The military ties between the United States and Egypt are contentious, unusual by global standards and flush with cash. The U.S. not only gives $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt — when added up over decades it’s the highest amount the U.S. gives to any country besides Israel — but there’s also favorable trade agreements that make it easy for Cairo to buy weapons and equipment from American suppliers.
Here’s the latest piece of that — all 550 tons worth. The 200-foot Ambassador MK III-class fast attack craft is one of the latest buys from the Egyptian regime; complete with ship-sinking missiles, a large main gun and advanced countermeasures. The vessel is designed to be fast and hard to detect, while also being capable of destroying larger, more powerful vessels from up to 67 miles away.
Egypt already has one of these ships. Now the U.S. is preparing to deliver the second and third, with a delivery contract to be decided this month. The shipments also come as the Pentagon’s close links with Egypt face increasing criticism from Congress, and as Egypt’s generals carry out a brutal crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood on the streets of Cairo. On Aug. 15, more than 600 people were killed by the Egyptian army. It’s the country’s bloodiest violence since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
But don’t expect Washington to hold up its latest delivery.
Built by Mississippi shipbuilder VT Halter Marine, the Ambassador MK III class is armed with the standard in U.S. naval weapons.
Its main weapons are eight Harpoon anti-ship missiles, which can damage or sink larger ships at a range of 67 miles. The Harpoon is the same Boeing-designed missile that comprises the bulk of the U.S. Navy’s anti-ship missiles. The vessel also packs a 76-millimeter gun, and to defend against air attack, it has 21 Raytheon-built MK-31 anti-air missiles.
As a last-ditch defense against incoming missiles, there’s a 20-millimeter gun. The vessel is also equipped with two M60 machine guns to ward off small vessels.
The shape is designed to be a relatively harder to see with radar — at least compared to Egypt’s existing fleet of decades-old patrol ships. It can travel a speedy 41 knots.
All in all, the Pentagon has spent $800 million to build the ships for Egypt, according to Steve Peacock, a foreign aid skeptic who manages the blog U.S. Trade & Aid Monitor, who spotted the delivery requests from the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command. The Pentagon is currently seeking someone to transport the second and third of the ship’s line to Egypt with a heavy-lift cargo ship. Potential contractors for the job have until Aug. 21 to apply. A fourth ship will follow in 2014.
From a strictly practical military standpoint, the vessel does fill a need. Egypt’s navy is the largest in the Middle East, but diminutive compared to the world’s largest navies. The Egyptian navy’s mission is focused primarily around defense of Egypt’s coastlines, protecting the Suez Canal against attack and as a counterweight to Israel. (Israel has a comparable fast-attack ship, the Sa’ar 5-class corvette.)
Egypt’s navy could — in the event of a war — assist ground troops, as well as blockading nearby enemy ports and preventing an amphibious invasion across the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Most of Egypt’s warships for this job are also very old: a mix of rusty British, German, Chinese and Soviet vessels dating to the Cold War. These ships will need to be replaced if Egypt wants to continue having a navy.
Drop in the bucket
This logic does not necessarily follow for Egypt’s gigantic, one-and-a-half-million strong land army.
Among the army’s equipment: more than 1,000 M-1 main battle tanks provided by the U.S., and more than 200 F-16 fighter jets. Hundreds of tanks sit in storage, largely subsidized by U.S. aid — a mandate from the U.S.-brokered Camp David Accords. It’s far and away more than Egypt could need. As Shana Marshall of the Institute of Middle East Studies at George Washington University explained to NPR: “There’s no conceivable scenario in which they’d need all those tanks short of an alien invasion.”
The Egyptian navy is also a focus of the biennial Bright Star war games, largely comprised of U.S. and Egyptian troops. Amphibious landings, which the Ambassador class would be expected to support, are regular features of the exercises.
But on Thursday, Pres. Obama announced this year’s games — scheduled for mid-September — were canceled in response to the crackdown in Cairo. “Going forward, I’ve asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the interim government and further steps that we may take as necessary with respect to the U.S.- Egyptian relationship,” Obama said.
It’s uncertain whether the White House wants to do more, or could. The Obama administration has not called the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi a coup — doing so would require cutting military aid. It’s uncertain whether threatening to cut aid would pressure the generals into stopping its crackdown.
“It’s never really worked that way. It’s never been effective as leverage,” Michael Hanna, an expert of U.S. policy towards Egypt with The Century Foundation, told Boston radio station WBUR. “Part of that is because it’s such a blunt tool. It’s a two-way street.” In all likelihood, Egypt will get its new ships.
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