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Guarding a sea of interests

The precarious state of security in this tense and volatile region compels countries like Egypt to maintain an army that is well-equipped, highly trained and constantly prepared

Ahmed Eleiba , Tuesday 17 Dec 2019
Part of the naval drills in the Mediterranean
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Last week, the Egyptian armed forces staged naval drills that, according to the official communique, were aimed at asserting maritime control over Egyptian economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean and to secure vital targets at sea.

Armies always engage in various types of manoeuvres, drills and other such training activities. Often it is possible to identify the strategic dimensions or aims of the drills from the formations involved, the place and time they are held, the participant contingents and hardware, the training tasks and curriculum, and the like. Many manoeuvres are held regularly within the framework of established training programmes in order to improve combat efficacy or interoperability with other forces. But some activities are organised specifically in response to a new or unusual development, and above all to address unconventional and urgent threats to national security, requiring professional armies to be prepared to mount qualitative strategic or tactical responses commensurate to the threats. The activities might be performed by the component forces of a single national army or jointly with the forces of allies or partners in a coalition, such as the coalitions that have been formed recently to counter such unconventional threats as terrorism and illegal migration.

The precarious state of security in this tense and volatile region compels countries like Egypt to maintain an army that is well-equipped, highly trained and constantly prepared to intervene rapidly against any number of threats that can surface, often on several fronts at the same time.

The geopolitical environment in the Eastern Mediterranean is undergoing structural changes that are still in the process of formation. These will alter the nature of the security arrangements that the region has known since the end of the Cold War. The most prominent features of the shifting environment are the changes in the balances of powers and the realms of influence of international and regional powers as the result of developments related to the many conflicts and disputes in this region.

Another important feature is the surge in the economic importance of the Eastern Mediterranean in light of the recent discoveries of underwater natural gas fields which, in turn, have given additional impetus to the shifts in the strategic landscape. The Egyptian Armed Forces, cited by international reports as having among the world’s strongest navies, are prepared for eventualities ensuing from the changes in this area, in large part thanks to their ongoing and comprehensive programme of modernisation and development.

However, the dynamics of the interplay related to regional changes are gradually producing a new phenomenon, not least being the “hybrid interactions” that have begun to unfold. Perhaps the most salient example is the Turkish attempt to jumble two separate issues and their respective interplays in order to impose new and more complicated patterns of confrontation. It is part of Ankara’s strategy to fuel and protract conflicts in the Arab region, on the one hand, and to facilitate its high seas piracy and predation against natural gas resources that belong to others, on the other. If it has to ignite another conflict in the region to serve its ends, it will do so, for this is clearly the purpose of the maritime border “memorandum of understanding” that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed with Fayez Al-Sarraj of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya.

Despite the illegitimacy of the agreement, since Al-Sarraj and the GNA are not constitutionally empowered to conclude international accords, the result is a confusion of the lines of engagement. One requires the deterrent powers of the Egyptian military in order to protect and safeguard vital natural resources that indisputably fall within the Egyptian economic zone in accordance with international law. The other extends the line southwards to the Libyan theatre, which is no less crucial to Egyptian national security because of shared borders. Egypt has every reason to step up its military preparedness and to take all necessary measures to safeguard its strategic assets and its western front.

A unique and powerful team of Egyptian naval forces took part in the manoeuvres, engaging some of the army’s most sophisticated hardware. The line-up included one of Egypt’s Mistral helicopter carriers, and an escort formation including the Romeo-class submarine which has won world-wide admiration because of the upgrading that has enhanced its strategic importance in naval warfare. The army released a video demonstrating the capabilities of the submarine which showed the interior of the vessel as it fired a UGM-84 Harpoon Anti-Ship missile during one of the exercises. The missile, which has a range of over 130km, hit its target. One of Egypt’s Type 209 submarines and its crew also took part in the drills. The German-made Type 209 is one of the best attack submarines in the world.

The purpose of the manoeuvres was to “develop the capacity to confront the challenges and dangers in the region,” according to the Armed Forces communique. The timing tells us that these challenges and dangers are imminent and of a nature that demand an appropriate and rapid response. This, combined with the nature of the drills themselves, conveys the message to those whom it may concern that Egypt is prepared to deliver such a response.

The manoeuvres profiled the performance of the navy’s command and control, the efficacy of which is reflected in numerous indicators: speed of response to imminent threats, readiness to handle potential threats pre-emptively, the modes of deployment, the types of command and control systems, ability and precision in attaining designated goals and targets, and the ability to repeat the required tasks at a more advanced or extensive level in the event an adversary chooses to escalate. Based on all such indicators, the Egyptian navy has shown that it can rise to the challenges presented by the changes in the configurations of forces and to counter attempts by hostile or rival powers to tilt the balance against Egypt.

The manoeuvre was the first of its kind, in that the drills, formations and weapons deployed highlighted the navy’s offensive capabilities. The intent was to deliver a strong deterrent message. It states that Egypt will not allow anyone to cross the red lines of Egyptian national security and that it has both the defensive and offensive capacities to act quickly and effectively against any adversary that attempts to do so. It simultaneously states that in addition to its readiness to defend its own vital targets in the face of threats and challenges arising from the new “hybrid interactions”, Egypt is also prepared to come to the aid of its allies in the region in the event that they, too, are threatened by any escalation in the belligerent policies of rival powers.  

The ongoing, growing, mutating and increasingly imminent nature of the threats in the region demand enhanced “rapid deterrent” capacities and a readiness for a more advanced posture in national security defence. Egypt is taking all necessary steps in this regard out of the realisation that the region will not stabilise in the near future and also that there are certain impetuous regimes that may be hard to deter using normal means and, therefore, require stronger deterrent measures.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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