The Russian helicopter design firm Russian Helicopters is poised to supply $1 billion worth of equipment and aircraft for Egypt’s recently-purchased Mistral warships.
These are the same two Mistral helicopter carriers that had initially been built by France for the Russian Navy, but that deal was cancelled after Russia annexed Crimea and wreaked chaos in eastern Ukraine.
“Egypt plans to buy Mistrals from France, and Russia would be…a sub-contractor that will provide these Mistrals with the necessary equipment,” Russian Chief of Staff Sergey Ivanov suggested when speaking about the possible deal to RIA Novosti. “Without this hardware the Mistral, excuse me, is just a tin can,” Ivanov said, adding that such a deal would include jets, which, along with the other equipment for the Mistrals, costs over $1 billion.
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Ivanov also stated that Egypt is a long-time strategic partner for Russia, and that if Cairo is interested, Russian Helicopters will be ready to supply Mistrals “with all the necessary helicopter equipment.” Along with the equipment for Mistrals, Russia is willing to provide Egypt with its Ka-52K helicopters, the naval version of the Ka-52 Alligator combat helicopter. In September, Egypt bought 50 Ka-52s from Russia. This helicopter model was developed especially for the Mistrals ordered from France in 2011 for $1.3 billion.
Nearly 400 Egyptian sailors will travel to Saint-Nazaire in France, where the ships were built, for drills on the Mistrals’ advanced technology.
France was “forced” to cancel the Mistral deal by NATO
Under the Mistral deal between Russia and France, the two warships were supposed to be delivered in 2014 and 2015, but the French government then cancelled the deal over Russia’s aggressive moves in Eastern Europe. France announced in September that it was selling the two helicopter carriers to Egypt for a reported €950 million ($1.1 billion). According to French officials, the warships are expected to be delivered in March 2016. The cost ($1.1 billion) is the same amount of money paid to Russia as compensation for cancelling the deal.
Members of the French Senate’s International Affairs Committee claimed in September that France “was forced” to cancel the Mistral deal with Russia because of external pressure from NATO. The Mistral deal between Russia and France would have been one of the biggest arms contracts between Russia and a NATO member.
Why does Egypt need Mistrals?
On Aug. 1, Cairo prolonged its mandate to deploy armed forces for another six months, with the goal to protect Arab interests in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Bab el Mandeb. The purchase of the two Mistral-class helicopter carriers, each of which is capable of transporting 1,000 soldiers, armored vehicles and helicopters, could be used in the war in Yemen and other conflicts, including in Libya, where Arab forces could eventually get involved.
Mistrals are not Egypt’s only purchase from France. In a move that is interpreted as Egypt’s decreasing reliance on the U.S. for its defense equipment. The Egyptians ordered four French-made Gowind corvettes and a FREMM frigate from French shipyard DCNS and 24 Rafale fighters from Dassault.
So what’s the sudden interest in military equipment for Egypt? Arab countries like Egypt are interested in not only beefing up their military arsenals but also strengthening ties and developing trade and foreign policy relations outside those they have with the U.S. France, for its part, is interested in presenting itself as an alternative to U.S. suppliers and thus strengthen its influence among Middle Eastern countries.
The Mistrals that Egypt purchased from France are already equipped with telecommunications equipment, missile systems and a helicopter landing control module that has been calibrated especially for Russia’s specifications. Altering the ships for Egypt is a costly and time-consuming process, but with Russia willing to supply Mistral equipment to Egypt, it could speed up the process.
Why doesn’t Egypt doesn’t U.S. defense equipment any more?
As of today, the U.S. has somewhat chilly relations with pretty much all Middle Eastern states. As for Egypt, the U.S. has differences on human rights. With Saudi Arabia, Washington’s views on Yemen differ, and with all the other sides of the Syrian conflict, the U.S. differs on the ultimate goal and the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Washington claims that it wants the Assad regime removed from power, but it does not promote effective ways – political, military or otherwise – to make it happen. The U.S. has not even proposed an alternative political structure that would assume power if Assad steps down.
Thus, we see a vacuum with Russia, Iran, ISIS and numerous terrorist groups in the region. Russia and Iran support the Assad regime, while Tehran has imperialistic and jihadist plans for Syria. The Sunni countries of the Persian Gulf, Jordan and Egypt, approve U.S. goals in the Middle East, but, seeing the lack of effective actions from Washington, they are afraid that Syria could turn into a yet another Libya.
Therefore, Egypt feels the need to protect itself from all possible scenarios that could develop in Syria over the next few months. Furthermore, Qatar agreed to buy 24 Rafale jets from France in April. Then France announced plans in June to sell $12 billion worth of civilian and military equipment to Saudi Arabia. Such military contracts have seen an uptick after Iran’s nuclear deal, which had put an end to sanctions crippling Tehran’s economy. Arab countries feel the need to protect themselves, believing that the deal will encourage Iran, their major regional rival, to work on the nuclear program secretly.