The North African maritime domain is vital both to the economy of the region, and to its security. North African nations have therefore traditionally given considerable priority to their maritime forces.
Now, improving regional economies are allowing modernisation and expansion programmes, of a level which is resulting in the emergence of North African navies as significant players on the world maritime stage.
Many challenges face these forces. These include the smuggling of narcotics, fuel oil and weapons, as well as very large scale trafficking of irregular migrants originating from many different countries, to Europe, from the North African coastline. Some of the profits from these illicit activities help fund terrorist activity.
Also, fishing forms a significant part of the region’s food supply, and extensive fisheries need to be protected, as well as offshore oil and gas installations.
Further, Egypt and Morocco have been participants in the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, a conflict that has had a significant, if little publicised naval aspect. An Egyptian naval task group has seen action off the Yemeni coast, including the bombardment of land targets, reportedly by the Chinese-built frigate Najim al Zafir.
Threats encountered by coalition warships off Yemen have included shore-based anti-shipping cruise missiles (ASCM), remote-controlled bomb boats and unmanned submersibles.
The Egyptian Navy
The Egyptian Navy (EN) is the largest blue-water naval force in the Middle East, and its status has been considerably boosted in recent years by the acquisition of a pair of French-built Mistral-class landing helicopter docks (LHD). These amphibious warfare vessels can operate up to 35 helicopter, utilising six landing spots, carry four large landing craft, and can embark up to 900 troops.
The LHDs give the EN the ability to undertake long-range interventions, and to participate in multi-national exercises.
The EN’s previously largely dormant submarine arm has been revived with an order for four Type 209/1400 subs from Germany’s TKMS. Three of the boats have so far been delivered. These high-specification vessels are due to be equipped with Sub-Harpoon ASCMs
The EN’s 13-strong inventory of frigates and corvettes includes three very modern, Gowind-class corvettes, equipped with Exocet MM40 Block 3 ASCM. Two were built in France, one is of indigenous construction. A fourth example is in build in Egypt. Other EN frigates and corvettes were acquired second -hand from a number of countries.
A force of some 50 fast attack craft of various types is headed by four heavily armed, US-built Ambassador Mk III vessels.
Algerian naval forces
Another regional maritime force that has recently acquired modern high-status assets is the Algerian National Navy (ANN).
The ANN’s 9,000-tonne, Italian-built LHD Kalaat Beni Abbes can operate up to five helicopters, and is armed with a 76mm gun and Aster air defence missiles. It has extensive command and control facilities, and a comprehensive outfit of electronic
warfare equipment. Kalaat Beni Abbes has been active in disaster response operations.
The ANN’S well established submarine arm features six Russian Kilo boats, supplied by Russia from 1987 onwards.
Two MEKO A200 frigates, built by TKMS, were commissioned 2016-2017, and two more are on order. There is also a trio of Dhafer-class corvettes, supplied by China’s CSSC, as well as a number of older, Russian-built, corvettes.
The ANN is renowned for keeping a close watch on Algeria’s maritime territorial waters, by means of sustained surveillance by both warships, and its relatively powerful air arm of Super Lynx and Merlin Helicopters.
Flagship of the Royal Moroccan Navy (RMN) is the modern French-built FREMM frigate Mohammed VI. Optimised for anti-submarine warfare, this ship is equipped with Exocet MM40 ASCMs, a 76mm gun and anti-submarine torpedoes. Herakles multi-function radar is fitted,
Other important RMN fleet units include three modern Damen Sigma corvettes, and there is a large contingent of patrol vessels of various classes, some of which are very active in the fishery protection role.
Tunisian Navy capabilities are being substantially boosted by the acquisition of four new OPVs, being constructed by Damen at its Galati Shipyard in Romania. These 1,500-tonne, 24-knot vessels feature a Sea Axe bow, and a helicopter deck
Other Tunisian naval assets include three La Combattante III fast attack craft, and a number of smaller patrol vessels.
The Libyan Navy suffered very badly at the hands of Western forces in the 2011 conflict, and very few of its warships remain operational. The service’s coast guard element, though, is very active, now equipped mainly with former Italian Coast Guard, and Customs Service, vessels. This force receives substantial EU sponsorship, and is primarily engaged, in operations against large scale irregular migration to Europe via the Libyan coast.
Recent additions to the Libyan naval scene are the warships of rebel General Khalifi Haftar’s Libya National Army. This force reportedly includes some small ex-Libyan Navy Damen patrol craft, and a few RHIBS. Its largest asset is the former Irish Naval Service OPV Alkarama, which has been positioned at the oil port of Ras Lanuf.
Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.