Egyptian Air Force (Al Quwwat al Jawwiya il Misriya)

Egypt has the largest air force in the Arab world, with over 550 airplanes, more than half of which are of Western origin. Unlike the U.S. military where all services fly aircraft, in Egypt, only the EAF flies aircraft. Not only does the EAF operate U.S. aircraft, but also French, Czechoslovak, Russian, Chinese, and Egyptian aircraft. Some items of U.S. equipment, SH-3 and CH-47, were manufactured underlicense in England and Italy. The U.S. supports only a portion of the total EAF inventory. Managing the logistics support for any one service is a difficult task, combining three U.S. Services as well as seven other countries under both Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and Commercial Contracts.

As of 1989, the Egyptian air force had more than 500 combat aircraft and 30,000 personnel, of which 10,000 were conscripts. Its front-rank fighters consisted of sixty-seven multimission F-16 A/Cs and thirty-three F-4Es from the United States, as well as sixteen Mirage 2000s from France. A large inventory of older MiG aircraft (some of which were Chinese versions assembled in Egypt) backed up the more modern fighters. The air force had fitted many of the MiGs with advanced Western electronics, including radars, jamming equipment, and Sidewinder and Matra air-to-air missiles. The Air Defense Force exercised operational control of about 135 MiG interceptors, although their aircraft and personnel remained part of the air force. Egypt also planned to exchange crude oil for fifty Pucara light ground-attack fighters from Argentina. The air force operated seventy-two combat helicopters and a number of electronic-monitoring, maritime-patrol, reconnaissance, and earlywarning aircraft. Some of these aircraft were capable of detecting low-flying targets at great distances.

When the Soviet Union became Egypt's principal arms supplier in the 1950s, it also played a preeminent role in advising and training the Egyptian air force. Much of the Soviet influence on the air force's structure and organization still prevailed in the 1980s, although training and tactics were affected by the changeover to Western equipment and the advanced training provided by the United States and other Western countries. Flying units were organized into air brigades that were headquartered at a single base. Brigades officially consisted of three squadrons that each had sixteen to twenty aircraft. Many brigades, however, had only two squadrons. With its headquarters at Heliopolis near Cairo, the air force had about seventeen principal air bases out of a total of forty major installations, as well as reserve and auxiliary bases.

General Nasser started after the Suez War of 1956 to reconstruct and reconfigure the Egyptian Air Force (EAF) with the help of massive Soviet resources. At the same time, he had to recognize the nature of his own population - half urban and concentrated on only four percent of the land, prone to await plans and orders from above, and generally lacking education and industrial skills. Nasser, therefore, concentrated his efforts at recruiting from the elite, educating them as airmen, and making their profession respectable among their peers. However, his Soviet instructors tended to reinforce the Egyptian lack of initiative by their massive welded-wing formations and high-altitude tactics.

The Arab-Israeli War of 1967 began on June 5, 1967, when Israeli airplanes attacked the Egyptian air force and destroyed many airfields. Israel's war plans put high priority on quick action against the Egyptian Air Force because of the threat to its own more vulnerable airfields and vital centers. The striking nature of the Israeli success reflected great superiority in maintenance, leadership, training and discipline rather than numerical superiority. Israeli intelligence was outstanding, having pinpointed the location of every Egyptian squadron, revealed the layout of every air base, and mastered every detail of Egyptian Air Force operational procedure. During the course of the morning, the Israelis struck 18 of Egypt's Air Force bases, cratering runways, blowing up aircraft, and destroying support facilities. The Egyptians lost over 300 of their 420 combat aircraft, and 100 of their 350 qualified combat pilots. When the war did break out and the stunning news of the total collapse of the Egyptian Air Force reached the Egyptian GHQ in a quick sequence of disastrous reports, Marshall Hakim Amer, Nasser's deputy and Minister of Defense, ordered a general ground forces withdrawal from the Sinai. The successful Israeli surprise attack, which destroyed the main body of the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian Air Forces, opened the Arab ground forces to relentless air attacks and unhindered Israel ground forces pursuit.

After the June 1967 War and again after the October 1973 War, Egypt had to rebuild totally its air force. Only a few hours after the June 1967 War began, Israel had virtually wiped out the Egyptian air force. The government later tried and imprisoned the commander of the air force and a few other officers and purged many other senior officers. The combat efficiency of the air force, which had dropped almost to nil as a consequence of the war and its aftermath, was restored by renewed deliveries from the Soviet Union and intensified Soviet-led training of pilots and crews.

After the 1967 defeat, Nasser forced the EAF to practice against low-level attacks, hardened his bases, and engaged in electronic warfare. But the Egyptian air force, with a severe shortage of trained and qualified combat pilots, was unable to either challenge the Israelis effectively in the skies over Egypt or to launch significant retaliatory attacks against Israeli targets. The situation was so bad in fact that Nasser even admitted it in public. More and better planes - there had been speculation on an improved MIG-21 or so-called MIG-23 - would not alone help Nasser, although there was pressure to provide them. The Egyptians were unable to employ effectively what they already had.

By 1970, the combination of the EAF with Soviet flak defenses, formalized by Anwar Sadat after Nasser's death in September 1970, brought a stalemate. Egyptian and Israeli air forces used the War of Attrition to conduct major evaluations of technology. The Egyptian Air Force (EAF) accepted over 100 MiG-21s and hundreds of other aircraft from the Soviet Union to replace Egyptian aircraft that Israel had destroyed on the ground in its preemptive strike on Egypt at the outset of the Six-Day War. Throughout the war, the Soviets blamed Egyptian losses on operator cowardice or failure to understand Soviet training.

The Soviets began to supplement Egyptian pilots with their "volunteers." This probably required the use of Soviet ground controllers, since the Egyptians are not very effective in this area either, the language problem would seem to necessitate this and Soviet pilots have never been known to fly missions without using their own people for ground support. The Soviet aircraft-pilot-ground control option, however, ran a greater risk of significant escalation. In July 1970, the Soviet Union decided to "teach Israel a lesson" by patrolling the Canal Zone with MiG-21s. The Israelis responded by shooting down five Soviet MiGs on 30 July.

Unlike in 1967, when Egyptian troops had fought disgracefully, the Egyptian Army and Air Force had stood their ground against the superbly trained IAF, and the average Egyptian regained some lost pride.

When Egypt initiated the October 1973 War, the air force was much better prepared for its mission. Egypt's air reconnaissance along the Suez Canal and its air strikes against Israeli strong points provided essential support to the ground forces that were crossing the canal. The air force then shifted to Israeli targets in Sinai and engaged in frequent dogfights over Suez and Port Said. Despite the courage and competence of the pilots, Egypt's air force suffered the loss of more than 200 aircraft in eighteen days of combat. Egypt and Syria together lost an estimated twelve aircraft for every aircraft lost by Israel.

Join the mailing list