Egyptian Paratroopers: Between Modernisation and Obsolescence

In February 2018, the Egyptian Armed Forces launched its largest and longest offensive since the Arab-Israeli conflict. Comprehensive Military Operation Sinai 2018, for the first time, deployed thousands of troops from the country’s army and navy special operations forces simultaneously. The offensive was also the first significant deployment of Egyptian Army Paratroopers in over forty years. However, rather than parachute into combat against an enemy holding Sinai’s strategic mountainous passes, as one might expect of paratrooper units, they were driven into a war zone like every other army infantry formation before them.

A component of the army’s special operations forces structure, the paratroopers have traditionally been tasked with parachute operations behind enemy lines and the air assault of strategic positions. Despite a long history of combat during the Arab-Israeli conflict, they have only ever jumped into combat once— the Egyptian 1963 Hadrah offensive during the Yemeni Civil War. 

Today, the Egyptian army intends its paratrooper corps to conduct both conventional airborne infantry tasks and special-operations-oriented missions. However, with neither the capacity nor the capability to deploy by air in contemporary conventional environments and a litany of structural hurdles that impede special operations potential, the paratrooper corps is of little use in either context. This identity crisis makes it difficult to justify their continued existence under the Egyptian army special forces banner, but also means that transformation into a credible conventional airborne force outside of it is incredibly unlikely.

The Egyptian paratrooper crisis of identity is not unique. Conventional airborne forces around the world struggle to justify their existence in the face of increased obsolescence. The advancement of air defence measures makes parachute operations incredibly risky, and employing lightly armed infantry against heavily armed or fortified enemy positions makes little sense strategically.

For example, the Egyptian army may realistically only have the capacity to deploy a few companies of airborne infantry at any given time in a conventional conflict. And, without heavy drop (currently only employed by the Russian Airborne Troops, the VDV) or airborne artillery capabilities, they would be landing outnumbered, lightly armed, and with a hefty firepower disadvantage against fortified positions or mechanised enemy formations. In a conventional confrontation, for instance, the Egyptian military is unlikely to task a large portion of its relatively limited cargo fleet into contested air space to support airborne operations against unhardened peripheral targets suitable for parachute infantry rather than focus their assets on logistical support for operations of strategic value. Consequently, the process of parachuting and then the subsequent landing becomes a potentially deadly endeavour for hundreds of soldiers, with very little strategic upside.

To counteract contemporary challenges, several foreign airborne forces have begun transitioning towards special operations capability and thus wider utility during the low intensity conflicts that have occupied militaries since the global war on terror. But, while they are part of the Egyptian army’s special forces, Egyptian paratroopers are not necessarily equipped with the superior skills, training, or materiel that might be expected of special forces.

Rather than establish robust troop selection and training processes, the Egyptian army has maintained the tradition of large conscripted special forces outfits since their introduction to the country in the early 1950s. As is the case elsewhere in Egypt’s military, paratrooper conscripts are poorly trained and have little modern armament or equipment issued. The fact that both the paratroopers and Thunderbolt Special Forces (a unit created in the image of the US Army Rangers) remain within the same command has created a situation in which intra-service rivalry has stifled reform on both sides. Because the paratroopers have monopolised parachute operations across the army, the Thunderbolt special forces are incapable of carrying out airborne special missions, restricting their overall capabilities and limiting mission parameters. 

An inability or unwillingness to modernise these corps has led to the degradation of their credibility and as a result has led to the use of various special forces organisations by the military as little more than elite infantry in counter-insurgency operations. As of now, the paratrooper corps does very little to justify its expense, seeming to exist solely based on tradition and a general apathy for structural change within the armed forces.

The Egyptian army is thus faced with a dilemma if it ever intends to field a credible airborne capability. The military may choose to develop a contemporary special operation paratrooper corps proficient in direct action and equipped to carry out niche reconnaissance missions, or to expel the paratroopers from the army’s special forces entirely in the aim of standing up a credible conventional airborne force capable of dropping with armour and artillery on expeditionary operations or during near-peer conflicts. Failing both, an obsolete paratrooper corps should be subject to retirement or transition towards a more symbolic force with its responsibilities transferred to Thunderbolt special forces and reconnaissance battalions.  

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