COLUMN | Egypt: a rapidly emerging maritime power [Naval Gazing]

ENS Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers operated by the Egyptian Navy (Photo: Dedieu)

The Egyptian Navy (EN) is the largest regional naval force in the Middle East. Its roles include the protection of Egypt’s extensive Red Sea and Mediterranean coastlines and the support of operations by the Egyptian Army.

The service has seen significant action against Israeli and other naval forces over the yeas, and the sinking in 1967 of the Israeli destroyer INS Eilat by Styx missiles fired from an EN Komar-class fast attack craft marked the first ever successful strike by a ship-launched surface-to-surface missile.

From the 1960s onwards, the Soviet Union helped build up the Egyptian fleet, but the EN was long noted for the antiquated nature of much of its inventory. It still retains a handful of active old vessels, including, astonishingly, the 1865-vintage state yacht El Mahrousa, but over the past 20 years has emerged as a very modern and ambitious force.

The prime catalyst for EN growth has been the regional security situation, which includes unstable governments, territorial disputes, and terrorist activity.

In January 2020 the EN caught the attention of analysts when it staged an unprecedented major exercise in the Mediterranean. Tensions in the region were high, and Egypt was embroiled in a de facto alliance with the UAE, France, Sudan, Russia and Saudi Arabia, in support of rebel Libyan General Khalifa Haftar. Participating Egyptian assets included destroyers, fast missile-armed attack craft, a diesel-electric attack submarine, and a landing platform dock (helicopter) (LPH).

Core assets of the contemporary Egyptian fleet are a pair of French-built, 21,300-tonne Mistral-class LPHs, ENS Gamal Abdel Nasser and ENS Anwar al-Sadat. These ships were originally intended for the Russian Navy, but the order was cancelled for political reasons. Each capable of operating up to 35 helicopters, including the new Russian-made Ka-50 ground attack platforms, these ships facilitate the long-range power projection that is a major element of geopolitical ambitions.

Recent months have seen a quantum leap in EN surface warfare capabilities, including the commissioning of the Italian-built gas turbine/electric-powered FREMM frigates ENS Al Galala and ENS Bernees. These ships are fitted with the powerful Herakles passive electronically-scanned array radar, providing strong surveillance capabilities, while armament includes a 76-milimetre gun and Exocet anti-shipping and Aster air defence missiles. Two AW101 or SH-90 helicopters can be carried.

The first German-built MEKO 200 frigate, four of which are on order, is due to be launched very shortly. These ships will be armed with Swedish Saab RBS-15 surface-to-surface missiles and South African Umkhonto air defence missiles.

ENS Port Said, Egypt’s first locally-built Gowind-class corvette (Photo: Alexandria Shipyard)

January 2021 saw the commissioning of the first of a planned three locally-built, French-designed Gowind 2500 corvettes, the first example having been constructed in France. Armament includes the new MICA vertically-launched air defence missiles. Cairo is currently negotiating with Paris for the possible supply of two more Gowind 2500s to be built in France.

Backing up the burgeoning EN inventory of very modern escorts is a flotilla of second-hand ships, namely four Oliver Hazard Perry-class and two Knox-class frigates, formerly of the US Navy, a pair of ex-Spanish Navy Descubierta-class corvettes, and a former South Korean Navy Pohang-class corvette.

A force of some 50 fast attack craft includes vessels built in China, Russia, Germany, UK, and the US as well as indigenously constructed craft.

S44, the fourth Type 209 submarine to be built for Egypt (Photo: ThyssenKrupp)

In a development that has significant balance of power implications, Egypt is now vying with Israel to be the operator of the region’s most powerful submarine force. Three German-built Type 209 1400 mod class boats are now in service with the EN, and the fourth and final boat of the class was launched at the TKMS shipyard in September 2020.  Both these boats, and the EN’s quartet of Chinese-built Romeo-class submarines, can fire the underwater-launched variant of the Harpoon anti-shipping cruise missile.

There is, therefore, no doubt that Egypt is rapidly emerging as a maritime power to be reckoned with.

Trevor Hollingsbee

Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.