This week, the two-week-long Arab Shield-1 joint military drills came to an end. The exercises attracted widespread attention in view of the participants, the timing, the aims and the nature of the drills.
The name of the exercises is significant in and of itself. It underscores Arab solidarity in the face of threats that have reared their heads in virulent forms in the conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen, often the result of and/or fuelled by non-Arab interventions.
According to the communiqué released by Egyptian Army Spokesman Colonel Tamer Al-Rifaai, Arab Shield-1 aims to “develop and strengthen military cooperation between the Egyptian Armed Forces and the armed forces of brotherly Arab nations, and to develop joint Arab action in the framework of the challenges that face the region.”
The exercises can also be seen as an attempt to address the problems facing the creation of a joint Arab defence system and mechanisms for collective Arab action.
That Cairo hosted the first in a planned series of Arab military drills is testimony to the status of the Egyptian military establishment which has long occupied a revered place in Arab consciousness.
It reflects the growing strength of the Egyptian military, a result of the comprehensive upgrading and modernisation it has undergone during the last five years.
It is noteworthy the drills were organised at the Mohamed Naguib Military Base, the largest in the Middle East and host to the Bright Star manoeuvres.
The assistant director of the Egyptian Armed Forces’ training authority described Arab Shield-1 as “one of the most sophisticated drills to take place at the Arab national level, engaging the most modern and advanced defence equipment and military technologies in a way that maximises benefits for all participant forces”.
Six Arab nations — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Jordan — participated in the exercises. Morocco and Lebanon attended as observers.
The participation reflects shared positions on a range of regional issues. Most of the participant states have taken part in military exercises with Egypt before, most frequently on a bilateral basis, and commentators expect more countries to join in future exercises.
Participant and observer countries account for a third of the members of the Arab League. This has significant ramifications, not least of which is the possibility the exercises could evolve into a framework for an Arab defence alliance.
Harmony between the policy outlooks of the participant states, especially when it comes to Arab security, favours this. Such an alliance need not originate as a unified or unanimously created extension of the Arab League but could originate with a smaller group of states that have the will and capacity to build a collective security project.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two key participants in the recent drills, would be the central poles of any such group, the two largest Arab forces in terms of the balance of military power as well as political influence.
Naturally, a lot more is involved in building a defence alliance: the development of an organisational structure, a command hierarchy, headquarters, the composition of troops drawn from member states and the budget.
When considered in such terms, the concept appears close to the Joint Arab Force Cairo proposed some years ago and the recent drills can be seen as a qualitative step in this direction.
There are also ramifications that stem from Egypt’s central position in the region, its military capabilities and Cairo’s consequent political weight.
Egypt’s fixed foreign policy principles offer a kind of compass, one that takes as its reference points the emphasis on regional stability and the need to resolve conflicts through peaceful mechanisms, as evidenced by Cairo’s reluctance to engage militarily, its engagement in peace-making efforts while simultaneously developing autonomous defence and deterrent capacities.
The Egyptian military spokesman provided details of the drills: the first stages involved theoretical lectures supported by practical exercises intended to unify operational concepts and better coordinate the execution of assigned tasks.
At a general level, the drills aimed to strengthen interoperability between the participants, hone their skills in planning and managing combat activities on land, in the air and at sea, and promote the exchange of expertise between the different air, naval and ground forces.
The special forces that took part in the exercises performed a range of training tasks to improve their camouflage and concealment techniques, exploiting features of the terrain.
Paratrooper units performed drills equipping and carrying personnel and dealing with emergency situations that could arise during high-altitude jumps under daytime, night-time and different weather conditions. The joint skydiving drills profiled the proficiency of the participant forces and their precision in reaching designated targets.
Ground troops, supported by special forces, carried out simulations of counter-terrorist raids and urban warfare while special marine forces engaged in visit, board, search and seizure exercises.
Air force training included planning and conducting joint aerial combat manoeuvres which promoted the exchange of expertise between crews. In the course of the drills, multitask fighter jets performed various defensive sorties as well as offensive tactics against hostile targets.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 November, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Arab Shield