In the Sky over Egypt

The rearming and force build-up process in which the Egyptian Air Force is engaged conveys to the other countries of the Middle East the Egyptians' intention of becoming the region's strongest air force

Tahrir Square, Cairo (Photo: AP)

The Egyptian Air Force is a massive force by any standard. It operates modern aircraft (along with older platforms), assimilates and orders state-of-the-art aircraft and defends the national borders – with Libya in the west and with Sudan in the south, while its Apache attack helicopters actively seek and engage Bedouin terrorists in the rocky crevices and caves of the Sinai Peninsula.

The Air Force is Egypt's strategic arm. A long arm when the sources of the Nile have to be defended, and a high-flying arm, too – as there is talk about aspirations to reach outer space in the form of a surveillance satellite.

According to a report by the CIA and US Government, the Egyptian Air Force has 1,133 aircraft in 2016: 336 fighters and interceptors, 427 strike fighters, 260 transport aircraft, 387 trainer aircraft and 255 helicopters, of which 46 are attack helicopters.

Global Security published some data about the structure and organization of the Egyptian Air Force: it has a personnel of 30,000 and employs F-16A/C and Mirage-2000 as its front-line fighter aircraft, along with 33 F-4E Phantom aircraft, as well as a large number of outdated Soviet-design aircraft, some of which were manufactured in China, a few surveillance, early warning and electronic warfare aircraft and maritime patrol aircraft.

The Egyptian Air Force's backlog of orders has also been published: 50 Mig-35 fighters and 46 Kamov Ka-52 attack helicopters were ordered from Russia; two C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft were ordered from the USA and are scheduled to be delivered in 2019. The MiG-35 is a highly advanced fighter aircraft, and the Egyptians want it as they cannot purchase F-15 fighters in the USA. The MiG-35 is fitted with a state-of-the-art data system and integrated self-defense systems and possesses cutting-edge air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities.

The Egyptian Air Force is deployed in 28 airbases throughout Egypt. Some of the most important airbases are Cairo/Almaza, Cairo/West, Inshas, Bilbays, Fayid, Beni Suef, Luxor, al-Minya, al-Mansurah and Ras Banas. IAF pilots – primarily from previous generations – are thoroughly familiar with those names, as many of them had 'visited' those airbases.

The Egyptian Air Force's motto, freely translated, means "Higher than High, to Everlasting Glory". Their HQ is located on Oruba Street in Cairo, and the Air Force Commandant is an officer at the rank of Air Marshall. Official publications of the Egyptian military state that the Air Force was established in 1932 and has been an independent arm since 1937. The official definition of the Air Force's task: "Defend the state, attack the enemy and assist the armed forces." Additionally, the Silver Stars aerobatic team, flying R-8E aircraft painted in a white, red and black color scheme, performs flight demonstrations during the events commemorating the anniversary of "The October War".

Like the Israeli Air Force, the Egyptian Air Force has neither fought any enemy aircraft nor has it been involved in any air combat encounters since the signature of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. However, the Egyptian Air Force is currently waging war against the ISIS terrorist attacks in the Sinai Peninsula – executed primarily by local Bedouins. According to some reports, the Israeli Government allowed Egypt to employ Apache attack helicopters in the Sinai, despite the fact that this is a violation of the terms of the peace agreement – to enable Egypt to fight the terrorist threat.

Apart from the operational activity in the Sinai, the Egyptian Air Force trains constantly. Global Security, quoting Israeli sources, reported that in the last few years, the Egyptian Air Force adopted western training methods, command and control systems, strike and air-to-air tactics. Today it is an upgraded force, which assimilates state-of-the-art equipment, and extensive construction activity is under way at the various airbases, where new control towers and air control centers are being erected. The cadets of the Egyptian Air Force Academy enjoy the benefit of flights on board Falcon executive jets.

Egypt makes no attempt to hide the fact that its Air Force is undergoing a build-up, expansion and enhancement process. Yiftach Shafir, a senior research associate and head of the Middle East Military Balance Study Program at INSS, had the following to say about this issue: "Egypt aspires to become a leading superpower in the Middle East. For this purpose, you need an impressive military force, as otherwise you will simply not last very long in this part of the world. Admittedly, they have peace with Israel and various cooperative efforts are under way, but in their training activities and tactical exercises, the reference adversary is still the Israeli Air Force. In this regard, they conduct themselves in exactly the same manner as we do.

"Egypt has real enemies, too: Libya on the other side of the long and wide-open western border, Sudan on the other side of the southern border, with a long-range perspective to the sources of the Nile and Ethiopia and to ISIS in the Sinai. The Egyptians must protect the freedom of navigation in the Mediterranean and in the Red Sea, and must also maintain a military force for internal security and for safeguarding the regime. For all of these missions they may not need many armored divisions, but they definitely need strike fighters, attack helicopters and a transport aircraft fleet." According to Shafir, the Egyptians view their situation in a manner that is similar to the Israeli perspective: no one can guarantee that the embrace with Israel will last forever, so we must be prepared for anything.

Two senior research associates at the Fisher Brothers Institute for Strategic Air & Space Studies, CEO Abraham Assael and research associate Tal Inbar, are also monitoring the build-up trends of the Egyptian Air Force. Inbar: "The trend is one of modernization. The Egyptians are assimilating SA-3 SAM systems on mobile launchers. According to some reports, they have invested in UAVs and acquired CH-3 UAVs in China. Egyptian fighter pilots participate in joint training activities and exercises with foreign air forces, including USAF, which contributes to the improvement of their flight capabilities and operational coordination."

Assael: "Egypt's western border with Libya is very long and wide open. It is a vast desert where hostile Bedouin gangs roam freely. According to some reports, those gangs possess anti-aircraft systems capable of downing aircraft. Another real danger is positioned to the south of Egypt: Ethiopia is a threat as it might block the sources of the Nile, which would be a devastating, lethal below for dozens of millions of Egyptians. There are oil and gas fields to be secured. There is the regime to be safeguarded. ISIS is bothersome, stinging painfully in the Sinai. The Egyptians interpret all of that as instability and translate it into a need for an air force whose aircraft will be able to reach any remote point.

"Since the 1980s, the Egyptian Air Force switched from Soviet doctrines to western doctrines, and for this reason it employs F-16 fighters armed with AMRAAM missiles and Apache attack helicopters in the Sinai. For this reason, they are building American-style underground pens at their airbases. For this reason, the Egyptians need a substantial air force, which at this stage is by no means directed at us – not even as an afterthought."

Over the course of its history, the Egyptian Air Force changed its primary armament suppliers several times. Pursuant to the defeat of 1967, the Egyptians turned to the Russians as their primary supplier. During the Yom-Kippur War ("The October War") of 1973, the Egyptian Air Force lost about 100 of its 220 aircraft, including most of its MiG-21 fighters and Il-28 bombers. Pursuant to that war, Egypt changed direction and opted for procurement from France and the USA. This trend intensified following the signature of the peace agreement with Israel in 1979.

Today, the USA is the chief supplier of aircraft to the Egyptian Air Force, in addition to orders from France for Mirage-5 aircraft, for Mirage-2000 (since the early 1980s) and subsequently for Rafale fighters. From the USA, Egypt ordered F-16 fighters, initially A/B and subsequently C/D models. Subsequently, seven Peace Vector deals were finalized, in the context of which Egypt received F-16 fighters of various types. Today, the Egyptian Air Force employs 220 F-16 fighters – the world's fourth largest fleet of this aircraft type, and these are Egypt's front-line fighters, charged with a dual mission: defending the national airspace and attacking ground targets.

Headlining Egypt's backlog of orders is the Russian-made MiG-35 (NATO designation Fulcrum F), a 4.5 or 4++ generation air superiority fighter. Egypt signed a two billion dollar contract for the supply of 50 MiG-35 fighters in April 2015 (in comparison, the Russian Air Force ordered only 35 of these aircraft). The contract involves three parties: Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia – with Saudi Arabia providing the financing.

The development of the MiG-35 is scheduled to be completed in 2017 along with the test flights. The single-seat variant has a top speed of Mach 2.25 (2,400 km/h) and an operational range of 1,000 km. It is fitted with a cannon, air-to-surface and air-to-air missiles, smart bombs on nine weapon stations (the total armament carrying capacity is 7,000 kg) and a cutting-edge weapons delivery pod. At the same time, the delivery of 24 French-made Rafale fighters continues. That deal includes 16 two-seat and 8 single-seat Rafale fighters plus air-to-air missiles, cruise missiles and a naval bonus – a FREMM class multipurpose frigate.

A Military Power Build-Up Process

The Rafale fighters will constitute a highly important, cutting-edge addition to the Egyptian Air Force, but the number of Rafale aircraft is small relative to the hundreds of F-16 fighters. Additionally, the Rafale aircraft fleet will be almost totally dependent on the supply of French-made armament.

Fisher Institute CEO, Abraham Assael: "The arms deals and the complement of the Egyptian Air Force today prove that Egypt leads a military power build-up process. We should bear in mind the fact that the regime in Egypt has been semi-military since the days of Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, Morsi and el-Sisi. Mubarak was a pilot and the Commandant of the Egyptian Air Force. The Air Force is one of the tools for safeguarding the regime, so it must be kept up-to-date and maintain adequate amounts of aircraft and armament. It is a part of the visible image of military power.

"Additionally, in Egypt the military owns a major part of the defense and civilian industry. The pilots of the Egyptian Air Force are members of a high social class. It is a select group. We have found in various publications that today's Egyptian pilot looks at the defeats of 1967 and 1973 and blames the Russians, as if inferior Russian tactics and strategies were the cause of the substantial damage Egypt sustained back then. They are convinced that today's Air Force has reached a completely different position, as it employs western aircraft and western operational methods."

Apart from fighter aircraft, the Egyptian Air Force maintains substantial fleets of transport aircraft, helicopters and air-defense systems. Over the years, the Egyptians purchased from the USA Cobra, Apache and Blackhawk helicopters, Stinger and Hellfire missiles and Chinook heavy lift helicopters. The transport aircraft fleet includes Russian-made Antonov aircraft, Boeing-707 and C-130 Hercules transporters as well as Beechcraft, Gulfstream and Falcon aircraft.

The Egyptian Air Force has a substantial fleet of more than 300 Alpha-Jet trainers, Brazilian Embraer Tucano trainers, Chinese/Egyptian made K-8E Karakorum jet trainers and trainers manufactured by the Egyptian aerospace industry. Additionally, the Egyptian Air Force has a number of MiG-21R and Mirage-5R intelligence, surveillance and EW aircraft, one Beechcraft C1900 ElInt aircraft and six Hawkeye 2000 aircraft. Egyptian publications have also referred to several unmanned vehicle types – Kedar, SkyEye and Scarab.

Egypt's International Relations

Yiftach Shafir: "The removal of Mubarak was a breaking point, which led to the loss of confidence in the USA as a result of the embargo imposed and subsequently lifted by President Obama. The Egyptians once again 'tested the water' with the Russians, even with the Chinese and naturally with the French. Admittedly, the embargo was lifted, the US military aid to Egypt is alive and well, the F-16 fighter and Apache helicopter deals were resumed – but the Egyptians are cautious and continue to assimilate Rafale fighters from France, along with a frigate and two corvettes, and are also talking with the Russians about MiG-35 fighters. In this way, the disenchanted and wary Egyptians keep all of their options open."

Shafir told us that he uncovered, in a certain archive, a booklet published in the 1950s by the publishing office of the Egyptian Air Force Intelligence Branch. The booklet contains an article by an Egyptian journalist who had visited an Egyptian Air Force base. A host was assigned to accompany the journalist – a fighter pilot at the rank of captain. The pilot's name was Captain Hosni Mubarak, who was serving as a flight instructor at the Egyptian Air Force flying school at that time. "Here is another proof of the special status of the military, including the Air Force, in Egypt. The military is the owner of industries, hotels, roads in Cairo, food industries and bakeries. It is a high social caste in its own right. The Egyptian Air Force is currently undergoing a phase of substantial force build-up in fighter aircraft, helicopters, missiles and a naval arm – all of which are elements of power and prestige in Egypt."