The new Egyptian regime in Cairo is beefing up its defense procurement ties with Europe and elsewhere after years of nearly total dependency on the U.S. for its weaponry and aircraft.
The Egyptian Air Force this week took delivery of its first Airbus Military C295 transport aircraft, one of three ordered from the European aircraft manufacturer. Cairo has also reportedly decided to purchase naval vessels and unmanned aerial aircraft from Turkey in the wake of a defense cooperation agreement signed this month.
"This milestone represents the birth of a strong program between Airbus Military and the Egyptian Air Force," said Gen. Yousry Abd El Hamid, chief of the Armaments Department of the Egyptian Ministry of Defense at the ceremony receiving the C295.
The rebalancing of Egypt's armed forces comes at a time when the country is rethinking its place in the Middle East as a stalwart ally of the U.S. Relations with Israel, another U.S. ally, have frayed in recent months while Turkey and even Iran have sought closer ties. However, the generals ruling Egypt until elections in the next few months have refrained from taking strategic decisions.
Ordered 11 months ago prior to the tumultuous Arab Spring, the European transport aircraft have been configured to deliver cargo as well as paratroopers and aid in humanitarian relief missions. According to Airbus, they can carry a payload of nine tons or 71 soldiers and will replace the U.S.-made C-130 Hercules.
The aircraft in military transport configuration was delivered ahead of schedule. The rest are expected to be delivered by the end of the year. They were chosen for their versatility and adaptability for desert areas and ease of maintenance, a crucial factor.
"We are very proud to welcome the Egyptian Air Force to the Airbus Military community of operators and we look forward to support the entry into service of the C295," said Rafael Tentor, head of Airbus Military Programs. "We are confident that the aircraft will have a long future with the Egyptian Air Force, operating efficiently in the challenging missions required from it."
Egypt receives some $1.3 billion annually in U.S. military grants, part of a sweetener for signing the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. The U.S. funding accounts for some one third of the Egyptian defense budget but, like the aid to Israel, most of this must be spent on procurement of weapons systems and support from America.
"The American strategic relationship with Egypt and the massive aid money and technology is extremely important to the Egyptians. During the past 30-plus years the U.S. has delivered more than $70 billion in financial support to Egypt and there is no serious alternative for this," Yoram Meital, director of the Herzog Center for Middle East Studies at Ben Gurion University, told The Media Line.
But after the fall of President Husni Mubarak, fears were raised in Cairo that this aid could not be taken for granted. Following calls in Egypt to end or alter the peace treaty with Israel, voices rose in Washington to cut the aid if the treaty was harmed. While some argue this would undermine U.S. leverage in Egypt, it has appeared to have led to a review of their deep dependency by the military and the move to start spreading their eggs into more baskets outside the United States.
"Without minimizing, we cannot examine Egypt's foreign policy by focusing on foreign aid only. This would be misreading the situation. Yes, the foreign aid is extremely important to Egypt and its army. But national interests are not marked by only foreign aid, especially now under the revolutionary context of public opinion and the rage against Israel or foreign assistance," Meital said.
The delivery of the European-made aircraft came as Egypt and Turkey are enhancing strategic ties. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's official visit earlier this month to Cairo led to the signing of a comprehensive defense-cooperation agreement.
Shortly afterwards, senior officials from Turkish Aerospace Industries revealed Egypt was interested in procuring the new Anka MALE spy drone. Quoting Turkish sources, Defense Update said Turkey will also deliver to Egypt six multi-role tactical platforms, MRTP-20 "fast-intervention crafts," produced by Yonca-Onuk. Three boats will be constructed in Istanbul and the others in Egypt's Alexandria shipyard using Turkish supplied kits.
The Egyptian air force is one of the largest and strongest in the region, with its backbone of 220 Lockheed-Martin F-16s. It also operates some French-built Mirage 2000s and obsolete MiG aircraft from the days when the Soviet Union was its chief arms supplier.
Due to the U.S. commitment to Israel, which flies an exclusively U.S.-made fleet, to maintain its qualitative edge, the Egyptian aircraft do not have the same capabilities. In the past, Egypt sought to procure advanced aircraft like the MiG 29 or Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets after America balked at requests to purchase advanced F-16s or F-15 jets.
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