A Pretty Prize

This is a portion of a post that had been in the works for some time, but was, as they say, overtaken by events. Today, France announced that it would sell the pair of Mistral-class helicopter carriers/C2 ships to…Egypt. This is one of the more intriguing – though less obvious – buyers, and it’s likely that there was no small amount of Russian lobbying behind the scenes in Paris to ensure that the ships ended up there. But let’s examine how – and why – a pair of Mistrals is headed to Cairo.

The former Vladivostok, now to be purchased by Egypt

While Moscow more or less acquiesced to the cancellation of its Mistral purchase, it continued to try and help select the ultimate buyer (perhaps acknowledging that even if the Mistrals can’t project Russian power directly, perhaps they still can through an not-unfriendly power):

Russian Arabic-language television channel Russia Today quoted presidency spokesperson Dmitry Peskov as saying that his country hopes France, now free to use the ships after settling its dues, would take Russian interests into account when reselling the warships to a third party.

According to the Wall Street Journal, an Egyptian purchase of the two Mistrals seems to have been be countenanced by Moscow. From the DefenseNews article was a suggestion that Russia might precondition French sale of the Mistrals to Egypt, specifically, on the purchase of additional Russian-made Ka-52 attack helicopters, but it’s unclear what legal grounds they might have had to compel this. Nevertheless, Egypt completed a transaction with Russia in late August, in which it will indeed receive 50 Ka-52s by the end of the decade. It now becomes apparent what this purchase was intended for.

However, given the Mistral class’s weakness at point defense and subsequent requirements for adequate escorts, Egypt might have a difficult go of it with its existing fleet.  While the Egyptian Navy is one of the largest in the world by sheer number of hulls, few are relatively modern. The French-built FREMM frigate Tahya Misr, delivered only this past June, is the mostly likely candidate to shepherd one of the Mistrals. However, the remainder of the Egyptian frigate force is of 1970s vintage and primarily consists of American surplus ships. It’s unclear which would be considered adequate to escort the other carrier.

Egypt is something of a natural for the Mistrals given their Russian fittings. The systems and electronics on the ships were done to Russian specifications, which could mean better interoperability with Egypt’s Russian- and Soviet-designed weapons systems (two frigates, almost a dozen missile boats, a handful of minesweepers). It might also be one of the few buyers who could and would be permitted to retain the Russian systems. Integration could prove tricky; however, Egypt has never been a slave to a single procurement source. Egypt sails ships of French, American, Chinese, Soviet, Russian, Spanish, and British origin, and in fact between the Russian fittings on the ships and recent purchases of French and Russian aircraft alike, Egypt would seem to be pursuing its own hybrid interests..

However, in this regard it might also represent a break with current Egyptian procurement trends, as future naval acquisitions on the books include French, German, and American ships. Furthermore, in terms of a command-and-control role, the backbone of the Egyptian Army is the M1A1 Abrams and F-16, and in large part its forces are equipped with American platforms and other western designs. Moscow’s enthusiasm for Egypt’s purchase of the Mistrals can probably be seen as an inroads into the Egyptian defense market, with the Russian-equipped ships a “teaser” introduction into a more integrated, comprehensive military system that would naturally call for the purchase of complementary platforms and systems from Russian industry. Whether Cairo is willing to humor Russia’s intentions remains an open question.

The role the flattops would play in Egyptian strategy and operations seems relatively limited, but it’s likely that one would operate primarily in the Mediterranean, while the other freely transits the Suez Canal (the Mistral‘s draught allows plenty of clearance) to patrol the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. The latter could portend a much more active role for Egypt on the Arabian Peninsula – while occasionally marred by disagreement, for the most part Egypt’s relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are solid, and represent a clear force multiplier for the Gulf states. Having a forward presence in the immediate area – particularly around Yemen – would allow Egypt to play a much more active role in ongoing operations there (unless, of course, it is already).

A Mediterranean Mistral might have been cause for alarm in Tel Aviv, but since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi seems unlikely to ruffle any feathers. If anything, a Mistral here would probably support Egyptian operations in Libya, or possibly to affect events on the ground in Syria – though operations to counter which side remains unclear.

Egyptian Air Base Locations

Cairo’s impetus for acquiring a pair of Mistrals is presumably less about their helicopter-carrying capabilities and more about command-and-control as well as the power projection that a flattop entails. Such capabilities might be especially helpful should Egypt plan to expand its involvement in the various regional anti-Daesh and anti-Houthi campaigns to include a significant ground force presence. In terms of the perpetual struggle for leadership roles in the region, the ability to project power reinforces Egypt’s status as one of the real players, a top-tier regional power that can throw its weight around.

But hey, if it also turns Egypt into an even bigger market for Russian arms, that’s another win, too.


Two age-old adversaries finally joined forces in recognition of their weakened position today. Putting aside the divisions of the past and recalling times when they could reach across and work with each other in harmony, the two parties committed to a radical, unprecedented new arrangement.

No, Charlie Crist didn’t win, and Congress didn’t actually decide to start functioning. Instead, France and Good Britain signed a defense treaty. It’s pretty out there: provisions for a joint expeditionary task force and a timeshare arrangement of their aircraft carriers, which many had speculated on. At least now one will always be at sea, exorcising the specter of a naval aviation-less Great Britain. Also: joint nuclear research! Though not extending to actual issues of deployment, it seems to have supplanted the old Tube Alloys project between America and Britain as the new centerpiece of nuclear partnership.

Still, we have come a long way since the days of Viscount Gort and the BEF. Rule Britannia? Well, co-rule maybe.

The Manliest Scooter Ever?

This Italian Vespa scooter was built under license in the 1950s by Ateliers de Construction de Motocycles et Automobiles (ACMA), fitted with the US-made M20 75mm recoilless rifle, and employed in some number by the French armed forces (about 800 were deployed in Algeria and Indochina).

The aim was to provide airborne forces (TAP stands for Troupes Aéroportées) with a lightweight, but effective anti-armour weapon. Each gun crew consisted of two men on Vespas – one mounting the gun itself, the other carrying the ammunition and other equipment. To fire, the gun was taken down and deployed on a tripod carried by the team – not, sadly, fired from the Vespa while moving [emphasis mine].

Via Osprey.

For Love of Country, Part V

Part 5 of a 5-part series.

On behalf of France, La Coloniale and the Armée d’Afrique performed admirably in both combat and occupation duties during World War I.

The French Africans who served in Europe came from all across the empire—Tirailleurs from Senegal, spahis from Tunisia and Algeria, and goums from Morocco, 175,000 in all. Other local regiments of Tirailleurs from equatorial French Africa were in turn deployed to the French colonial possessions in North Africa, and many others (about 160,000 in total) joined the Armée Métropolitaine in France on an ad hoc basis.

Moroccan goums, 1914.

In combat, the colonial troops proved themselves beyond a shadow of a doubt. Many succumbed to the illnesses brought on by the radical change of climate, and for the most part, the harsh European winters meant that the African units would winter in the south of France. To some, this was reason enough to doubt the effectiveness of Africans in combat, but it was always ignored that these ‘deficiencies’ had nothing to do with the fighting skill of men from the tropics.

Continue reading

An Island Apart

Muslims protest Geert Wilders' appearance before Parliament, October 2009.

Something’s gotta give. No, seriously. Finally backlash seems to be mounting against the British government’s tolerance for extremist organizations (provided, of course, that they are Muslim). The trend is especially present in universities, however, where the constant mantra of “free speech” has somehow blocked out all voices, such as the BNP and others, with the sole exception of any Islamic or Muslim society.

The Christmas Pants Bomber has prompted a new bout of soul-searching as the west attempts to decipher the source of radicalization. Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka perhaps made the loudest and boldest claim, laying blame on Britain (“a cesspit“) – and not Nigeria – for the pants bomber’s radicalization.

Continue reading

For Love of Country, Part IV

Part 4 of a 5-part series.

World War I was more global in scope than is often realized.

World War I belligerents; Allies are green, Central Powers orange, and non-aligned are gray.

The colonial forces of both Britain and France were tried and tested in theaters throughout the globe, perhaps most surprisingly in India itself. Thanks to the Anglo-Japanese Pact of 1902 there was no direct threat across the frontier – as the Japanese would pose in World War II – but the fighting in the  Middle Eastern theater often spilled over in the Punjab, and nationalist revolts there and in Bengal threatened to destabilize the Raj. In Mesopotamia, there were three mutinies by Muslim soldiers unwilling to fight their fellow believers, but for the most part native troops remained unwaveringly loyal. Even the horrific casualties in the various African campaigns did not dissuade colonial troops from fighting alongside their occupiers and preserving their own subjugation.

Continue reading

For Love of Country, Part III

Part 3 of a 5-part series.

In the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, whether the Indian Army was exclusively for garrison purposes (at its furthest extent, the invasion of bordering states), or if it could be deployed overseas was a matter of some concern.

The British Expeditionary Force towing artillery across Ethiopia, 1868

Trust in the native infantry regiments reached its nadir in the wake of the Sepoy Rebellion, but when the Emperor Tewodros of Abyssinia began holding British nationals hostage in 1866, they were the nearest available option for the British to deploy. Thanks to the telegraph, a force of 13,000 led by Lieutenant General Robert Napier that included four Native Cavalry regiments and ten Native Infantry regiments (with only a single cavalry squadron and the artillery fully manned by Britons) arrived within two months of receiving Queen Victoria’s orders.

After a brutal three-month, 400-mile trek through mountainous jungle and desert, the expedition reached Tewodros’ stronghold. The brief battle of two hours resulted in 700 Abyssinian deaths and 1,200 more wounded. The British (including native troops) suffered twenty wounded. Not one was killed. The Indian Army had proven itself more than capable of serving outside the provinces from where it was raised.

Continue reading

For Love of Country, Part I

Part 1 of 5. Adapted from “For Love of Country? Britain, France, and the Imperial Multiethnic Army, 1815-1919.”

The British and French Empires at their greatest territorial extents (British in red, French in blue).

AT THE HEIGHT OF EMPIRE, nearly thirty percent of the peoples of the world and more than a third of its surface area were controlled by only two nations. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland ruled a quarter of the earth’s population and a quarter of its landmass. As the saying went, “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” and indeed, for nearly two hundred years it never did.

By far the most expansive and successful empire in history, Britain consolidated and expanded its holdings through wars of conquest and a military might unmatched by any other power on the planet. Britain was not the only globe-spanning empire, though. France controlled much of Africa (to an even greater extent than Britain), as well as holdings in Indochina, the Middle East, and the Caribbean.

French and British Empires alike were kept in power by the violent repression of rebellions, mutinies, and ‘uprisings’. In large part, however, the armies participating in the repression were not composed of all-white formations. The sheer size and scope of the global empires required the imperial powers to recruit heavily from among local populations, and the manpower demands of the two world wars necessitated their deployment to the Western Front.

In many cases, the colonial troops performed even better than their European counterparts. The French Tirailleurs Sénégalaise in particular enjoyed a widespread reputation after the war as both peaceful and respected occupation forces, and as daring and highly successful soldiers. Many other French colonial troops garnered equal praise. The British ANZAC and colonial troops also earned warm words for their bravery (Erwin Rommel was quoted as saying, “If I had to take Hell, I would use the Australians to take it and the New Zealanders to hold it”).

It is no exaggeration to state that both French and British Empires alike were founded on the backs of the native populations. But this went beyond local labor forces and resource extraction.

Continue reading