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Firepower on display
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 - 03 - 2015

In the last two weeks Egypt's Armed Forces staged two major military manoeuvres using live ammunition. Raad 23 (Thunder 23) was conducted on the border with Libya, while Nasr 13 (Victory 13) was staged on the eastern front in Sinai. The exercises were timed to coincide with celebrations marking the 26th anniversary of the reacquisition of Taba.
“The men of this command are determined to maintain the highest levels of combat readiness,” said Major General Mohamed Masri, commander of the Western Military Zone. “They are dedicated, heart and soul, to safeguarding Egypt's western borders.”
Among the messages conveyed by the manoeuvres is that Egypt is able to act on more than one front simultaneously. Indeed, this seemed the basic reason for the staging of two exercises, on the eastern and western fronts, within a week of one another.
“The Armed Forces remain deserving of their reputation,” said Minister of Defence General Sedqi Sobhi. “As always, they are strong and capable, able to confront any threat to Egypt's national security.”
The Raad 23 mobilisation manoeuvres included coordinated targeting exercises for all weapons. Live ammunition was used as rapid intervention and marine commando forces attacked and destroyed simulated terrorist targets, both along the coast and inland.
Combat management training inside enemy defences included destroying defence systems and infrastructure with the aid of air force units providing reconnaissance and logistical support. Ground combat assault troops then advanced under air and artillery cover to confront enemy forces and destroy enemy command and control centres.
Mechanised and artillery units were deployed to expand the assault, penetrate enemy defences and engage and destroy enemy forces while fighter helicopters and antitank missiles fended off enemy attacks along the various combat lines.
Raad 23 also included a landing exercise for Saeqa (Thunderbolt) special forces. The simulation involved units attacking and destroying an enemy command centre and then advancing to consolidate a strategic line in enemy held territory.
Rapid intervention units were transported by land from military staging camps to assist in the elimination of a terrorist stronghold. Fighter jets and assault helicopters provided air cover for the ground units, relaying information regarding enemy losses and taking out identified targets.
In an associated exercise, combat units from the special marines forces attacked and destroyed a hostile target on the coast. The exercise was carried out by marine commandos and frogmen. Rapid naval landing craft were used to transport the units from their staging centres.
As the boats approached the enemy-held coastline, frogmen slipped into the water and raced ashore to assess enemy defences and secure a landing for the assault units. These landed, engaged and eliminated enemy and returned to a pre-established meeting point after the successful completion of their mission.
Raad 23 showcased high levels of field and combat expertise among air, naval and land forces and specialised auxiliary units. They demonstrated their ability to take out conventional and unconventional field targets and conduct special operations behind enemy lines.
Nasr 13 was the first manoeuvre of its type since the eastern zone was placed under a unified command. The manoeuvre began with Egyptian forces carrying out a mock pre-emption of two major attacks planned by Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, with Islamic State (IS) support, in retaliation for Egypt's aerial assault against IS strongholds in Libya.
The message Nasr 13 was intended to convey was summed up by Sobhi when he referred to the Egyptian Armed Forces' levels of “preparedness and readiness to carry out their assigned tasks in order to defend the Egyptian people and to challenge anyone who contemplates undermining the peace and stability of all the peoples of the region.”
It is a clearly political message, the implication being that Egypt is committed to the defence of Arab national security, and prepared to act to stave off any threats. The same message has been repeated by military officials for months now, not least when calling for the creation of a joint Arab defence force.
Many military experts believe that Egypt already has the capacity to take part in wars abroad but they stress any action beyond Egypt's borders will be within the context of protecting Arab national security.
The issue of Egyptian participation in protecting Arab national security through a joint Arab force is expected to be high on the agenda of the Arab Summit, which convenes in Sharm Al-Sheikh on 28 and 29 March.
Another message the manoeuvres sends is that Egypt is at the heart the war against terror and its forces have already delivered a succession of debilitating blows against terrorist groups in Sinai and on the western front.
Retired Major General Alaa Ezz Al-Din, director of the Armed Forces' Strategic Studies Centre, told Al-Ahram Weekly that reading this message into the recent manoeuvres has been reinforced by their timing. But it is wise to remember, he said, that the vast majority of military training exercises and manoeuvres are planned well in advance.
One cannot read the latest exercises as a rehearsal of actions that are about to be taken in response to threats already detected. The point of such exercises, he added, “is to ensure that the Armed Forces are capable of acting effectively on all fronts and at all times.”
Another military expert, retired Major General Talaat Musalam, underscores the regional context of the messages the Egyptian military manoeuvres were intended to convey. “The point being made is political,” he told the Weekly. “Egypt is willing, and prepared, to act in defence of Arab national security.”
But won't the absence of any consensus among Arab states over what strategy is best for handling regional crises undermine Egypt's willingness to play a role?
Musalam thinks not. Divergent agendas exist, he says, but everyone now recognises the nature of the dangers and the threats. And because they do, a joint Arab force is at last viable: “Current circumstances are unprecedented. All Arab countries are under threat and no state can confront the threats alone. Also, there is no foreign inclination to support the Arabs.”
The first test of Arab will is likely to come in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has pledged to intervene in its neighbour's conflict and Peninsula Shield forces are already being mobilised.
But will this intervention be a Saudi-Gulf drive or an Arab national security drive involving all Arab parties, not least Egypt, which views the Bab Al-Mandab Straits as crucial to its national security?

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