The Bright Star 2021 joint military exercise, hosted by Egypt, kicked off at the Mohamed Naguib military base in the Northern Military Zone on 2 September. Twenty-one countries are taking part in the two-week drills which conclude on 17 September. The participating countries include, among others, Egypt, the US, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Cyprus, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, Kenya, Italy, Spain, the UK, Greece, Kuwait, and France.
The size of the participant forces makes Bright Star 2021 the largest and most important military training exercise in the world, said the Egyptian chief of military staff at the ceremonial launch of the event. Military Spokesman Colonel Gharib Abdel-Hafez Gharib said during the orientation session that this year’s exercise had four main aims: irregular combat training, developing interoperability using the latest global combat systems, strengthening strategic and security relations among participant nations, and exchanging expertise and developing combat methods of participant forces.
The American director of training expressed his sincere gratitude to the Egyptian Armed Forces for hosting Bright Star 2021. The US regards Egypt as one of its most important strategic partners in the region, he said. The US Central Command (CENTCOM), in a statement released by its public affairs office on 4 September, said that this year’s exercise would build off the success of Bright Star 2018. “Approximately 600 US military personnel will participate in the exercise, which was originally scheduled for 2020, but postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Major General Steven J deMilliano, director of Exercises and Training Directorate at CENTCOM, said the exercise “is an important professional development tool to test and validate concepts, procedures, and tactics. More broadly, they enable militaries to grow capabilities and prepare to quickly respond to demanding crisis situations.”
“The scenario for this year will test each country’s ability to work together to address regional challenges across air, land, sea and cyber domains,” the CENTCOM statement continued. “The exercise construct will consist of a field training exercise with a combined-arms live-fire exercise, command post exercise and a senior leader seminar to facilitate information sharing from the tactical to the strategic levels. Exercise Bright Star builds on the strategic security relationship between Egypt and the United States, which plays a leading role in regional security and efforts to combat the spread of extremism. The first Bright Star exercise took place in 1980 with this year being the 17th iteration.”
It appears that the main common denominator among the many participant forces is their desire to hone strategic and tactical expertise and interfacing in dealing with unconventional threats. Of particular importance is the qualitative training in counter-terrorism operations in light of the proliferation of terrorism in this region where widespread warfare and strife provides fertile soil for breeding terrorism and extremism. Although the phenomenon has receded due to the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, it is widely believed that the notorious terrorist organisation is regrouping and rebuilding its networks, not only in Syria and Iraq but also in the Sahel region in Africa, especially given the ongoing precariousness of the situation in Libya and its porous borders with Chad, Niger, and Mali. Al-Qaeda, too, may be making a comeback despite the debilitating setbacks it sustained from counter-terrorist operations or its rivalries with IS affiliates, in the Sahel in particular. So it is little wonder that counter-terrorist capacity building should still receive high priority in the Bright Star training agenda.
In this regard, Egyptian and US troops concluded a joint training exercise specifically designed for counter-terrorism. SOFO3 drills were carried out by Egyptian paratroopers and commanders together with US Special Forces in the framework of an expertise exchange programme. The drill was another manifestation of close Egyptian-US military cooperation in the fight against terrorism. This relationship has been steadily developing for four decades, despite some interruptions due to exceptional circumstances such as the Gulf War, the upheaval after 2011 and, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic. But the fact that joint drills and manoeuvres have resumed with increasing energy after each interval reflects Washington’s and Cairo’s eagerness to develop their bilateral military and security relations, as well as the US’ recognition of Egypt as a major power in the Middle East and a major contributor to regional security efforts, as deMilliano indicated.
In light of the many military and non-military factors that qualify Egypt to play a leading role in this regard, the collaboration is expected to grow even more in coming years. Indeed, recent developments already point in this direction, most notably the several recently signed cooperation and coordination protocols and MoUs such as the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Memorandum of Understanding (ACSMOU) signed by CENTCOM Director of Logistics and Engineering Major General Jeffrey Drushal and Egyptian Assistant Minister of Defence for International Affairs Major General Mohamed Salah on 27 April this year. In addition, we have seen the many high-level exchanges of visits, the most recent of which was the visit that the US Naval Forces Central Command’s Commander of the US Fifth Fleet Charles Cooper II paid to the Berenice Naval Base where Egypt’s Southern Fleet is headquartered. Then, in August, the guided missile cruiser USS Monterey made the first visit of a US warship to Berenice, Egypt’s largest military base in the Red Sea.
Military observers in Egypt have described these developments as indicative of a “qualitative shift” in Egyptian-US military cooperation and a reflection of the two sides’ awareness of the security and military changes in the region. Brigadier General Mohamed Qashqoush, one of the senior military officers of the Egyptian paratrooper forces that took part in the first edition of the Bright Star drills, believes that the two countries are not only taking these factors into consideration in general but also in the specific context of regional security arrangements after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and US redeployment in the region following the end of combat missions in Iraq. “It will be important to focus on military cooperation between the US and Egypt and their allies in the framework of future arrangements in this regard,” Qashqoush said, adding that the joint military exercises, and particularly the activities designed to transfer expertise and provide training in modern weapons systems, are probably a part of this framework.
The configuration of participant nations is also useful to consider in this context. Most of them are friends and allies with both Egypt and the US and most have conducted regular exercises with the Egyptian Armed Forces. Among Egypt’s non-regional partners, this applies in particular to France, Spain, Britain and Pakistan. In the Eastern Mediterranean region, Egypt’s increasing military cooperation with Cyprus and Greece has been crowned by the Medusa drill series while in the Arab region, in addition to the regular bilateral and multilateral exercises with Gulf countries, neighbouring Sudan is of particular note. Cairo’s military relations with Khartoum have increased exponentially in the two years since the overthrow of the Omar Al-Bashir regime. Cairo has also concluded various military cooperation agreements with a number of other African countries, such as Kenya which took part in Bright Star 2021.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.