As Asian firms compete for Egyptian military aircraft deals, Cairo eyes local production


Indian defense minister Rajnath Singh meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Cairo in September 2022. (Photo courtesy Singh’s Twitter)

BEIRUT — The recent visit of Indian defense minister Rajnath Singh to Egypt is only the latest sign of tightening defense ties between the two nations, one that could result in a joint manufacturing deal for light combat fighters.

But beyond the fighters themselves, analysts told Breaking Defense that should the deal go down, Egypt stands to gain something more valuable: advanced production knowledge.

“Cairo is looking not only to diversify procurement options but also to localize production with the goal of developing domestic defense capabilities,” said Mohammed Soliman, a manager at McLarty Associates, and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. “It is important to think from a lens that underlines strategic resiliency and effectiveness rather than efficiency. Egypt wants to become a middle power in terms of developing resilient and indigenous military capabilities, which would allow Cairo to withstand great power competition.”

During Singh’s visit, he signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with his Egyptian counterpart, Gen. Mohamed Zaki, that states the two countries would enhance defense cooperation. That general commitment comes months after Indian and Egyptian media reported in late June that India had offered to set up production facilities in Egypt to produce Tejas Mk1A light combat aircraft and helicopters.

But India is not the only country trying to seal a defense aircraft deal with Egypt. In August South Korea, which recently inked artillery deals with the North African nation, reportedly offered its FA-50 trainers and light attack aircraft, also with local production in Egypt.

Localization Efforts

Similar to many regional Middle East states, Egypt is keen on localizing defense production but with a different business model than the Gulf states. Whereby other countries have target reaching 50 percent local production by 2030, Egypt is entering negotiations with Far East countries, namely India and South Korea, with production lines in mind and benefiting from the existing industrial infrastructure Cairo already has.

“Indeed, there are ongoing negotiations between Egypt and India regarding the joint manufacturing of the Tejas fighter in Egypt,” Ahmad Eliba, a defense expert at the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies told Breaking Defense. “As for the advanced infrastructure, there will certainly be a kind of assessment and study between the two counterparts. But Egypt already has aircraft manufacturing infrastructure since the early fifties.”

Eliba told Breaking Defense that the negotiations are advanced between the two sides, but no deal was finalized yet. Neither the Egyptian nor Indian governments, nor Tejas maker Hindustan Aeronautics Limited responded to Breaking Defense’s requests for comments for this report.

“I expect the next Defense Exhibition in Egypt, EDEX 2023 to witness an official announcement regarding the outcome of these negotiations just like the Howitzer deal with South Korea,” he added.

Should the deal be signed, Eliba expected manufacture to take place at the Arab Organization for Industrialization (AOI), where the facilities are equipped for such type of production.

But in the wake of the $1.6 billion howitzer deal, South Korea hasn’t given up on potentially spoiling the India deal with its own offer of FA-50 light attack aircraft. On August 3, South Korea demonstrated T-50B trainer in an aerobatics demonstration at Egypt’s Pyramids Air Show.

Although not confirmed officially, reported discussions between South Korea and Egypt for an FA-50 light attack aircraft have been ongoing. Korea recently netted a large FA-50 sale to Poland for dozens of jets.

Currently, the Egyptian Air Force operates a number of fighter jets of different origins including the F-16, Mirage, MiG 29 and Rafale.

Why India?

If the deal does go to India, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise, as it’s not the first defense cooperation between the two countries. Egyptian pilots have been historically trained by Indian Air Force pilots and there was a joint venture to manufacture the Helwan-300 (Kahira) fighter jet since 1960.

The formal Indo-Egypt Joint Defense Committee was set up in Aug 2006 in Cairo. Five such meetings have been held so far between the two sides.

According to Eliba, India was Egypt’s choice for defense production for three main reasons.

“First, there is an increased demand for this type of aircraft. Second, Cairo always works on the diversification of Cairo’s armament sources. And third, because of the possibility of technology transfer,” he said. “I think that Egypt, which has joint manufacturing with France, Italy and Germany, in the maritime sector, and with South Korea, China and the UAE in the UAVs domain, tends to diversify partnerships in the field of joint manufacturing.”

Eliba added that from an Egyptian perspective India is a technologically advanced country in the aircraft industry and has advanced military industries from which Middle East countries are interested in procuring to a large extent.

“This cooperation will reciprocate benefits to both, as for India, Egypt is a gateway for the Middle East and North Africa defense market, and defense exhibitions like Edex will be very important for the Tejas aircraft itself, especially if the production takes place in Egypt,” he said.

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