Can’t Shoot Very Far: Why Egypt’s Massive But Downgraded F-16 Fleet is Totally Obsolete For Modern Warfare

From the early 1950s until the mid 1970s Egypt was a priority client for some of the latest Soviet arms available, with prominent acquisitions ranging from Scud B ballistic missiles to MiG-23 fighters both newly made available for export. This changed in the after 1975 when the Anwar Sadat administration oversaw a sharp pivot away from the Soviet Bloc and toward the West, which included transfers of the most sophisticated Soviet arms to the United States illegally for study and the beginning of acquisitions of Western armaments. This shift came at a considerable cost, as while Egypt had been given access to the most capable Soviet weapons available, as a Western client it was restricted to purchasing a limited range of second rate armaments.

A key example of this was the country’s attempts to acquire the American F-15 Eagle heavyweight air superiority fighter, supplied to Israel and Saudi Arabia and offered to Iran, which Washington refused to supply providing only the lighter and less capable F-16 Fighting Falcon. While President Sadat pressed the U.S. to provide at least token permission to acquire the F-15, necessary to gain support from the country’s military leadership for his envisaged pivot Westwards, this permission was only ever provided on paper and selling the African state with the Eagle remained out of the question. By contrast as a Soviet client Egypt had been the second in the world after Syria to receive new MiG-23 figures, and over the next decade had been set to be one of the first clients for the S-200 and S-300 air defence systems, MiG-29 fighters, and MiG-25 Foxbat heavy interceptors which proved capable of going head to head with the American F-15 in combat.  

With the F-16 already being a low cost lightweight fighter, those in Egyptian service are very significantly less capable than those exported to most other clients such a Morocco, Israel or Turkey. The fighters’ avionics are considerably downgraded from standard export models of the F-16, and the kinds of armaments they are allowed by Washington to be equipped with are seriously restricted leaving them with a negligible capability to tackle a peer level state adversary. This applies to anti aircraft, air to ground and anti shipping munitions, with Egypt’s F-16’s fielding no standoff missiles to strike ground targets or ships and relying solely on a range of gravity bombs that very seriously limits their performance against any remotely well defended targets. For air to air combat the fighters in Egypt's service are forced to rely on the effectively obsolete AIM-7P Sparrow, where almost all other F-16 clients use the modern AIM-120 AMRAAM missile that has been relied on by the U.S. Air Force since 1991. The AIM-7 is several generations behind, with even the AIM-120 which is overwhelmingly more capable than the AIM-7 today set to be phased out of frontline service in the U.S. Air Force in favour of the AIM-260.

The AIM-7 has a very short engagement range of around 70km, compared two 160-180km for the latest AIM-120 variants, 200-300km for its Chinese rival the PL-15, and 400km for the top Russian air to air missile the R-37M. This leaves Egyptian F-16 units effectively in a league of their own in terms of how short their engagement range is and leaves a low likelihood that they could ever get close enough to engage. The AIM-7P is not only slower than modern missiles, but also uses obsolete semi active radar homing requiring a continuous illumination lock on the target aircraft from the launching fighter, in contrast to AIM-120 equipped jets which use their missiles’ active transmitters receive radar guidance systems to achieve lock, launch, then break lock and evade while the missile guides itself to the target. This seriously undermines the viability of the Egyptian Air Force's Falcon fleet in air to air combat, and puts it at an overwhelming disadvantage. 

Egypt’s southern neighbour Sudan, despite its aerial warfare capabilities being far from state of the art, nevertheless remains a generation ahead in its air to air missile capabilities with its MiG-29s deploying the Russian R-77 - a more accurate munition with a 110km engagement range and active radar guidance  similar to the AIM-120. Ethiopia, a state which lacks a border with Egypt but which has on many occasions been threatened by an attack from its northern neighbour, deploys the R-27ER/ET on its elite Su-27 air superiority fighters with almost double the AIM-7’s range at 130km. The R-27 has greater autonomy than the missiles of Egyptian F-16s, again providing an overwhelming advantage. Both Sudanese and Ethiopian fighters can fly considerably higher and faster to launch their missiles than Egyptian F-16s can, which further cements their advantages.

Egypt’s F-16s were for decades totally outmatched by the heavyweight MiG-25 Foxbats of neighbouring Libya to the west and the F-15s of Israel to the east, with MiG-25s having flown against AIM-7-equipped F-16s on multiple occasions and consistently proven near invulnerable. Even without considering Israel’s elite F-15s, the Israeli Air Force’s F-16s are far ahead of their Egyptian counterparts and, in sharp contrast to the downgraded Falcons in Egyptian service benefit from significantly improved avionics and electronic warfare systems. The AIM-7’s obsolescence means that against any remotely modern electronic warfare systems they will struggle to operate, particularly when their target is a country familiar with such weapons with Israel having previously relied heavily on the AIM-7 during the Cold War. Thus while on paper Egypt’s Fighting Falcons appear a potentially formidable asset the nature of these fighters as likely the very worst F-16s flying worldwide, with the partial exception of those in the Venezuelan Air Force, for decades ensured that the country’s aerial warfare capabilities remained negligible. The United States was notably far from isolated in limiting Egypt’s capability’s with arbitrary restrictions, with France notably also refusing to arm Egyptian Mirage 2000 fighters with MICA air to air missies and later preventing Egypt from interacting Meteor missiles on its Rafale fighters ensuring both remained obsolete in air to air combat. 

Egypt began to field fighter squadrons with viable air to air capabilities only from 2015, after a change in government in Cairo two years prior lead to a move away from its previous suppliers to order Russian MiG-29M and Su-35 fighters and S-300V4 air defence systems. It is no exaggeration to say that the country’s 46 MiG-29M fighters, armed with modern R-77-1 missiles with a 110km range and active radar guidance, provide a much more formidable aerial warfare capability than all 200 or so downgraded F-16s that the country perviously depended on. The Su-35, the delivery status of which remains uncertain, is considerably more capable still and is compatible with state of the art 200km range K-77M missiles and 400km range R-37M missiles. While arbitrary restrictions on the Western aerial warfare systems Egypt acquires provides an obvious and strong incentive to look away from western armaments, political factors including prevailing Western influence over parts of the Egyptian leadership means that the future of the country’s fleet remains far from certain with further acquisitions of downgraded western equipment remaining a significant possibility. 



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