Egypt has engaged in a series of joint naval drills in the Red Sea and Mediterranean with European countries that include the UK, France, Greece and Cyprus.
The Medusa drills with Greece and the Cleopatra drills with France were continuations of ongoing exercises while others were conducted with partners that have longstanding cooperative relations with Egypt and share common interests in the region.
In last year’s Eagle Salute manoeuvres, Spain and Britain took part alongside the US and Egypt.
In some cases, the naval exercises were part of larger scale manoeuvres that included air forces and other branches of the military, as was the case with the Defenders of Friendship exercises with Russia.
Strategically, the exercises aimed to enhance the ability to protect vital targets from the unconventional threats that have emerged in the region during recent years by familiarising participant forces with the latest methods and systems of naval combat.
The drills and manoeuvres have included new activities and brought on board new participants, such as Cyprus in the case of the Medusa drills.
And for the first time, naval forces have been included in ongoing joint military exercises with friendly nations, such as Britain.
British naval units joined their Egyptian counterparts in a naval drill in the Mediterranean last week. The exercise began with the arrival of the Royal Navy’s HMS Argyll at Alexandria.
Training included simulated counter-terrorism exercises, neutralising maritime security threats and protecting vital targets against non-conventional threats.
Participants practised naval formations and signal communications, helicopter take-offs and landings on naval vessels under night-time and daytime conditions, covering vessels as they pass through danger zones and carrying out visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) operations.
Target training, using live ammunition to intercept and destroy hostile surface targets, demonstrated the high level of marksmanship of the participant forces.
The Egyptian-British naval exercise “aimed to bolster cooperation between the Egyptian and the UK naval forces, develop proficiency in the latest naval combat methods and systems, and maximise benefits for the participant forces from both side,” said the official communiqué released by the Egyptian Armed Forces.
Egyptian naval unit participate in the joint naval drills "Cleopatra" with France in the Red Sea on July 6, 2018 (Photo: Egyptian Army Spokesman Facebook page)
On 6 July Egypt began joint naval drills with France in the Red Sea. Egyptian and French vessels took part in exercises lasting several days, using the latest counter-terrorism techniques to neutralise maritime threats and protect vital targets against non-conventional threats.
There was also training in maritime supply line operations and in how to protect vessels carrying vital cargoes.
Earlier, in March, Egyptian and French naval forces had staged manoeuvres, also in the Red Sea, that included the Egyptian Minehunter Navarine, the French Minesweeper Lyre, and crews trained in removing underwater mines using the latest sonar devices and other equipment.
The primary purpose of the exercise was to build on the participants’ ability to secure ports against naval mines.
The Red Sea was also the theatre for February’s round of the Egyptian-French Cleopatra exercises.
For the first time, Cleopatra 2018 included a comprehensive amphibious landing operation staged on an island in the Red Sea.
The movement began with the deployment of reconnaissance groups Preliminary gunfire and combing was followed by the landing of special units and marine forces using French and Egyptian landing craft.
Joint exercises conducted by Egypt and France this year testify to the high level of military cooperation between the two, which is also reflected in arms sales.
A week before the most recent Egyptian-French naval drill, Egyptian, Greek and Cypriot naval and air forces took part in the Medusa 6 exercises in Egyptian territorial waters.
The activities were designed to train participant forces in combined naval and aerial combat planning and management, intercepting hostile craft, maintaining maritime supply lines and anti-submarine warfare.
Other activities focused on countering smuggling and illegal migration, VBSS procedures and amphibious and aerial landings using special marine forces, paratroopers and commandos.
Egyptian-Greek relations have acquired particular importance in the framework of maritime border agreements and the discovery of the natural gas fields in Egypt’s territorial waters in the Mediterranean.
Egypt is also developing closer military cooperation with Spain. On 19 June Egyptian and Spanish naval forces began drills in Egypt’s regional waters in the Mediterranean and Red Sea.
Among the modern naval units that Egypt contributed to the exercises were the Anwar Al-Sadat Mistral-class helicopter carrier, the Al-Fateh Gowind-class corvette, the German-made S41 Type 209/140-class submarine, the Negm Al-Zafer frigate and the Spanish-made Descubierta-class corvette, Al-Suez.
On the Spanish side were the Juan Carlos I aircraft carrier and the Alvaro de Bazan class destroyer, Blas de Lezo.
Among the many activities included in the drills were live ammunition targeting, the use of helicopters to support daytime and night-time maritime combat operations, ocean refuelling, VBSS, anti-submarines exercises and protecting and securing ships transporting vital cargo.
As the frequency and diversity of such drills suggests there is high demand from other countries for joint exercises and manoeuvres with the Egyptian navy, ranked by Global Firepower as the strongest Arab navy and one of the top 10 navies worldwide.
In the last five years Egypt’s navy has seen major developments, acquiring new arms and updating training programmes.
As unconventional threats have grown naval operations have acquired a strategic economic dimension given recent discoveries such as the natural gas fields in the Mediterranean and, perhaps soon, in the Red Sea, where threats are posed by the ongoing conflict in Yemen.
The drills Egypt has been carrying out with its partners seek to address such dangers. The exercises have therefore focused on counter-terrorism, eliminating mines and securing the Red Sea-Suez-Mediterranean maritime route through which 10 to 13 per cent of international trade passes.
To secure the trade routes Egypt inaugurated the Southern Fleet in January 2017.
Training activities in the Mediterranean have taken into account the need to counter illegal migration from Africa to Europe, and to protect joint Egyptian, Greek and Cypriot economic and commercial interests in the field of petroleum exploration.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Guardian of the seas