There are many misconceptions regarding Egyptian special operations forces. The most common one wrongly defines them as Special Forces. Part of why there are misconceptions is the somewhat confusing terminology and designations, in addition to general miscommunication by the Armed Forces. This post aims to be somewhat of a corrective and is part of a series on different Egyptian SOF organisations.
For now we will focus on the Army, which has two organisations that operate under the Administration for Special Units (إدارة الوحدات الخاصة). The Paratroopers and Thunderbolt (وحدات الصاعقة). In this post we’re specifically interested with the latter.
Founded in the 1950s after the experiences of Egyptian Officers with the United States Army Rangers, the Thunderbolt was created to fulfill a number of specialised roles that required small, agile, and resilient units. Infiltration behind enemy lines, ambushing supply lines, assaulting command posts, and anti-armour to name a few are the roles that comprise the bread and butter of a very versatile corps.
The Thunderbolt like the rest of the Armed Forces primarily recruits through conscription but has a professional Officer and NCO spine. Conscript recruits are chosen based on their general physical health and an analysis of their personality. However, recruiting centers are so plenty and diverse in the way that they work that there can be no real guarantee of standards. Often one would hear stories of Conscripts being allocated their unit or branch at random. For many Conscripts joining one of the corps is often an aspiration due to ideological motivation as a result of the Thunderbolt’s history and impact on Egyptian pop culture. The route to it though can often vary and one always expects corruption to play a part either by way of money paid or through personal contacts (وَاسِطة).
Recruits then report to the Thunderbolt School (مدرسة الصاعقة) in Inshas, Alsharqiya (أنشاص). Unlike the rest of the Army which has almost spartan infrastructure the School has relatively decent training areas and accommodation which is representative of a educational establishment that overall is well managed. The training program itself is split into two, Initial Training (basic) and the Primary Thunderbolt Course.
Initial Training follows the same syllabus as the rest of the Army with recruits being drilled to instill discipline and taught basic skill at arms, section tactics, and field craft. The duration of basic for Conscripts is little over a month and a half. As a result of the short training time and a syllabus that hasn’t had any major changes in decades, those who pass have a very basic grasp of small unit tactics, combat marksmanship, and in general being a SOF soldier. So, it would not be a leap to say that Egyptian Conscripts in general across the majority of the Army are poorly trained riflemen.
What the School does do differently during Initial Training is have a much greater emphasis on physical fitness to prepare recruits for the Primary Thunderbolt Course. The PTC is a pass or fail month long ordeal that is both physically and mentally challenging. It focuses on very demanding PT sessions, brutal assault courses, traditional martial arts, and instilling an ethos which puts personal sacrifice for the country, corps, and soldier’s comrades before all else. That ethos is perfectly encapsulated in their most famous slogan “thunderbolt, sacrifice, glory”. After a recruit passes the PCT he is no longer a soldier to the Thunderbolt he is a Fida’i (فِدَاءى) or a sacrificial warrior. The Thunderbolt’s influence on pop culture and the region has been so great that many countries use the name for their SF/SOF and the term Fida’i has become synonymous with that of Commando across the Arab world. The theme is so entrenched into the corps that their motto is literally “Victory or Martyrdom”. In the end the School produces Conscripts who are physically robust, motivated, and have a unique ethos but are poorly skilled for what should be elite Special Operations Forces soldiers in the 21st Century.
As always with conscript forces there is a disparity between Conscripts and Officers or NCOs. Both Officers and NCOs receive far more comprehensive training in their Military Academy and College whilst also enjoying a far more extensive Thunderbolt course if chosen to serve in the corps. The Sophisticated Thunderbolt Course (فرقه الصاعقه الراقيه) is predominantly a course for Officers and NCOs chosen to join the corps. It is a three month long course that includes the same content from the month long Conscript PTC but then adds two months of relevant and role based training.
The two additional months are a mixture of exercises and tests that focus on patrolling, navigation, obstacle crossing, ambushes, assaults, and recently the addition of close quarters battle. So, the disparity in training is evident but there’s one crucial factor where all three are equal, experience.
In professional forces that are operationally active there isn’t much turn around in personnel, but in a conscript force there’s a deadline for how much time one could serve. So for example a conscript who has experienced an operational deployment reaches his two year point and is then discharged. Whereas in a professional force the soldier is more likely to stay put as a senior Pvt or promote, which means that eventually throughout the command structure and organisation there is plenty of operational experience and understanding of operational and training needs.
Egyptian NCOs on the other hand are often just as green as the recruits and with the Officer corps dominating the Egyptian Armed Forces at large they never have the ability to promote to a position of decision making unless they commission. Meaning that the Thunderbolt (and often the Army at large) is organisationally inexperienced, and that leads us to the crux of a current problem.
This inexperience (among other factors) has lead the Thunderbolt to a position of increasing irrelevance. Whereas other nations innovated and improved the Thunderbolt has been the same for decades, it’s indicative of a country and an Armed Forces that seems to be eternally stuck in 1973 and is thus unable to strategically plan for current and emerging threats.
To illustrate my point compare piece made for US TV in 1991 to DMC TV piece released a couple of days ago:
The performance of the Thunderbolt (and the Army at large) in the Sinai proves they were and still are utterly unprepared for counter insurgency operations, they have not moved in line with the world wide SOF community. Instead they still train and plan for a conflict with a conventional enemy.
It has come to a point now where only chauvinistic Egyptians can claim that they’re the best in the Arab world with a straight face. When the reality is the progress made by the Iraqi Golden Division, Jordanian JSOC, UAE SOF, and Tunisians means Egypt shouldn’t even be in the conversation any more.
Here comes the disclaimer again, I’m not connected to the Egyptian government or establishment and so I don’t have any inside information and I’m not part of the decision making process. So many observations may be inaccurate or down right wrong. As always take with a pinch of salt.