Founded in 1932, the Royal Egyptian Air Force, as it was called at the time, was tasked with border security and fighting cross-border smuggling. It then took part alongside the Allied Powers in World War II, and alongside Arab forces in the 1948 War. Following the 23 July 1952 Revolution its name was changed to the Egyptian Air Force (EAF).
But it was not until 1955, when Egypt began to diversify its sources of arms, that the Air Force began to really evolve, says Lieutenant General Mohamed Abbas Helmi.
“We began to acquire planes from the Eastern bloc, such as MIGs, Sukhois and Ilyushins, because the Air Force had a new responsibility, which was to defend the Suez Canal.”
The Tripartite Aggression of 1956 had driven home this imperative. The EAF was also crucial to the resistance against the Israeli occupation following the 1967 War.
“The eagles in our Air Force performed true acts of heroism when they deterred Israeli aircraft from entering our airspace,” he said.
The demands of the War of Attrition from 1967 to 1970 necessitated rebuilding the EAF on solid foundations.
“New airports and airbases were built, with fortifications for aircraft, and we obtained new military aircraft, such as the MIG 21, MIG 19 and Sukhoi 7.”
The importance of the EAF in securing victory in 1973 cannot be overstated.
“Our Armed Forces penned an epic tale of bravery and valour lauded the world over, and the Air Force was at the vanguard of this achievement, starting with the first air strike delivered which threw the enemy off balance, at the very beginning of the war.”
While skill and courage characterised the performance of members of the Air Force every day of the war, 14 October 1973 stands out. On that day “the enemy tried to carry out aerial assault against our airbases in the Delta in order to throw the Air Force into disarray and weaken its ability to support the combat activities of ground forces.
“But our fighter planes intercepted the enemy and engaged their aircraft in a great aerial battle over Mansoura. More than 150 aircraft from both sides took part in what would become known as the Battle of Mansoura, in which our pilots demonstrated outstanding daring and combat skills. The battle lasted 53 minutes. In that brief time the enemy lost more airplanes than in any other battle in the Arab-Israeli conflict. We downed 18 Israeli warplanes, despite their qualitative superiority, and forced the remaining enemy aircraft to flee. That’s why this date — 14 October — was chosen to mark the anniversary of the EAF.
“After the October 1973 War, we began another process of development, benefiting from the lessons already learned about the need to diversify arms suppliers. Between 1975 and 1993 Egypt obtained MIG-23s from Russia, military aircraft from China and contracted for Phantoms and F-16s from the US. We also acquired transport planes, reconnaissance aircraft, electronic warfare aircraft, and various types of military helicopters after signing the peace treaty with Israel. Peace needed a force to protect it.”
Turning to current developments in the region and their repercussions on the EAF, Lieutenant General Helmi said that the 25 January and 30 June revolutions, and the shifting balances of power in the Middle East, mean Egypt must contend with new threats and challenges at home and abroad which have placed new demands on the EAF.
“The EAF has been instrumental in curbing cross-border weapons and drug smuggling. In the framework of the Martyr’s Right Operation, it has been crucial to the ongoing battle to eliminate terrorism from north and central Sinai and prevent the infiltration of terrorists across the borders. The Air Force has been indispensable to the drive to monitor, track and destroy terrorist lairs. At the same time it has worked with other agencies in the fight to halt illegal migration and human trafficking.”
But it is not just because of unconventional tasks that the EAF has maintained an ongoing training programme to keep personnel abreast of new military technologies. Fraught regional circumstances have also presented new challenges to Egypt’s national security, requiring the Air Force be fully equipped to contend with threats and respond to emergency situations.
Training, says Lieutenant General Helmi, “is the most crucial part of maintaining the combat readiness of the Air Force, and the Armed Forces in general.
“In the EAF, training is conducted in a number of stages. It starts with the Air Force Academy, the cornerstone of the process of pumping fresh blood into the ranks of pilots, crews and other personnel. Then comes the Institute for Air Defence Studies, which rivals the best air defence academies in the world in its programmes for training officers. Pilots and crews receive continual training in the arts of modern combat so that they can keep pace with progress in advanced aeronautics and defence systems. Last, but not least, are the training facilities that equip ground teams with the necessary skills and know-how to maintain modern hardware and equipment.
“The Armed Forces General Command is committed to furnishing the EAF with state-of-the-art air defence systems such as the Rafale multitask fighter plane, one of the most technically sophisticated and combat-effective fourth generation aircraft.
“We also have a large and diverse array of drones, transport planes, early warning and reconnaissance aircraft, assault and armoured helicopters and general service aircraft. These many different types of planes, which come from different countries, ensure we have a complete and comprehensive air defence system that meets all our defence needs. We have also upgraded training aircraft to suit the new generation of multi-task fighters and increased the number of simulators to maintain the combat efficacy of our crews in a cost-effective way, ensuring that they and their aircraft are ready to perform their duties 24/7, under all conditions.”
The high regard in which the EAF is held, says Lieutenant General Helmi, is reflected in allies’ keenness to take part in joint military manoeuvres and exercises.
“We’ve had many joint exercises with regional partners during the past year: the Yarmuk drills with Kuwait, the Zayed drills with the UAE, the Hamed manoeuvres with Bahrain and the Faisal exercises with Saudi Arabia. We’ve had the Bright Star manoeuvres with the US, Britain, France and Italy, the Medusa exercises with Greece and the Defenders of Friendship exercises with Russia. The EAF is determined to derive the optimum benefit from exercises. We follow through on the experiences and transmit the expertise and know-how we have gained across the whole of the EAF.”
Helmi believes that the Egyptian people have every cause to be proud of their Armed Forces and the EAF.
“These forces will always side with the will of the Egyptian people, and work to guarantee stability and prosperity, protect national resources and our glorious history and civilisation, and ensure that Egypt always remains proud and free.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.