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In response to Egypt’s plans to modernise its Air Force with acquisition of an estimated two dozen Russian Su-35 ‘4++ generation’ air superiority fighters, the United States has issued a blunt warning that such purchases would result in American economic sanctions against Cairo.
Officials stated regarding the purchase: “In terms of the expanding Russian influence in the region, that’s obviously something which we are quite concerned. We don’t see a lot of material benefits to engagements with the Russians… We just would encourage the Egyptians to turn more toward the West, toward the United States.”
This was closely followed by a statement from State Secretary Mike Pompeo, who said regarding the sale: “We have made clear that systems were to be purchased that… would require sanctions on the regime,” Pompeo told the Senate Committee on Appropriations. “We have received assurances from them, they understand that, and I am very hopeful they will decide not to move forward with that acquisition.”
Egypt has extensively modernised its military capabilities since the coming to power of a new administration in 2013, which overthrew a strongly Western aligned Islamist government that year. The overthrow led the U.S. to freeze arms shipments to the country, which in turn was a considerable factor influencing Cairo to turn away from Washington for future arms purchases.
However, a history of extensive and in the view of many excessive restrictions on American arms sales to Egypt were also reportedly at play in forcing Egypt away from American weapons – in particular jet aircraft.
Since abandoning its defence ties to the Soviet Union under President Anwar Sadat in the mid 1970s Egypt has repeatedly sought to acquire high end air superiority fighters – namely the American F-15 Eagle. While these aircraft were sold to Saudi Arabia and Israel in large numbers however, Egypt was restricted to purchasing the cheaper and lighter jets such as the F-16 – ensuring a balance of power which favoured the Western Bloc’s more reliable clients.
Furthermore, Egypt was the only major operator of the F-16 denied modern AIM-120 air to air missiles – meaning its aircraft would face an overwhelming disadvantage in combat with those of any other U.S. client.
Egypt’s move to upgrade its aerial warfare capabilities began with acquisition of the S-300V4 surface to air missile system and 45 MiG-29M medium weight multirole fighters. These were accompanied by purchases of complementary shorter ranged air defence platforms, and advanced long range air to air missiles such as the R-77 and extended range R-27 variants.
With high end heavy air superiority fighters today manufactured only by the United States, Russia and China, of which only the first two offer them for export, it was to be expected that Egypt would turn to Russia for such systems due to the United States’ refusal to provide them.
While the pretext for sanctions against Egypt is that the fighter purchase would provide funds to a U.S. adversary, with the contract estimated at $2 billion, the Su-35 in Egyptian hands also overturns the regional balance of power the United States has for so long succeeded in maintaining.
The fighters are capable of surpassing any other platforms currently deployed in the Middle East or Africa in their air to air combat capabilities, including the advanced Algerian Su-30MKA and Saudi F-15SA, and are also capable of deploying hypersonic R-37M ‘AWACS killer’ missiles.
These platforms retain a 400km engagement range and pose a major threat to support aircraft of Egypt’s potential adversaries such as the America and Saudi Saudi E-3 Sentries or Israeli Eitam AWACS platforms. Ultimately whether Egypt will yield under American pressure remains to be seen, but given its economy’s fragility and heavy reliance on the Western Bloc this remains a considerable possibility.
Source: Military Watch