By Guy Plopsky*
In early June 2017, an image surfaced on Russian social media showing a surface-to-air missile (SAM) container-launcher associated with the S-300VM (“Antey-2500”) system being unloaded at Alexandria Port, Egypt. Manufactured by Russia’s Almaz-Antey Aerospace Defense Concern, the highly mobile S-300VM is among the most advanced long-range SAM systems offered by Russia for export. The delivery of the Antey-2500 to Egypt reflects Cairo’s desire to bolster its air and missile defenses, and follows its earlier acquisition of short-range Tor-M1E/M2E and medium-range Buk-M1–2/M2E SAM systems as well as an unspecified number of Protivnik-GE 3D surveillance radars from Russia. Does the S-300VM deal represent a threat to Israel?
Designed to intercept aerial and ballistic targets, an S-300VM system includes a 9S457ME command post, 9S15ME surveillance radar, 9S19ME ballistic missile early warning radar, and 9S32ME fire control radar, as well as 9A83ME transporter-erector-launcher and radar (TELAR) vehicles and 9A84ME transporter-erector-launcher (TEL)/transporter-loader vehicles (this differs from the older S-300V, which, in addition to the 9A83 and 9A84, also includes 9A82 TELARs and 9A85 TEL/transporter-loaders). The system is equipped with two types of long-range SAMs: the 120–130km (75–80 mile) range 9M83ME, which is carried by 9A83ME TELARs, and either the 200–250km (125–155 mile) range 9M82ME or the 350km (217 mile) range 9M82MDE, which is carried by 9A84ME TELs/transporter-loaders.
According to Russia’s state-owned arms exporter Rosoboronexport, “the SAMs use a combined flight control method: inertial guidance with mid-course updates and semi-active homing in the terminal phase of flight.” It remains unclear whether the Egyptian S-300VM deal includes the standard 9M82ME or its longer-range 9M82MDE variant; the 9M82M-series container-launcher seen in the aforementioned June 2017 image may house either the former or the latter, and Russian and Egyptian sources have not publicly disclosed many details about the deal.
As long as Cairo refrains from deploying its new long-range SAM systems in the Sinai Peninsula (in accordance with the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty), an Egyptian S-300VM armed with 200–250km range missiles will not pose an immediate threat to Israeli airspace. As a 2014 Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) article observes, “an interceptor with a 200km range could barely reach Israeli territory from the western side of the Suez Canal.” Moreover, at such ranges the 9M82ME will see a significant reduction in its performance.
A 350km interceptor, on the other hand, allows Egypt’s Air Defense Command to cover almost the entirety of Israeli airspace, even when the S-300VM is not deployed in the Sinai.
That said, the presence of Egyptian S-300VM SAM systems (with or without longer-range interceptors, and in or out of the Sinai Peninsula) will not tilt the balance of power in Cairo’s favor, particularly when taking into account Israel’s acquisition of low observable F-35I Adir fighters, which are being procured in response to the proliferation of advanced SAM systems and fighter aircraft in the Muslim world. However, Egypt’s highly mobile S-300VM systems will still complicate Israeli Air Force (IAF) operations in the event of conflict and will pose a threat to Israeli civilian air traffic.
The marked improvement in Jerusalem’s relationship with Cairo under Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, particularly in the sphere of counter-terrorism, has meant that, despite the above, some in Israel’s security establishment do not view the Antey-2500 deal as a potential threat. Speaking at a conference in May 2015, then-IAF chief Major-General Amir Eshel dismissed concerns about the then unconfirmed deal, telling journalists: “Are you kidding me? We’re at peace with them.”
Others in Israel’s security establishment, however, are uneasy about the deal, and for a good reason. Speaking to journalists that same month on condition of anonymity, one senior Israeli intelligence official noted that, “I don’t know what kind of threat Egypt looks at when they decide to buy it.” Indeed, neither Libya nor Sudan (which border Egypt) field credible air forces. At the same time, the prospect of an armed confrontation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia is simply non-existent. This leaves Israel as the only neighboring state at whom Cairo may direct its SAMs.
In an attempt to reassure Israeli concerns, an Egyptian official told Reuters rather ambiguously in 2015 that, “if we are getting [the S-300VM], its because we’re looking east, not north.” The official’s statement can only be interpreted as a reference to Iran, given that, as already noted, a Saudi-Egyptian conflict is not a realistic prospect. Indeed, while Iranian aircraft do not threaten Egypt due to the distances involved and the presence of other non-friendly states in between, Iran does field a growing arsenal of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) that have Egypt within reach.
According to Rosoboronexport, the 9M82ME and 9M82MDE are capable of intercepting ballistic targets traveling at speeds of up to 4.8 km/s (Mach 14) and at distances of up to 30 km (19 miles); this is greater than the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) interceptors currently in service with Egypt’s Air Defense Command.
However, the PAC-3 utilizes “hit-to-kill” technology, making it more effective against high-speed ballistic targets than a semi-active radar homing missile with a blast-fragmentation warhead (such as the 9M82ME/MDE). Also, there is no reliable test data on the 9M82M-series of SAMs that attests to their alleged high probability of kill.
Hence, rather than procure the S-300VM from Russia, Cairo could have opted for the US-built PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE) interceptor or the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in order to better address the Iranian missile threat. The latter is purely a missile defense system and would therefore not be perceived as a threat by Israel.
Given the above, Egypt’s decision to procure the S-300VM is a clear reflection of Cairo’s desire to distance itself from Israel’s closest ally — the United States — in favor of Russia. As the aforementioned INSS article notes, the S-300VM and other Egyptian arms contracts with Russia reflect “Egypt’s interests in changing the balance of its relations with the two superpowers and reducing its exclusive dependence on the United States.” Considering that the Antey-2500 is of no relevance to counter-terrorism, Jerusalem should treat Cairo’s drift into Moscow’s orbit with suspicion. As one senior Israeli military official noted: “The problem is that the S-300 has nothing to do with counter-terrorism.”
The same is true for many of the other Russian arms sales to Egypt. They, too, have little or no relevance to the fight against terror. Examples include the aforementioned Tor and Buk-series of SAM systems, as well as a 2015 contract signed by Cairo and Moscow for the delivery of some 50 MiG-29M/M2 fighters. The Egyptian Air Force (EAF) already operates modern US-built F-16C/Ds and French-built Rafale DM/EM multi-role fighters. These aircraft posses superior air-to-ground capabilities to the MiG-29M/M2, raising questions as to why the EAF needs the MiGs in the first place, especially when considering that the introduction of a Russian platform will further complicate logistics.
Unlike the United States and Israel, which are stable democracies with shared values, Egypt is under authoritarian rule, frequently politically unstable, and has historically witnessed regimes that have been hostile to both Washington and Jerusalem — most recently, the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. Despite the marked improvement in relations under President Sisi, the large majority of Egyptians still view Israel with great hostility. Hence, Egypt’s procurement of the S-300VM and other advanced weapon systems from Russia that are of little or no relevance to counter-terrorism should be viewed with concern in Jerusalem.
Israel must engage with Russia for the purpose of limiting the sale of such systems in the future. Doing so is vital not only for Israel’s national security, but also because it could aid Washington in limiting Moscow’s influence in the Mediterranean. At the same time, both Israel and the United States must continue their cooperation with Egypt on counter-terrorism and encourage Cairo to focus its resources on the procurement of weapon systems that are relevant to the fight against terror.
This article was originally published on the author’s Medium page.
*Guy Plopsky holds an MA in International Affairs and Strategic Studies from Tamkang University, Taiwan. He specializes in air power, Russian military affairs and Asia-Pacific security. You can follow him on Twitter.