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INTERVIEW: Egyptian Air Defence Forces Commander Ali Fahmi discusses past achievements and present role of the 'Fourth Force'

Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 5 Jul 2019

The Egyptian Air Defence Forces (EADF) was created in accordance with a presidential decree issued in February 1968 during the War of Attrition after the 1967 defeat in the war with Israel. Often referred to as the “Fourth Force”, it was tasked with creating a missile-defence wall to ward off constant enemy attacks using Phantoms, Sky Hawks and other advanced aircraft of the time.  

During one training exercise on 30 June 1970, Egypt’s aerial defence forces succeeded in downing two Phantoms and two Sky Hawks, after which the army took three Israeli pilots prisoner. This was the first time a Phantom had been downed. Within a week, 10 more fighter planes would follow, earning that period the name, “the week of raining Phantoms”.

The EADF declared that day to be its anniversary as it marked the true beginning of the recovery of the country’s dignity after the defeat and the power to deter enemy aircraft from entering Egyptian airspace.

EADF Commander Lieutenant-General Ali Fahmi met with Al-Ahram Weekly during a meeting with military reporters on the EADF’s 49th anniversary to talk about the history of this branch of the Egyptian Armed Forces.

What is the story behind the “missile wall” that became the first major step in the campaign that culminated in Egypt’s victory in the October 1973 War?

The “missile wall” was a combat assembly consisting of various missiles and anti-aircraft artillery arranged in a pattern of fortified sites and bunkers in order to intercept and destroy hostile aircraft. It operated in the framework of the air-defence coverage for the main bodies of Egypt’s ground forces, air bases, and other vital targets along the entire length of the front to the west of the Suez Canal, and it had the capacity to extend its engagement zone to a distance of at least 15km to the east of the canal.

The sites first had to be prepared and fortified before the anti-aircraft missiles could be installed, which meant that the construction of the wall occurred under extremely challenging conditions. It was an ongoing conflict between the Israeli Air Force, bent on preventing us from building these fortifications, and our Air Defence Forces and the civilian construction firms it was working with, all of which had to work beneath a shield of anti-aircraft artillery. The soldiers manning it sustained great sacrifices, and even so the enemy aircraft sometimes managed to strike or destroy what we had constructed.

The officers in charge of building the wall had to determine the best way to go about it. They had to choose between one of two options. One was to have the missile-wall brigades rush forward to advanced positions in one go and sustain the anticipated losses until the fortifications were complete. The other was to proceed using a gradual “leapfrog” approach whereby one team would move forward to construct a fortification beneath the cover provided by an already completed fortification to the rear. The second option prevailed.

The first array of fortifications east of Cairo were completed and manned without any obstruction from the enemy. Planning then began for the following arrays, which eventually extended to halfway between Cairo and the Suez Canal. Once they were in place, the enemy could no longer approach the canal.

During the five months from April to August 1970, EADF brigades managed to down and destroy more than 12 Phantoms, Sky Hawks and Mirages, forcing Israel to accept the Rogers Ceasefire Initiative on 8 August 1970. With this, the EADF crowned one of the finest chapters in the history of the Egyptian Armed Forces and laid the first building block in the victory of the October 1973 War.

What was the role of the EADF during the 1973 War?

To appreciate the importance of this role, one must firstly understand the state of the Israeli Air Force, which at the time had acquired high combat efficacy using a range of sophisticated weaponry. Israel had begun to plan and build its Air Force early on, equipping it with state-of-art aircraft from the international arsenals of the time. Over many years, it bought Mirages from France and Phantoms and Sky Hawks from the US. By 1973, it had accumulated around 600 warplanes of these sorts.

During the ceasefire period, the EADF began to prepare for the 1973 War of Liberation and for the recovery of our land and dignity by acquiring new weapons systems and initiating the training needed to improve our combat readiness and performance. By the end of 1970, we had added several new modern Sam-3 (Pechora) missile units to our air defences, and by 1973 we had introduced the more modern S-6 systems. During the ceasefire period, the EADF also succeeded in preventing enemy aircraft from spying on our forces to the west of the canal. On 17 September 1971, we downed a Stratocruiser that Israel had been using for electronic reconnaissance.

The EADF’s mission was extremely difficult because the theatre of operations was not just limited to the Suez Canal. It extended across the whole of Egypt because of the many vital political and economic resources, airbases and airports, naval bases and strategic ports, and other such facilities that could be targeted by enemy aircraft. On the first day of fighting in the war on 6 October 1973, Israel attacked the Egyptian forces that had launched the Suez Canal crossing operation. The enemy kept up steady bombardments until the last light of day, and it continued throughout the night of 6/7 October using fewer aircraft.

Egypt’s anti-aircraft missiles and artillery fought back and succeeded in downing more than 25 enemy airplanes, hitting many others and capturing several pilots. These successes forced the Israeli Air Force commander at the time to instruct his pilots not to come within 15km of the Suez Canal. On the morning of 7 October 1973, the enemy attempted to take out forward-positioned airbases, airstrips and radar assemblies, but met with only more failure and more losses in aircraft and pilots.

In the first three days of the war, the Israeli enemy lost more than a third of its planes and many of its greatly vaunted pilots. Such was the success of the EADF during the October War that on the fourth day of combat [Israeli commander] Moshe Dayan was forced to concede that he was unable to penetrate the Egyptian missile defences.

Comprehensive command  and  control

You said the Egyptian air-defence system was one of the most complex such systems in the world because of the many and diverse components it contains. Could you elaborate?

The air-defence system consists of identification and warning components and command and control centres that make it possible for commanders at all levels to take the measures necessary to prevent enemy air forces from carrying out their missions and/or to destroy them using the air-defence facilities that are deployed throughout the country in accordance with the vital targets that require air protection.

A comprehensive and integrated defence system must incorporate many different systems, such as radars of diverse ranges and purposes, air-control systems, and elements including assorted missiles and artillery, fighter planes, and electronic warfare systems. To control an air-defence system you need a comprehensive command and control system integrating the different levels of control hubs that will work closely together with the Air Force and electronic warfare branches of the Armed Forces with the aim of putting the enemy force under constant pressure, preventing it from carrying out its missions and inflicting the greatest possible damage on it.

An effective air-defence system is built through the balanced incorporation of all the necessary components assembled in a manner that optimises the capacities for engaging with and defeating an enemy air force. Such a system functions both “horizontally”, which means that it contains all the necessary components for maximum effectiveness, and “vertically”, which means that each component is as fully and appropriately equipped as possible.  

The Egyptian Armed Forces cooperates with many countries in the Arab region and abroad. How does the EADF fit into these arrangements?

The EADF has always striven to possess the best possible combat capacities to enable it to carry out its duties with the highest standards of efficacy. Towards this end, it constantly works to develop and upgrade Egypt’s air-defence systems, while taking into consideration the need to diversify the sources of arms and applying the scientific methodology applied throughout the whole of the Egyptian Armed Forces.

In this framework, we benefit from military cooperation with friendly nations in diverse domains and at several levels, one of which involves joint training exercises. The latest of these included the Bright Star exercises with the US, the Medusa 8 naval manoeuvres with Greece, the joint Egyptian-French Cleopatra 2019 exercises, and the Aqaba 5 joint exercises with Jordan. These activities enable us to gain familiarity and experience with latest methods of operational planning and management in these countries.

In the light of the EADF’s pioneering role regionally and internationally, many countries are keen to expand their military cooperation with us in training as well as in defence development and modernisation.

How are students at the Air Defence Academy equipped to deal with the rapid advances in defence technology these days?

Egypt’s Air Defence Academy is one of the oldest military colleges in the Middle East. It not only produces Egyptian air-defence officers, but it also trains cadets from friendly Arab and African nations. Considering the importance of this academy to our Air Defence Forces and given the constant need to deal with technologically advanced and extremely costly systems and hardware, we work to develop instruction at two levels.

The first involves upgrading the training process by regularly revising and updating the curricula based on the needs of the EADF units and accumulated experience. The academy also makes a point of ensuring that it is staffed with military and civilian instructors who are highly qualified in their respective disciplines.

The second level is to equip the academy with the latest practical training methodologies. It offers courses that cover all types of air-defence equipment, and classes are fitted out with training modules that simulate different scenarios that require engaging aerial targets. Classrooms and lecture halls are also equipped with closed-circuit TV and modern digital-display screens, and the engineering labs have been upgraded. In addition, there are intensive training camps for cadets in their final year, giving them the opportunity to take part in live targeting practice using actual weapons at the EADF tactical training centre.

Comprehensive command  and  control

Huge advances in information technology have made it almost impossible for many countries in the world to keep their armament systems secret. How does the EADF guard its systems?

In this era of open skies and a world that has become almost like a small village, there are many ways to access information through satellite imaging, electronic-surveillance systems, and the Internet. There are also highly sophisticated means to process that information rapidly and transmit it instantly to whomever might want it.

But there is a very important point we need to bear in mind, which is how we put our weapons to use. Different types of weapons and equipment can be used to accomplish aims and missions with complete success by using unconventional or unexpected methods that engage elements of deception and surprise.

This is precisely what occurred at the inception of the EADF when we destroyed the Israeli Phantom aircraft using the missile systems available to us at that time.

Another example is how one of our missile brigades was able to move in complete stealth in order to position itself to lay a trap for Israel’s Stratocruiser, which was equipped with the latest electronic reconnaissance technology. We were also able to prevent the enemy from spying on our forces to the west of the Canal by using combat methods previously unfamiliar to the enemy, including extending the engagement zone of our missile defences to a greater depth than they had anticipated on the eastern side of the Canal.

The secrets are not so much in the weapons and equipment we possess, as in our ability to develop the strategies for using them to carry out our missions effectively.

Can you tell us more about the EADF team that took part in the “Clear Sky” exercise in the People’s Republic of China recently and finished second place in this international military competition?

The EADF command is always keen to participate in military competitions that involve war simulations. It bolsters our soldiers’ confidence when they compete with some of the strongest armies in the world that possess advanced air-defence systems such as China, Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Venezuela. It was a huge responsibility to prepare for this event, especially since the world would be able to judge our combat-readiness and ability to protect Egypt’s skies based on our performance. There was a real incentive for serious training.

First, we selected a large number of our officers and other soldiers who excelled in anti-terrorist combat, close-quarter fighting, and shoulder-fired missile target shooting and enrolled them in a training camp for six months at the EADF tactical training centre. After the first three months, we selected the best 18 to enter the competition. Over the next three months, they continued their daily physical fitness training, which included running an obstacle course that we had built using the same specifications as the one they would have to compete on in China. They also continued target-practice exercises using both small artillery and shoulder-fired missiles on the shooting range at the EADF tactical training centre. Their performance in this area was one of the main reasons they won the highest scores in this area in the competition.

The Egyptian Air Defence team won first place in the second phase of the competition and second place in the overall ranking after China and ahead of Russia, Belarus, Venezuela, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. Their outstanding performance won the praise of all the other commanders and teams that took part in the event. After the event, a video went viral on the Internet showing one of our team members targeting and destroying an outgoing missile with pinpoint accuracy. He set a world record that I believe has crowned the efforts of the EADF command to hone the skills and capacities of every one of our soldiers.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Comprehensive command and control 

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