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What the Mistral means
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 - 10 - 2015

Egypt's recent purchase of two French-made Mistral-class helicopter carriers has naturally raised the question of its significance to Egypt's national security in general, and maritime security in particular.
How will this affect the regional balance of naval forces, especially in the Mediterranean to the north and the Red Sea to the east? This question is all the more important given the greater manoeuvrability now possible between the two zones following completion of the New Suez Canal, enabling two-way traffic through most of this waterway.
We will discuss, first, Egyptian maritime national security; second, the regional balance of naval powers in which Egypt still retains the edge; and third, the Mistral and its potential for operating in the strategic depth or distance.
Egypt's maritime national security is intrinsically connected with its extensive shores on both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Egypt's Mediterranean coast stretches from Gaza in the east to Salloum in the West, and its Red Sea coast from Port Said in the north to Halayeb in the south.
To the north, Egypt shares an immediate shoreline with Gaza, to the east with Israel, and to the west with Libya. Egypt is indirectly connected via this shoreline to Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Cyprus. Its Mediterranean coast links it to the other North African countries of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, and northwards to the southern European coasts.
In the Red Sea basin, Egypt shares coastlines with Sudan and Israel (in the Gulf of Aqaba) and is connected indirectly with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Eritrea and Djibouti.
The Mistral adds combat capacities to the Egyptian navy that better enable it to protect Egyptian coasts and territorial waters; in particular, against mounting terrorist activities. It also enhances the navy's capacities to defend strategy waterways, such as the Bab Al-Mandeb at the southern end of the Red Sea, and thereby to safeguard the transit of commercial freighters and oil tankers from South and Southeast Asia to the Gulf and East Africa and to Europe and the US, and visa versa.
The Suez Canal, through which much of this shipping passes, is of great strategic and economic importance to Egypt, especially since the expansion of the canal and plans to develop the Suez Canal Zone into a region designed to draw major domestic and foreign investment.
The Mistral will also augment the abilities of the Egyptian navy and air force to protect the promising Egyptian natural gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean, especially in that area designated by the borders of the “Egypt-mandate Palestine-Cyprus triangle.” In addition, the recently purchased ships will help prevent illegal migration from Egyptian and Libyan to European shores, as well as in rescuing lives imperilled by being packed into unseaworthy boats used by human traffickers engaged in transnational organised crime.
Egypt is determined to sustain the naval superiority it acquired in the October 1973 war. It is fully aware that Israel is working to upgrade its navy in cooperation with the US and Germany.
As for the Mistral, its capacities to operate in the strategic depth and distance, such as the Bab Al-Mandeb, adds to the qualifications that earned Egypt a ranking as one of the 15 strongest armies in the world. The Egyptian army is is the strongest army in the Arab world and Africa and is outranked, globally, only by those of the world's super and great powers.
The Mistral is a fully integrated combat ship. The 22,000-ton vessel is equipped to carry a large ground combat and mechanised forces, to accommodate diverse military helicopters, whether for transport or assault purposes, and to defend itself against hostile submarines.
It also has a partial capacity to defend itself against aerial attacks. Its electronics systems include radars for navigation, aerial defence and helicopter landing and take-off assistance, especially at night. In addition, there is a fully equipped field hospital. All such facilities combine to make the Mistral a complete combat and military control centre capable of working at long distances and for extended periods of time.
The Mistral still requires additional air support to protect it from hostile aircraft. Egypt possesses this in the form of its advanced fighter jets, such as its US-made F-16s and the French Dassault Rafale. The first of these arrived in Egypt this summer, just in time to take part in the New Suez Canal inaugural ceremonies on 6 August 2015.
In sum, the addition of the French-made Mistral class helicopter carriers to the Egyptian navy will strengthen its combat capacities and efficacy, preserve its regional superiority and better enable Egypt to safeguard its vital strategic interests in remote locations such as the Bab Al-Mandeb.
It will also bolster Egypt's ranking among the most powerful armies in the world, as indicated in reports by specialised international institutes. At another level, the Mistral deal is an excellent example of the Egyptian drive to diversify its sources of arms and attain the greatest possible manoeuvrability for Egyptian military decision-makers.
As Egypt has learned in the past, depending on a single source of arms can sometimes impose a form of monopoly and curtail the armaments flexibility of the Egyptian Armed Forces.
The writer is a consultant at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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