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Egypt fighter deal still ruffling American feathers

Posted 8 January 2021 · Add Comment

As 2020 was a bumper year for fighter aircraft across the MENA region, Jon Lake looks at this, and various other, defence matters.

Upsetting the US: The first Sukhoi Su-35SKs were delivered to Egypt on August 5.                 Picture: SUKHOI

The first Sukhoi Su-35SKs were delivered to Egypt on August 5, after the signing a $2 billion contract for 24 of the Russian-made fighters in March 2019.

The Su-35SKs followed a similar number of Dassault Rafales and 46 MiG-29M/M2 fighters.

The deal attracted the ire of the US, with threats of sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) regulation.

This prompted Major-General Nasr Salem, a professor of strategic studies at the Nasser Higher Military Academy, to ask: “Why doesn’t the US supply Egypt with the F-35 fighters that it supplied Israel with, since it is objecting to the Russian Su-35 fighter deal?”

Though the US has been unwilling to export the Lockheed Martin F-35A Joint Strike Fighter to the region, in an effort to ensure that one of its allies maintains a ‘qualitative military edge’, the US and the UAE are understood to be working towards having a letter of agreement for the supply of F-35s in place in time for UAE National Day, celebrated on December 2.

Any delivery of F-35s to the UAE will inevitably lead to pressure from Saudi Arabia to acquire more advanced fighters, in order to maintain the ‘balance of power’.

Saudi Arabia could make its own request for F-35s, or could confirm its long-expected order for 48 more Eurofighter Typhoons – ensuring that these are to the latest standard, with the new Leonardo ECRS Mk 2 radar, which provides advanced electronic attack capabilities, allowing the aircraft to operate even in the most contested airspace.

The Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) has now received almost all of its 84 new-build F-15SA Advanced Eagles ordered in December 2011. It received the first two in December 2016, with an additional 26 in 2017, 21 in 2018, 25 in 2019, and four in 2020 for a total of 78 delivered to date.

Just six remain undelivered, and three of these are expected to remain in the US for training and test duties.

The new build F-15SAs are to be augmented by 70 F-15SRs – existing F-15S Strike Eagles converted to the new F-15SA standard.

In Iraq, the worsening security situation has led to a withdrawal of US advisors and contractors from some air force bases, including Balad, home to the Iraqi Air Force fleet of F-16C/D fighter-bombers. This, in turn, led to a dramatic reduction in F-16 serviceability and availability.

Iraq received the first of 28 F-16Cs and eight two-seat F-16Ds in mid-2015, equipping the 9th Fighter Squadron at Balad. These aircraft were, by far, the most capable aircraft operated by the Iraqi Air Force since the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule, and have been heavily committed to the war against the so-called Islamic State.

There have been reports that the Iraqi Defence Ministry has undertaken discussions with Moscow with the aim of purchasing the Mikoyan MiG-29 to replace the troubled F-16 fleet. It would seem likely that Iraq is being offered the modernised MiG-29M/M2, as used by Egypt.

The Saddam-era Iraqi Air Force operated first generation MiG-29s, taking delivery of some 38 aircraft. Five were shot down during Operation Desert Storm, 12 were destroyed on the ground, and four fled to Iran. Of the remainder, about 12 were still in service when the type was withdrawn from use in 1995 – a retirement prompted by a need for engine overhauls, which Iraq was unable to undertake.

Syria was also an historic operator of the original MiG-29 variant, taking delivery of 48 from 1988, 14 more in 2000, and then about 22 second-hand aircraft in 2001-02.

About 20 were upgraded to MiG-29SM standards from 2011, gaining a new N019ME pulse-Doppler radar, compatible with the Vympel NPO R77 ‘Amraamski’ air-to-air missile, and with new hardpoints allowing a heavier weaponload to be carried, including a number of new precision-guided weapons.

The cockpit, navigation and communications systems, were also upgraded.

One of the upgraded aircraft was lost in a fatal accident at Shayrat Air Base in March 2020.

On May 30, the Syrian SANA news agency reported that Russia had supplied Syria with a “second batch of modernised MiG-29 fighter jets” that it claimed were “more effective than the previous generation”.

The new aircraft were handed over at Khmeimim (the main Russian air base in Syria), before being dispatched to different bases across the country. They were reported to have begun combat operations on June 1.

The two batches of new MiG-29s were said to have included between six and 10 aircraft each, but the variant involved was not specified.

The new aircraft will probably be fitted with Talisman jamming pods, a number of which were acquired from the Defence Initiatives company in Belarus, and which have been used by Syrian MiG-29s for some months.

Some of the new aircraft seem to have been flown on to join General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army Air Force in Libya, with the US Africa Command issuing a press release alleging that the MiG-29 jets flown to Syria had been intended to support Haftar.

Unmarked MiG-29s did begin operating from Al Jufra in Libya from June 2020. One of them was reportedly lost on June 28, and another on September 7.

With relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia deteriorating, Turkey deployed Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters and TAI T129 attack helicopters to Nakhchivan Airfield in Azerbaijan to participate in the ‘TurAz Qartalı-2020’ joint exercises.

Though they had returned home by the time tensions exploded into full-scale military conflict between the two Caucasus neighbours, there are reports that Azerbaijan has requested the sale of T129s for its own air force.

Another helicopter request has been made by Jordan, with the US State Department approving the possible sale of a single UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter.

The Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) has previously taken delivery of eight UH-60L and two VIP-configured VH-60M Black Hawks, augmenting the survivors of eight S-70A-11s acquired in the 1990s and five ex-US Army UH-60As that were donated in 2015.

All are operated by the RJAF’s No30 Squadron, based at Zarqa, as part of the Special Operations Aviation Brigade.


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