Sea power: The significance of Egypt's Mistral deal

Ahmed Eleiba , Sunday 4 Oct 2015

The acquisition of the French Mistral aircraft carrier enhances Egypt’s naval capabilities and shows Russia and France are on board

Two mistral ships docked at the STX Les Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard site in Saint-Nazaire, Western France. 25, May, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

The contract for the French-made Mistral aircraft carrier was signed while President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi was on a visit to Paris in September, and the aircraft carrier is scheduled to arrive in Egypt in March.

France had originally agreed to build two Mistral class aircraft carriers for Russia. When the deal was frozen over the Ukraine crisis, Russia retained the right to ensure that the ships could only be sold to third parties acceptable to Moscow. It had no objection to Egypt purchasing one of the carriers since Moscow regards Egypt as a strategic partner. And there are signs the second carrier may go to the United Arab Emirates.

In a press release issued on 23 September the Élysée Palace announced French president Francois Hollande and Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi had “agreed to the principles and conditions for the purchase of the Mistral class ship”. No further details were provided.

Agence France Presse (AFP) cited French defence ministry sources as saying the value of the deal is €950 million. A French government source also added that “Saudi funding [of the deal] will be important”.

According to La Tribune website Egypt will deploy the aircraft carrier in the Red Sea. La Tribune also speculated that Egypt might obtain the second carrier and deploy it in the Mediterranean to enhance western border security with Libya. The French website also reported that Russian combat systems installed on the ships in accordance with the Franco-Russian deal will remain in place.

A source in Abu Dhabi connected to the deal contradicted La Tribune account, telling Al-Ahram Weekly that the second carrier would be acquired by Abu Dhabi.

The significance of the deal

The Mistral contract is the most important military deal concluded under El-Sisi. It is seen as crucial given the threats emanating from the Red Sea and the civil war in Yemen and Libya. It will see Egypt become the first Arab country to possess an aircraft carrier.

There are 37 aircraft carriers in the world. The US has ten super-carriers, capable of accommodating up to 90 planes. Russia has several, one of which — the Admiral Kuznetsov — is the second largest aircraft carrier in the world. China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier is the third largest, while France’s Charles de Gaulle is the fourth, the largest of its kind in Europe. The Sao Paulo, built by France for Brazil in 2000, is the world’s fifth largest.

Cairo’s determination to conclude the deal is a sign of its determination to back foreign policy with military muscle. Egypt is staking a place in the vanguard of regional military powers.

The deal underscores Cairo’s determination to develop its military capacity to deal with the proliferation of terrorist organisations, the spectre of collapsing and fragmenting states and the likelihood of further outbreaks of civil war. Hollande recognised this during the signing ceremony. “Today relations between France and Egypt are based on their common interests in fighting terrorism and ensuring security,” he said, adding, “we have a desire to help Egypt defend itself in the face of terrorist acts.”

The Mistral deal is also significant in terms of Egypt’s wider international relations. While it is the second Egyptian-French arms contract, following the Rafale plane deal, and testifies to deepening bilateral relations with France, equally important is the fact that Moscow approved the sale with the inclusion of Russian equipment installed on board. And the material support for the deal given by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi underscores the strength of the Cairo-Riyadh-Abu Dhabi tripartite alliance.

“While the contract is bilateral, its significance is much broader,” Tawfik Aklimondos, professor of international relations at the French University in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“The relationship with Russia is crucial, and acquiring the Mistral carrier will enhance Egypt’s role in maritime security. Egypt has an extensive coastline, and naval security in the Bab Al-Mandeb [the straits connecting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden] is an urgent priority for Egypt. The presence of the Mistral gains importance following the widening of the Suez Canal.”

General Mohamed Qashqoush, a military expert at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, also stresses the multi-faceted implications of the deal. Cairo, he argues, will gain a strategic edge through its possession of the Mistral.

“That Egypt has begun to think in this direction is an important development. The Egyptian navy displayed its superiority in the 1973 War and is today in the process of sustaining that superiority,” says Qashqoush.

“Following the Eilat operation, emphasis was placed on submarines and other types of naval vessels. But an aircraft carrier, this is new. No country in the region thought it had a need for an aircraft carrier. But now there is a need, and Egypt perceived this in the course of its drive to improve its maritime security capabilities. Instead of relying on fighter planes, which is very costly, it will now be able to use the aircraft carrier which can carry helicopters.”

“If Egypt needs to strike a target inside Libya, in Tripoli, for example, the aircraft carrier could be positioned south of Malta and target the Libyan interior from there. It could secure the Bab Al-Mandeb without having to use French or American bases, or without having to rely on others. The deal provides a significant addition to Egypt’s strategic depth.”

The Mistral can also play a role in defending the major gas reserves recently discovered in Egyptian waters.


The Mistral can carry 16 helicopters and 13 tanks. The 199-metre long and 32-metre wide ship can travel up to 35 kilometres an hour. It can accommodate 180 crew and is equipped with two Simbad missile defence systems and 12.7 mm M2-HB Browning machine guns. Its deck area of 5,200 square metere has six landing ports to accommodate military helicopters. It is equipped with DRBN-38A Decca Bridgemaster E250 navigation radar and an MRR3D-NG air/surface sentry radar.

The ship contains a 60 cubic metres water tank and a hospital with 69 beds, two operating theatres and an X-ray room. It is capable of transporting armoured vehicles and up to 450 soldiers.

General Hisham Al-Halabi, military advisor at the Nasser Military Sciences Academy, describes the Mistral as “a military command ship capable of performing major tasks in amphibious operations, equipped with combat management, tactical naval information and satellite communications systems.”

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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