Revolutionising Air Defence: Egypt is Buying Hundreds of Modern Russian Anti Aircraft Missiles

Formerly the undisputed leading aerial power in the Arab world, the Egyptian Air Force saw a steep decline from the mid-1970s due to political decisions made by the administration of President Anwar Sadat which led to its capabilities being qualitatively outmatched by all of its neighbours both in North and East Africa and in the Middle East.

 By the early 2010s when active radar-guided air to air missiles had been widely used for over three decades, Egypt’s entire fighter fleet relied on old semi-active radar-guided missiles such as the American AIM-7 Sparrow with totally obsolete electronic warfare countermeasures - where all its neighbours used much more capable missiles such as the American AIM-120, Russian R-77 and Soviet R-40. 

Moreover, the F-16 fighters which formed the backbone of the fleet were heavily downgraded and left impotent for air to air or standoff air to ground roles against any moderately capable adversary. The country was prohibited from purchasing any higher-end fighters than the F-16. The Egyptian Air Force invested heavily in revolutionising its aerial warfare capabilities from 2013 after the country’s Western-backed Islamist government was overthrown that year. 

The unexpected NATO assault on neighbouring Libya, which had maintained positive ties with the Western world but still been targeted, led both Egypt and Algeria to focus heavily on modernising their aerial warfare capabilities to prevent any similar attacks. 

Egypt’s first round of purchases saw it acquire 46 MiG-29M medium-weight fighter jets, as well as the S-300V4 long-range surface to air missile system and the complementary BuK-M2 and Tor-M2 medium and short-ranged systems. 

The MiG-29M became Egypt’s first-ever fighter to deploy active radar-guided air to air missiles, with the $2 billion deal including 300 R-77 missiles - the equivalent to the American AIM-120C - as well as 300 R-73 infra-red guided short-ranged missiles. The R-73 was also a revolutionary purchase, as it allowed Egyptian fighter units to engage in short-ranged dogfights with the ability to target adversaries at extreme angles in a way modern air forces had increasingly invested in doing for over the last three decades. 

The MiG-29M represented the most radical and ambitious iteration of the MiG-29 with an airframe redesigned to optimise performance. 

Its service life was increased to 4000 hours, maintenance was made easier, and new RD-33MK engines provided a superior flight performance relative to the original. The integration of the Zhuk-ME radar provided a much higher degree of situational awareness than previous Egyptian fighters, while the MSP-418K active jammer pod built to spoof radar-guided missiles provided the first modern electronic warfare capability for an Egyptian fighter. The aircraft was also revolutionary for its air to ground capabilities, with the T220/e targeting pod increasing precision for air to ground strikes and the Kh-35 cruise missile providing a standoff capability well in advance of anything the country previously had. 

It would be no exaggeration to state that 46 MiG-29Ms provided a more valuable aerial warfares capability than over 200 F-16s had considering the discrepancy in armaments and sophistication. This was without taking into account Egypt’s inability to use the F-16s for operations not approved by the United States - which made the MiG-29M more valuable still. 

Egypt notably became the first major client for modern Russian fighter jets not to deploy the R-27 long-range air to air missile, which was cheaper than the R-77 and was usually sold either alone or alongside it as part of major fighter deals. Its focus exclusively on the R-77 showed the degree to which it valued a robust active radar-guided missile capability. 

Egypt notably followed up its order for the MiG-29M units with an order for an estimated 24 Su-35 heavyweight air superiority fighters.

Where the MiG-29M represented the latest stage of modernisation of the original late Cold War era MiG-29A, the Su-35 was a modernisation of the MiG’s heavier and higher-end counterpart the Su-27 which had initially been developed under the name ’Su-27M.’ The larger fighter was a more considerable improvement over its predecessor, however, since more investment had gone into modernising the Su-27 than the MiG-29 in the post-Cold War years due to the Russian Air Force’s focus on heavyweight aircraft. 

The Su-35 contract included more R-77 and R-73 missiles and may have included R-37M missiles which are a longer-ranged successor to the R-77 that is superior, faster and can shoot much further than any Western air to air missile. 

It is expected that at least 200 R-77s and R-37Ms accompany the deal, since the Su-35's capacity for carrying air to air missiles is more than double that of the MiG-29M at 14 missiles per fighter. Egypt's Su-35 squadron is considered the most capable in Africa or the Arab world.

Egypt notably also invested in modernising its formerly obsolete network of ground-based air defences with modern systems from 2013, with the S-300V4 considered the most capable multirole system in the world and the most expensive offered by Russia. 

The system was built on the technologies of the better known but older and cheaper S-400, and benefitted from greater mobility and a superior anti-missile capability. The S-300V4 alone effectively revolutionised Egyptian ground-based air defences from being of negligible significance, even compared to low-income Arab neighbours such as Syria, Morocco and Jordan, to a leader in the field. 

Paired with the Buk-M2 and Tor-M2 to form a powerful network, the defence system provided more effective protection against attacks by high-end adversaries than the entire pre-2013 Egyptian fighter and air defence inventories. The S-300V4 was able to intercept hypersonic aircraft and missiles, and if equipped with the 40N6E missile had a 400km engagement range against enemy aircraft - double that of its most advanced Western competitors. 

Egypt’s investments ultimately facilitated the transformation of its fleet in a very short period from a laggard in aerial warfare that was highly vulnerable to attack and outmatched by its neighbours into one of the best-defended countries in Africa and the Middle East, with capabilities that seriously minimised the possibility that the country could suffer the same fate as Libya at the hands of NATO or its allies.

  Further purchases of Russian combat aircraft using R-77 or R-37M missiles are expected, including possibly additional MiG-29M or Su-35 units, or perhaps one of their more modern successors such as the MiG-35, Checkmate or Su-57. 

The possibility that Egypt will purchase modern non-Western combat aircraft or air defences from a source other than Russia, such as the Chinese J-10C armed with PL-15 air to air missiles or the cheaper JF-17 Block 3 armed with the same, also remains. 

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