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Egyptian Armed Forces Communications Agreement with the U.S. and Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge


Since the Egyptian Revolution of January 2011, the U.S.-Egyptian military relationship has undergone many changes, perhaps most notably that the U.S. has been replaced by France and Russia as the principle external suppliers of Egyptian arms, although Egypt remains the second largest recipient of U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) grants and is surpassed only by Israel. However, one of the most under looked aspects of the many changes in the relationship is that Egypt signed a Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) with the U.S. in early 2018. This agreement, in theory, enables the U.S. to provide Egypt advanced weapons and systems such as encrypted communications equipment and precision Global Positioning System (GPS) guided air to air and air to land missiles for the first time. Egypt had long rejected a CISMO, so the underlaying questions are why the change, what does it mean for the type of arms the U.S. will provide Egypt and for Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME), which is geared to prevent other countries in the region from obtaining advanced U.S. military technology? In the past, the U.S. avoided discussing QME with Egypt and side stepped the issue by citing that advanced weapons were not releasable due to a lack of a CISMOA. The article will open with a discussion of QME, and then shift to Egypt’s CISMOA, what it might mean for Israel, and conclude with an analysis of what is likely to change in the U.S.-Egyptian military relationship.

When supplying military equipment to Egypt, the U.S. is committed to maintaining Israel’s QME through better training and equipment to compensate for Israel’s smaller size and population in comparison to its neighbors so it can win any conflict. Israel defines QME as “the ability to rapidly achieve superiority on the battlefield against any foreseeable combination of forces with minimal damage and casualties.” In other words, QME, seeks to ensure that Israel can defeat any possible collation of Arab nations. The U.S. administration is required by law to report to Congress on its policy to ensure that U.S. weapons sales to countries in the Middle East do not affect QME. The U.S. updates Israel on Egyptian weapons, doctrine, and military preparations, and Israeli officials regularly provide input into the QME process by listing weapons they do not want neighboring countries to acquire. The U.S. enforces QME by not selling or downgrading weapons sold to Arab states and by upgrading Israeli versions. Israel is particularly concerned about types of aircraft, radar systems, and precision guided missiles provided to Arab countries.

Egypt’s F-16 fleet was kept to two-thirds of Israel’s, and it version is much less advanced than its Israeli counterpart.

While Israel and Egypt have many U.S. weapons in common, Israel’s are superior and of a greater quantity. Egypt’s F-16 fleet was kept to two-thirds of Israel’s, and it version is much less advanced than its Israeli counterpart. Egyptian Apache helicopters are not equipped with the Longbow radar, significantly reducing capabilities. Egypt has requested numerous weapons from the U.S. that have been denied or had their capabilities lessened due to QME. A sale of Harpoon missiles was delayed for five years due to a concern that they affected QME. The missiles were eventually given to Egypt, but their capabilities were reduced.

Traditionally, the U.S. had a special concern with Egypt obtaining certain weapons that went above how it dealt with other Arab states. In some cases, weapons were sold to other Arab states but denied to Egypt even though it has a peace treaty with Israel and most nations do not. The U.S. has not released the TOW II B antitank missile to Egypt but has sold them to Arab Gulf states. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel have F-15 fighter aircraft but not Egypt.

U.S. officials did not discuss QME with Egypt, but rather just stated certain items were not releasable, or that the weapons were unavailable because Egypt had not signed a CISMOA. A CISMOA is a formal agreement between the U.S. and another government that ensures the security and secrecy of advanced U.S. communications equipment and components on a partner country’s military aircraft, ships, and other platforms. Agreeing to a CISMOA gives a country access to sensitive U.S. technology and increases interoperability by allowing the weapon systems of the U.S. and other coalition nations with CISMOAs to communicate, understand military codes and encryptions, and share high quality data. Global Position Systems (GPS) are also enhanced and more accurate. Lack of a CISMOA restricts what information coalition nations can share with each other and limits their ability to effectively operate together and have real time communications.

Egyptians are extremely leery of external influences on their domestic affairs and tints Egypt’s relations with the other nations.

The U.S. began continually offering Egypt a CISMOA starting in the 1990s, but Egypt always refused, citing it as an infringement on national sovereignty. Egypt is hypersensitive to sovereignty perceptions and is committed to stopping external influences. Due to Egypt’s history of foreign occupation, there is a belief that its geo-strategic position calls for it to be taken advantage of by other nations. From 332 BCE to 1952, Egypt was governed by non-Egyptians. British forces did not depart Egypt until 1956, and it later experienced Soviet neocolonialism. This has made Egyptians extremely leery of external influences on their domestic affairs and tints Egypt’s relations with the other nations. It is Egyptian official policy that there will never be foreign bases on Egyptian soil.

However, a CISMOA would require U.S. personnel to inspect Egypt’s military facilities, communications equipment, and platforms where CISMOA related items are stored, installed, and used. CISMOA related coding devices must be stored in U.S. approved security facilities and managed, maintained, and repaired by U.S. personnel, not Egyptians. Egypt believed the U.S. would have de-facto control of this equipment, how it was used, and that it would allow the U.S. to access sensitive Egyptian platforms and information. In addition, under the terms of a CISMOA, if at war, the U.S. would request Egyptian military and logistics support, the use of Egyptian bases for U.S. operations, and Egyptian forces would effectively be under U.S. command. While other countries in the region had signed CISMOAs, such as the Arab Gulf states, Jordan, Morocco, and Israel, Egypt rejected it due to the perceived violation of sovereignty.

A lack of a CISMOA had many effects preventing Egypt from having advanced U.S. equipment. Communications and navigations systems on U.S. aircraft sold to Egypt were commercial and low-grade, and missiles were not GPS guided but laser guided, significantly reducing capabilities. While Egypt is one of the largest foreign operators of F-16s, which is its primary air superiority aircraft with over 200 in service, the F-16s that the U.S. sold Egypt have limited capabilities, require costly modifications to software and weapons to comply with a non-CISMOA status, and in the words of former U.S. official, are a near civilian version of the aircraft. Instead of using the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile (AMRAAM) as its air to air missile, Egypt’s F-16s use the older AIM-7P Sparrow, which gives them a distinct disadvantage since it is a system the U.S. Air Force began phasing out 30 years ago. The AIM-7P has an engagement range of 70 kilometers and requires a continuous lock on a target from a launching aircraft. On the other hand, Israel’s F-16s use the AIM-120C, which allows the missile to guide itself to a target while the launching aircraft evades, at a range of 35 kilometers beyond even the AIM-7’s maximum range, making Israeli aircraft immune from being targeted by an Egyptian F-16. Likewise, Egypt’s F-16s are inferior to fighter aircraft operated by Sudan, Ethiopia, and Libya due to Egypt’s use of the AIM-7.

One of the purposes of U.S. military aid to Egypt was to increase U.S.-Egyptian interoperability, but without a CISMOA, Egypt could never achieve interoperability with the U.S. beyond the most basic level since communications systems were unable to interact. But the irony was that even if Egypt signed a CISMOA, it would likely still be denied advanced weapons due to QME restrictions. But the lack of a CISMOA did make it easier for U.S. officials to cite the CISMOA as the reason for denial rather than QME. For example, Egypt was told it was denied the F-15 due to its refusal of a CISMOA, but the aircraft would have been denied by QME anyway.

Egypt’s desire to obtain more advance weapons, and a U.S. willingness to cooperate at a higher of sophistication and interaction.

In spite of the history of rejection, Egypt signed a CISMOA with the U.S. in January 2018, but it was not publicly announced in Egypt, and only in March 2018 did the Egyptian embassy in Washington announce it in English, likely due to the fear of domestic backlash because of the Egyptian public’s obsession with sovereignty. The agreement has been criticized by regime opposition sites and those connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. These critics cite the CISMOA as giving the U.S. control over the Egyptian Armed Forces communications and that CISMOA items cannot be used unless the U.S. consents; Egypt cannot even fight a war of self-defense unless the U.S. agrees to it. Egyptian requirements to support the U.S. military during times of war, to include U.S. forces basing in Egypt, are criticized as a sovereignty infringement. It is also seen as granting the U.S. access to Egyptian military secrets, which is viewed as extremely dangerous given strong U.S. support for Israel.

There is much speculation on why Egypt signed a CISMOA after the history of rejection. Some see it as Egypt’s desire to obtain more advance weapons, and a U.S. willingness to cooperate at a higher of sophistication and interaction. However, the real reason Egypt signed a CISMOA is because it was shamed into it by fellow Arab nations. The Egyptian air force participated in the Saudi led coalition in an air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen in 2015 and 2016, but due to a lack of a CISMOA, its aircraft were unable to effectively operate with the other Arab aircraft which used CISMOA enabled communications. The Egyptian air force was more of a hazard than a helper. According to former U.S. Embassy Cairo officials, the Egyptian air force was told to pack up and go home, a true humiliation for a country that sees itself as having the most effective Arab military in the region.

With the CISMOA signing, in theory, Egypt should be able acquire the weapons that any other CISMOA signatory country is able to procure from the U.S., such as F-15s, precision GPS missiles, and the French SCALP cruise missile, which contains U.S. components which were previously blocked due to a lack of a CISMOA, for its Rafale aircraft. However, the first, big test will come with Egypt’s request to buy ten Boeing AH-64 Apache E helicopters and accessories, valued at $1 billion. Some of the requested items include CISMOA components and the U.S. Department of State approved the sale, although it must still receive U.S. Congressional approval, and just because Egypt requests CISMOA related items, it still does not mean they will ultimately be approved.

What does this mean for Israel and its QME? In the past Israel was typically unconcerned about U.S. sales to Egypt, because without a CISMOA, they contained no advanced components. But in reality, even with the CISMOA in place, little is likely to change. The U.S. has always shown a strong deference to Israel’s QME concerns, and Egypt lacks non-CISMOA related weapons such as the TOW II B antitank missile which other countries in the region have which do not have peace treaties with Israel. The U.S. will likely grant Egypt the CISMOA related items required to give Egypt true interoperability with U.S. and other CISMOA partners which it lacked in Yemen, but that is the extent of it. Egypt will likely continue to be denied advanced weapons such as the AIM-120 air to air missile. In the words of a former U.S. Embassy Cairo official, “anyone who told the Egyptians that anything would significantly change in the U.S.-Egyptian military relationship with the signing of a CISMOA was likely overly optimistic, naïve, or lying.” However, the U.S. has placed itself in a more tenuous position in its relationship with Egypt since now U.S. officials might be forced to have painful QME discussions with their Egyptian counterparts which have been avoided in the past due to a lack of a CISMOA. This will likely make the Egyptians continue to even more diversify their sources of weapons away from the U.S., which ultimately, could be bad for Israel.

About the Author

David M. Witty is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel and Foreign Area Officer. He has over thirteen years of experience living and working in the Middle East, including seven years in Egypt. He is an adjunct professor at Norwich University’s Online Security Studies Program. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidMWitty1.

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