Egyptian Armed Forces.‎

Egypt has the sixth strongest navy in the world, according to a recent ranking by Global ‎Firepower compiled after the addition of the Amstral but before the addition of the Type ‎‎209/1400-class submarine. The Iranian navy ranks fourth while those of Israel and Turkey rank ‎‎36th and 14th respectively. The Egyptian navy is the only one in the Middle East to possess an ‎aircraft carrier.‎

According to official military sources, the purpose of creating the Southern Fleet Command was ‎to secure complete control over the theatre of naval operations in the Red Sea area. Egypt has a ‎‎1,500km-long coast along the vital maritime artery that links Bab Al-Mandeb, the southern ‎gateway between the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden, with the entrances to ‎Aqaba and the Suez Canal, gateway to the Mediterranean where Egypt has another 1,000km of ‎coastline.‎

Sources say security arrangements in the Red Sea, in tandem with regional security ‎developments, required a stronger Egyptian naval presence along the Red Sea coast not only to ‎facilitate the management of maritime traffic but to strengthen Egypt’s deterrent capacities in the ‎face of the threats in the Red Sea region, especially in the vicinity of Bab Al-Mandeb given the ‎deterioration in the state of security of Yemen.‎

According to Mohamed Kamal, a political science professor at Cairo University, there is a race to ‎establish military bases in Djibouti, strategically poised in the Horn of Africa overlooking Bab ‎Al-Mandeb. The US has established its largest military base in Africa there, Camp Lemmonier, ‎where more than 4,000 troops are stationed. France has retained a base since the colonial era, ‎where 2,000 troops are currently deployed. Western countries are not alone in this competition, ‎says Kamal. Since 2011 a division of Japan’s defence force has been stationed in Djibouti. More ‎recently, the Chinese reached an agreement with Djibouti to establish a base, China’s first ‎military installation abroad.‎

‎“The Red Sea region is important to all these countries because it is the major transport route for ‎oil,” says Kamal. “The region is becoming an arena for US-Chinese and Chinese-Japanese ‎rivalry. Saudi Arabia has also entered the arena. A few weeks ago the Djibouti foreign minister ‎agreed to a Saudi military presence. He said that Saudi military leaders had inspected parts of the ‎country that will host Saudi military forces.”‎

Many countries have set their sights on neighbouring Eritrea which also overlooks the Red Sea. ‎There, Kamal said, “in addition to an Israeli and Iranian presence, the UAE is currently building ‎a military base which it has already started to use for aerial operations”.‎

In 2015 the UAE signed an agreement with Eritrea to use the Assab port for military purposes.‎

Qatar is also in on the game. According to Kamal, it has been trying to expand its influence in ‎Eritrea for years. It mediated a border dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti and succeeded in ‎brokering a peace agreement between them in Doha in 2010 after which Qatari soldiers were ‎deployed as a peacekeeping force. In June 2016 Doha launched an initiative to mediate between ‎Eritrea and Ethiopia.‎

‎“If we expand our scope somewhat to include the east African countries that form an extension of ‎the Red Sea and Horn of Africa we also find a growing Turkish role,” says Kamal. “President ‎Erdogan has made repeated visits to the region.”‎

The bases and agreements mentioned by Kamal are among the growing signs of international ‎competition to establish a military presence and influence in the Red Sea, Horn of Africa and ‎eastern African region. The area constitutes part of Egypt’s strategic depth and is, therefore, ‎crucial to its national security. By setting up the Southern Fleet Command Egypt is designating ‎the Red Sea region and its extensions as an operational sphere, sending an important message to ‎international and regional powers that Egypt has vital interests in the area that it is determined to ‎safeguard.‎

General Talaat Moussa, Chairman of the National Security Studies Department at the Higher ‎Nasser Military Academy, explained that the purpose of creating the fleet is to “strengthen ‎security and protect the Egyptian state in its regional spheres of security which, in terms of ‎maritime security, extend from the Zagros Mountains in Iran to the Straits of Gibraltar in the ‎western Mediterranean and from the Horn of Africa to the sources of the Nile”.‎

‎“The mission of the fleet within this sphere is to perform vital tasks that include securing the ‎eastern Egyptian coastline and ensuring the safety and stability of maritime traffic at Bab Al-‎Mandeb and navigation through the Suez Canal.” The task has been made more urgent by “the ‎threats that Iran poses via the Houthi movement, its proxy in Yemen”.‎

General Moussa stressed that though the fleet’s main mission is to deter potential threats to Egypt ‎it will also perform logistical functions within the Arab regional framework. The fleet is prepared ‎‎“to offer safety, security and rescue assistance to our Arab brothers in the Gulf”. It will also ‎undertake anti-smuggling operations in the Red Sea where small islands have been used for arms ‎and drugs smuggling.‎

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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