Why in the World Does Egypt Want French Mini-Carriers?
It's all about image
Egypt’s military junta is going on a shopping spree for weapons. Remember those French amphibious assault ships originally intended for Russia that are now sitting out to dry? Cairo’s generals have their eyes on them, too.
The French-built Mistral-class amphibious assault ship, or helicopter carrier, is a formidable vessel. Capable of carrying 16 helicopters, four landing barges and an entire tank battalion along with about 450 troops, these vessels give the state which owns them a substantial ability to project air and ground power far from its shores.
France has built five of these warships to date, two of which it had originally sold to Russia. That deal collapsed, however, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and proxy war in the Donbass. The Mistrals remained home, and will cost France $2.67 billion in compensation to its Russian clients — a hefty bill French taxpayers will have to foot.
This comes amid a flurry of failed arms contract for France.
For about a decade, Paris has searched for a buyer for its advanced Dassault Rafale multi-role jet fighters. Not until 2015 did it find customers in Qatar and Egypt, which bought 24 jets along with two French frigates.
Even though the $5.2 billion arms deal with Egypt is going ahead, it is nevertheless costing France for now, since Egypt is buying these high-tech arms on credit. Now Paris has to figure out what to do with carriers it doesn’t want.
Enter Egyptian potentate Abdel Fattah El Sisi. He’s seeking to reenergize the Egyptian economy and status after years of decline, even stagnation, in the wake of the 2011 Egyptian revolution.
Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchies are helping prop up the Egyptian government and support Sisi’s efforts to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood. But his regime could still fail without economic prosperity. Sisi is also seeking to re-instill national pride and make Egypt not only a greater military power but a powerful regional state.
These two motivations were evident in Sisi’s recent inauguration of a new and expanded Suez Canal — the iconic canal is now a two-way waterway — where his government promoted a new economic zone. This will eventually account for approximately one-third of Egypt’s economy, Cairo claims. The first three of Egypt’s newly delivered Rafale jets flew over that ceremony.
Since the Mistral deal with Russia collapsed, Cairo and Riyadh have expressed interest in purchasing the vessels. According to Le Monde, both governments are in fact “desperate to buy” those ships. If Egypt purchases them, perhaps on Saudi credit, it would make a lot of sense. It would certainly convey to Sisi’s supporters that Egypt is on its way to becoming a formidable regional power.
The presence of a Mistral-class carrier in a foreign port, or a country’s coast, projects an image of an Egypt capable of dispatching its armed forces far beyond its own territorial confines. It will also show the country’s Saudi and Gulf patrons that Egypt is a military power with logistical backbone and greater heavy-lift capability, something which is essential for any major military power to have.
Indeed, Egypt is one the most powerful players assisting the Saudi-led war against Houthi tribesmen in Yemen. Having these two assault ships would enable the Egyptians to readily intervene more directly with sizable air and ground forces. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will — in Yemen or in future wars — but it tells friends and foes alike that they have the means to.
If Cairo does buy them, what kind of hardware will it choose to, or try to, put aboard? Will it seek to buy French tanks and helicopters the ships were built to be compatible with … or will Egypt modify hardware already in its inventory?
What kind of tanks will it choose to put inside those ships? Will Cairo choose to outfit the decks with gunships or utility helicopters or perhaps a mix of both?
Egypt already has a vast inventory of tanks — both American and Russian — and quite a number of helicopters. Cairo’s U.S.-made Apache gunships would likely have to undergo substantial modifications and overhauls before they could operate from such a vessel.
However, Egypt’s more nimble French-made SA-342 Gazelle helicopters may be more compatible. These are designed to serve as both scouts and light-attack helicopters.
Or perhaps Egypt will place aboard some of the 50 Ka-52 Hokum-B gunships it’s set to receive from Russia before the end of the decade. After all, Russia had begun to modify some of those gunships to fit on those same ships before the deal fell apart. So it’s certainly possible.
Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that Egyptian Mistrals will be a major boost to its image. For military juntas, image is everything.