As the conflict in Tigray winds down, Ethiopia is finding itself drawn into another more deadlier confrontation with Africa’s most powerful military -Egypt.
Ethiopia’s negotiations with Cairo over the Grand Renaissance Dam (GRED) project; (which it considers of great importance to it’s national development) is crumbling, threat of possible military confrontation between both countries grows.
Egypt, which relies almost entirely on the Nile for its water supply, sees this as an existential issue. Egypt and neighbouring Sudan have both complained that Ethiopia has acted unilaterally for a second year and begun to fill up the reservoir behind.
Tensions over Grand Renaissance Dam (GRED) project
The construction of the dam will not stop “for any reason” and will be completed within two years, Kiffle Horo, the project manager of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) said two weeks ago.
A senior Egyptian diplomat said early this May that the Biden administration is not putting enough pressure on Ethiopia to help resolve the controversy surrounding Addis Ababa’s construction of a controversial dam on the Nile River.
“It’s existential for Egypt, simply put. Without the waters of the Nile, life will cease to exist,” the diplomat told Al Arabiya English.
Asked what could happen if diplomatic discussion fails or remain stalled, Zahran said: “You will have a situation whereby Egypt will have to look at all its options.”
The diplomatic discussion between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the GERD remain stalled since April 2021 after the African Union’s (AU) mediation failed to broker a deal.
Since then, Ethiopia continues to reject any international mediation while adopting unilateral moves regarding the filling and operation of the dam.
So far, there are no initiatives or measures to resume negotiations with Ethiopia, an official of the Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation stated to Al-Monitor on 18 May.
With negotiations between both countries stalled, Ethiopia will start third filling of GERD in August with no delays.
Egypt may resort to a military option if negotiations with Ethiopia should fail completely which means it will need to operate an aerial fleet with a BVR capability to counter the Ethiopian Su-27 Flanker air superiority fleet, armed with R-27 air-to-air missiles with longer range than those of the Egyptian AIM-7 Sparrow, Aim-9 Sidewinder and the French MICA.
Egypt would need an effective aerial fleet with a fuel capacity larger than its short-ranged F-16 fighters to effectively reach Ethiopia.
Thus, Egypt on one hand has been exploring options to quickly improve aerial capability quickly. Russia’s Kommersant daily announced in March 2019 that Egypt had ordered two dozen Su-35 fighter jets for about $2 billion.
In response to the planned purchase of the Russian jets, Washington wants Cairo to cancel its Su-35 deal, and has promised granting Egypt permission to allow the purchase of F-15 Eagle. Although Egypt’s interest in the American fighter has not been confirmed.
If Egypt should go ahead with the planned purchase of the, Russian jets, the United States threatened to enact sanctions on Egypt through the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA).
The Su-35s are most likely completed and ready for delivery. Russia’s Gagarin Aircraft Plant in Komsomolsk-on-Amur began serial production of Egypt’s Su-35 super flanker multirole fighter jet two years ago.
Ethiopian Air Force not alarmed by possible Egyptian attack
In response to Egypt’s new military acquisitions, the commander of the Ethiopian Air Force, Major General Yilma Merdasa, said that the air force is on high alert to defend Ethiopia.
Battle-hardened Ethiopian Air Force isn’t fazed about the threat of Egypt’s possible attack.
“The Air Force is currently undergoing reforms, reorganizing and modernizing itself with modern equipment and trained manpower,” Merdasa revealed during the graduation ceremony for members of the Air Force.
The Commander of the Military Training Center of the Air Force, Major, Wendo Waldo stated that the graduates carried out exercises that included various military operations.
He added that the air force was ready to protect Ethiopia “from any internal or external enemies”.
Ethiopian Air Force has seen a fair share of active combat. Barely a few months ago, began a comprehensive aerial campaign against the Tigray Defence Force (TDF).
The air offensive includes bombardment of the TPLF command and control installments, training, logistics and prison facilities, air defence assets, and fuel dumps.
The country has also fought a long aerial battle with Eritrea several times. The Ethiopian Air Force (ETAF) of around 5,000 personnel flies 20 Russian-built Su-27 fighter jets, and 10 MiG-23 fighter bombers.
To protect it’s sky, Ethiopia recently acquired Russian-made Pantsir S1 short range surface to air missile defense system, a Pantsir S1 SAM was displayed during an Ethiopian Defense Day celebration held at the Bishofu airbase in February.
it also rrecently awarded a contract to Israeli Skylock counter-UAS solution to provide anti-drone equipment to protect Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital city from enemy drones.
Other capabilities it acquired in recent times includes Bayraktar TB2 drones from Turkey, and Mohajer-6 drones from Iran. Both drones are armed.
In response to the Bayrakter TB2 drone sales, Cairo had asked the United States and some European nations to help it freeze any deal, although, any such deal will have to be agreed in talks between Egypt and Turkey as they try to repair diplomatic ties.
Egyptian officials believes that a drone sales to Ethiopia risks stoking tensions in the already strained relations between both countries.
Furthermore, the Ethiopian military is believed to have entered talks with France for the procurement of helicopters, missiles, UAVs and aircrafts.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali sent a letter to French President Emmanuel Macron on November 2019. The letter highlighted Ethiopia’s plans to bolster it’s Air Force.
In the letter, dated 22 July 2019, quotes Ali as saying, “I kindly request your support in facilitating a long-term loan through which Ethiopia will be able to procure transport and multi-role helicopters, multi-role transport airplanes, fighter helicopters, multi-role fighter aircraft, strategic and operational unmanned air vehicles/drones, strategic missile complex systems, and electronic jamming resilience capability systems. These procurements also require capacity building of pilots and technicians that will operate the equipment.”