The Bright Star manoeuvres are an important indicator of the state of military relations between the two countries. Mohamed Qashqoush, general chief-of-staffs and professor of national security at the Higher Nasser Military Academy who served as the commander of joint operations, discusses the implications.
Ahram: What is the strategic importance of the Bright Star manoeuvres?
MQ: Egypt and the US agreed to conduct the Bright Star manoeuvres the year after the Camp David Accord was signed. The agreement had called for military exercises to take place every two years. It came as a boost for Egypt, since it was a framework for strategic cooperation with the US and in the basic protocol agreement Egypt was represented by the paratrooper regiment.
Egypt was the first non-NATO country to take part in such exercises and it was an important development for us. It enabled us to familiarise ourselves with Western military doctrines and armament systems, especially advanced American ones. US military aid and training made the exchange possible and through the exchange each side came to understand the other’s tactics and methodology.
A Joint Command Centre was established west of Cairo. I served as commander of the centre (G3) twice. On a third occasion I served as the commander of the executing force in my capacity as the commander of paratrooper operations.
We began to take part in the exercises in 1981 alongside a small contingent of land forces. In 1985 we began to expand the participating forces to include other airborne forces and then naval forces. Other countries were brought on board until eventually 12 states were involved.
In addition to the US and Egypt there were two Arab states, Kuwait and Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan and six European NATO members — Greece, Italy, France, Netherlands, the UK and Germany. The total number of troops participating reached 70,000, of which the US contributed about 32,000.
In my personal files I have documents in which the Americans praise the Egyptian performance. We benefited greatly by opening up to advanced military doctrines. These manoeuvres were the first manifestation of Egypt’s opening up to the West and the US.
Ahram: What were the initial impressions of these joint operations?
MQ: At first we were regarded as grade A students from the Soviet school. In my lecture during the training exercises I focused on this impression. I said that we had military features from the East but that they had been Egyptianised. The best illustration of this is the 1973 October War. In the military theatre the Soviets put tanks before foot soldiers. We did the opposite. We put the infantry before the tanks and the Suez Canal crossing was performed beneath heavy artillery fire. There had been nothing like it before.
Ahram: How has the training experience been transferred to regional fields of operation?
Everyone has benefited from these exercises, from the opportunity to work in a diversified desert terrain with open coastlines and high seas. Western participants also had the opportunity to familiarise themselves with Soviet military doctrine. The result of the transfer of experiences was clearly seen in the war to liberate Kuwait when Egypt was assigned the hardest tasks in the liberation mission. We were responsible for the main surround and encirclement operation which involved crossing mined barriers around Kuwait city. Egypt was the third largest member of the coalition after the US and the UK.
Ahram: So the manoeuvres signal the strength of the bilateral relationship?
HQ: Yes. The central idea is that after the Camp David peace agreement Egypt became a strategic ally of the US. Such a strategic relationship has political and economic dimensions but the most important dimension is the military one. It was necessary to build this in stages, for which reason a joint command was set up west of Cairo and a counterpart command in Florida.
Ahram: But the manoeuvres have also been suspended. What does this imply?
HQ: They were suspended once owing to the war to liberate Kuwait in 1991 and for a second time following the January 2011 Revolution. They were supposed to resume in 2013 but the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 30 June Revolution wrong-footed the Obama administration which had wanted to set up Islamist regimes to serve US foreign policy ends. The current administration, regardless of conflicting positions in Washington which betray a lack of coordination between US government agencies, attaches considerable importance to the manoeuvres.
I believe the Americans have learned from the period following the 2013 Revolution. The Russians benefited from their absence. Russia strengthened its bonds and collaborated with us openly and at the highest levels, including collaborating on the Protection of Friendship manoeuvres which were conducted again this year.
Ahram: Protection of Friendship with the Russians and Bright Star with the Americans — does this mean that Russia’s own military doctrine is shifting towards a more Western model?
HQ: Old differences have largely disappeared. But we must also remember Putin is keen to retain a foothold in Tartus and that cooperation with Egypt is important in this context so there are joint naval manoeuvres.
Does military cooperation as part of Egyptian-US strategic relations require the two sides share the same views of the many ongoing regional conflicts?
The interweaving of regional issues results in a complex situation. Egypt and the US cooperate strategically in the region as a whole, especially when it comes to terrorism.
This has become particularly clear since the Riyadh conference. But this does not preclude differences of opinion. For example, Cairo’s view on how to resolve the Syrian crisis differs from Washington’s. There does not have to be complete conformity.
Likewise, with Libya, there are points of difference. But we are doing the same job in the fight against terrorism. Both of us undertake pre-emptive operations. They supported the Bunyan Marsous operation against the Islamic State (IS) in Sirte.
They offered preparatory aerial support from southern Italy, something that went unpublicised because of the sensitivity surrounding NATO’s position vis-à-vis Libya.
We are fighting terrorism in our backyard and self-defence is an internationally recognised right. Egypt’s borders are a red line. The Americans should respect this.
Ahram: What will be new in the next Bright Star exercises?
HQ: The next phase of Bright Star will probably focus on counter-terrorism training for the first time. More special forces — commandoes and paratroopers — will be deployed than conventional troops.
The theatres of operations that will be brought into play will reflect the diversity of the theatres of terrorist operations.
One area where we will benefit from US expertise is advanced technology such as remote sensing and detecting different kinds of explosive substances.
We can also acquire expertise from specialists in guerrilla warfare and, given the experience we have accumulated, there can be an exchange of expertise.
Ahram: Will Egypt’s new military bases and arms acquisitions be used to structure the manoeuvres?
HQ: The recently inaugurated Mohamed Naguib base, the upgrading of other bases and the latest arms acquisitions reflect the fact it is no longer efficient to spread forces thinly here and there. It’s better to collect them in one place from which smaller contingents — border guards, reconnaissance units, interceptive combat units supported by the air force and satellite intelligence — can be deployed.
With the newly acquired submarines and the Amstral helicopter carrier naval training becomes more sophisticated. For example, unconventional strategic depth landing operations can be combined with airborne and paratrooper operations. This means that the size and level of the forces can change and evolve during manoeuvres.
Ahram: Is the resumption of the Bright Star manoeuvres a sign of US re-engagement in the region?
HQ: Yes. But what we should not forget is that US public opinion pressured for a US withdrawal from the region. The American public believes it is one thing for a US soldier to die in the defence of US territory and another for him to die defending allies.
This gave rise to proxy wars and other modes of conflict. What the current administration realised is that withdrawing from the region posed a strategic threat to US interests. It gave the Russians the chance to fill the vacuum. For the first time Washington’s Gulf allies were turning to Moscow for arms.
Ahram: What is the significance of Sudan’s participation as an observer in the Bright Star operations?
HQ: Inviting Sudan to take part as an observer is better than leaving it to bicker on behalf of Qatar. It will help clear the air between Washington and Khartoum. The invitation is an attempt to alleviate the pressures on Sudan and lift the sanctions on Khartoum. In the future we might participate in operations in the Red Sea or in tightening the security of the border with Libya.
*This interview was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly