The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and Egypt’s Military Options

Just a month after Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry seemed to raise the possibility of military action to counter the threat to Egypt posed by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi found himself trying to manage expectations in the other direction.

On June 30, Shoukry had warned the United Nations Security Council that Addis Ababa’s intention to fill the GERD without an agreement among concerned states “potentially threatens the welfare, wellbeing, and existence of millions of Egyptian and Sudanese citizens” and would provoke “crises and conflicts” that would constitute a “serious threat to international peace and security.”

On July 28, though, Sisi apparently ruled out military action to stop the dam, stating publicly that he was intent on a peaceful solution. “Do not make threats and idle talk,” he warned. “I respect every opinion, but don’t say we’ll do such and such a thing.” He recommitted Egypt to finding a negotiated solution.

Given the fact that Egypt’s unfree press, which is largely controlled by Sisi’s military regime, had been stoking speculation of a possible military response in the first place, it seems something else is going on. For one thing, it appears likely Sisi did not want speculation on possible action against Ethiopia to get out of control and force the government’s hand, especially at a time when Egypt appears to be ramping up to intervene in Libya’s civil war. For another, playing down war talk could build sympathy and diplomatic capital as talks on the dam and its impact on Nile waters ramp up.

Certainly, the Egyptian government has a lot on its plate at the moment, facing crises ranging from the coronavirus pandemic, the global economic downturn (which has hurt Egypt substantially through the collapse of its tourism industry), and Libya. And with the Ethiopian government’s declaration that Phase One of the dam filling is now complete, owing to heavy rains over the past few weeks, pressure on Cairo to take action sooner rather than later has been relieved.

But the situation remains not only unresolved but highly unsatisfactory to Cairo. Pressure may eventually start mounting again to take some sort of military action if all else fails. What would a decision to utilize military force against Ethiopia over the GERD actually entail? And how likely is it that the threat or actual use of military force could succeed?

Egypt’s Concerns—and Threats—over the Dam Are Nothing New

Ethiopia began construction of the dam in 2011, taking advantage of a moment when Egypt was experiencing the convulsions of the Arab Spring and the chaos that followed the ouster of its longtime dictator, President Hosni Mubarak. At the time, the Egyptian government strongly opposed the controversial project, considering it an existential threat to Egypt’s water supplies, agriculture, and hydroelectric capacity. Given the political turmoil of the time, however, Cairo was powerless to prevent construction moving forward. On-and-off diplomatic efforts came to nothing over the years, although they seemed to come close in February 2020 when negotiations among Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan—overseen by the United States and the World Bank—nearly yielded an agreement on how the dam would be filled and operated. Ethiopia skipped the meeting in Washington at which it was supposed to have been signed, however, and only Egypt has initialed it so far. Since then, talks chaired by the African Union have offered little in the way of progress.

Egypt has considered military options to thwart the GERD project for a number of years. In 2013, then-President Mohamed Morsi chaired a meeting of leading politicians to discuss the impact of the GERD, just under construction at the time.

Egypt has considered military options to thwart the GERD project for a number of years. In 2013, then-President Mohamed Morsi chaired a meeting of leading politicians to discuss the impact of the GERD, just under construction at the time. Not aware that the meeting was being broadcast over national television, several of the politicians spoke up to assert that the dam amounted to a “declaration of war” and suggested ways in which the project could be thwarted by force. The participants brought up several options, including meddling in Ethiopia’s internal political disputes, arming rebels to fight against the project, authorizing clandestine action to sabotage dam construction (including the use of Egyptian special forces), or intimidating the Ethiopians with an aerial show of force.

The issue was again publicly on the table shortly after the breakup of the Washington talks in February, when President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi chaired a meeting of Egypt’s top military officials to discuss options—none of which, this time around, were discussed in front of cameras. The government simply issued a statement saying it was ready to use “all means available” to protect Egypt’s interests. Since then, pro-government social media have been agitating for military action to forestall the threat to Egypt.

The Military Balance

What are Egypt’s military options, should it come to that, and what are the odds of success?

On paper, the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) are vastly superior to Ethiopia’s military. Egypt enjoys a particularly powerful advantage in both land and air forces. According to the website Global Firepower, the EAF ranks ninth among 138 countries surveyed in terms of overall strength (an estimate that includes military assets, available manpower, and logistical capability, among other data points). In contrast, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) ranks 60th. Egypt’s army is more than 2.5 times the size of Ethiopia’s, with 440,000 active duty personnel vs. 162,000; the EAF operates 15,998 combat tanks and armored vehicles, 31 times the number in the Ethiopian military (514). Cairo possesses about nine times as many combat aircraft as Ethiopia (215 vs. 24), and 81 attack helicopters to Ethiopia’s eight.

Egypt is also able to project power at sea via its two French-made aircraft carriers and eight submarines. For its part, Ethiopia’s navy ceased operations in 1996 when it became a landlocked nation after Eritrea won its independence from Addis Ababa. Ethiopia announced in 2018 it would reestablish a naval force to protect its shipping in the Gulf of Aden-Red Sea region, with the home port to be determined. France agreed last year to help rebuild Ethiopia’s naval forces, although the effort will take many years.

Egypt would face formidable obstacles in mounting any sort of effective military action, whether its aim is to intimidate the Ethiopians or cripple the dam project.

Addis Ababa is also at a distinct disadvantage in terms of the age and quality of most of its weapons systems. Its military equipment is mainly Soviet-era, with Russia and Ukraine supplying largely second-hand weapons to the ENDF. Egypt is heavily supplied with modern American equipment, including M1A1 tanks and F-16 fighter jets, along with increasing amounts of new weaponry from France, Russia, Germany, and other suppliers.

These facts do not tell the whole story, however. Egypt would face formidable obstacles in mounting any sort of effective military action, whether its aim is to intimidate the Ethiopians or cripple the dam project.

Cairo’s Options

If Egypt were to contemplate direct military action, it would appear to have three live options: an overland strike, aerial raids, or special forces attacks. Each presents significant difficulties.

An overland strike. While Cairo’s land forces vastly outnumber those of Ethiopia, an overland strike of any significant size would face virtually insuperable obstacles, both political and logistical. Most Egyptian military bases are clustered in the north of the country, particularly in the Nile Delta; Cairo lacks significant base capacity in the south from which to organize and supply a major ground force. Egypt’s military transport capacity is also sharply limited in its capacity to move troops and equipment while maintaining a logistics operation of the size required to mount a major ground incursion across the roughly 790 miles from the southern Egyptian border to the dam. Politically, Cairo is unlikely to be able to reach the transit clearances from either Sudan or Eritrea that are necessary to enter and cross their territories. As for Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has warned that “If there is a need for war with Egypt because of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, we are ready to mobilize millions of people.” This may well amount to hyperbole, but Ethiopia’s government has compulsory conscription authority, meaning that the threat is not to be dismissed lightly. All things considered, the possibility of an Egyptian ground assault to take the GERD out of operation can be safely discounted, thus neutralizing a major element of Egypt’s military superiority.

Aerial raids. This might be Egypt’s most realistic option for a military strike to halt operation of the dam. Egypt could utilize its French Rafale fighter jets in a deep-strike role, accompanied by American F-16s (with a maximum range of slightly over 2,600 miles). Such an attack could be mounted out of Egypt’s air base in Aswan and/or the enormous new air and naval facility, Berenice Military Base, on the Red Sea due east of Aswan (about 850 miles from the GERD), which President Sisi inaugurated in January. The facility is capable of supporting integrated air and naval operations that include berthing and servicing for aircraft carriers and submarines. Neither of these, however, would be able to provide much support for an air attack into Ethiopia. The two French-built carriers (the ENS Gamal Abdel Nasser and ENS Anwar El Sadat) only operate helicopters that do not possess the range for a deep strike on the GERD from the Red Sea, and Egypt’s eight submarines are thought to be armed only for anti-ship operations.

Aerial raids might be Egypt’s most realistic option for a military strike to halt operation of the dam. 

While Egypt’s formidable air force is technically capable of an attack on the GERD, it is unclear which elements of the dam could be effectively targeted in order to render it inoperative or to destroy it altogether. This is far easier said than done to a structure of such massive size, unless Cairo possesses detailed information about possible construction weaknesses that Shoukry hinted at in his June remarks to the UN Security Council. And an attack that causes catastrophic failure in the dam could pose a major threat downstream, as Cairo itself has acknowledged.

In any case, while the minuscule Ethiopian air force would be no match for Egypt’s F-16s and Rafales, its surface-to-air defenses are not to be discounted. In 2019, Israel installed the advanced, quick-reaction SPYDER medium-range anti-aircraft system to help protect the GERD, allegedly over strenuous objections from Sisi’s office. Not only would the SPYDER system pose an acute threat to any Egyptian air attack, but the Egyptian Air Force’s inexperience in mounting large-scale coordinated attacks over long distances would likely prove a serious operational hindrance. The need to secure overflight clearances for hostile operations would not only be difficult, if not impossible, but would certainly tip off the Ethiopians to Egyptian intentions, a notable tactical disadvantage.

Special forces attacks. Egypt retains a significant special operations capability, at least on paper, for a remote strike against the GERD or its facilities. While such a strike could not match the level of damage that a well-planned, sufficiently resourced land or air operation might inflict, it could theoretically put a temporary stop to dam operations. But could Cairo pull it off?

Egypt’s special operations forces consist principally of paratroopers and the so-called Thunderbolt units (modeled on US Army Rangers). Both forces are recruited through conscription and not by competitive selection, as the case is in the US military; moreover, training and tactics are rudimentary compared to international Special Operations Forces (SOF) standards and have remained virtually unaltered for decades. And because the force is composed of conscripts, even highly trained recruits tend to muster themselves out after their two-year term of service, limiting continuity of skills, institutional memory, and leadership.

This is not to say that Egypt’s SOF lack experience. They have trained with American SOF units on various occasions, including the annual JCET (Joint Combined Exchange Training). Thousands of army and navy special ops forces were deployed to Sinai in 2018 as part of a massive counterterrorism operation. However, they were utilized as elite troops in a conventional assault capacity like the regular Egyptian forces involved, barely testing their advanced capabilities. Given these limitations and lack of experience in the type of operation required, Cairo would have to consider this option very carefully.

To be sure, Egypt’s recent military experiences in Libya and Sinai are instructive. Air strikes in Libya in support of Egypt’s ally, General Khalifa Haftar, had only a small impact, owing to the air force’s reluctance to expend valuable munitions on drawn-out operations as well as its limited ability to operate relatively far from the border. Likewise, Egyptian anti-terrorism operations in North Sinai have suffered from operational and tactical problems, including logistical sustainability issues that required frequent pauses for resupply and resets, as well as the frustrating involvement and second-guessing of Cairo in the conduct of the campaign on the ground. Despite the progress made in the last few years by Sisi to significantly upgrade the armed forces’ capacities, issues such as these still constitute serious constraints on Egypt’s ability to project power.

The Washington Factor

A major unknown for Egypt’s leaders is the degree to which Washington could be expected to back Cairo if the latter decides on military action. The Trump Administration recently signaled that it is considering cutting some aid to Ethiopia if it proceeds to fill the dam absent an agreement with Egypt and Sudan, suggesting that Sisi, Trump’s “favorite dictator,” would enjoy at least rhetorical backing from Washington. This would become especially important if an Egyptian attack on the GERD were brought up to the UN Security Council, which would likely be the case. Whether such backing would extend to assisting Egypt operationally, for example by providing targeting intelligence, is much less clear, although the United States would likely be willing to resupply any combat losses of aircraft or other matériel, as it has done during Saudi Arabia’s Yemen campaign.

American support would be much less likely under an administration with presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden as president.

Such support, however, would be much less likely under an administration with presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden as president, which would no doubt take a more circumspect attitude toward the foreign adventurism of its Middle Eastern allies—a fact that Egypt would do well to factor in as it considers the timing and scope of its options.

A Hazy Future

Currently, Cairo appears more focused on a possible intervention in Libya, which would absorb vast amounts of military resources and political effort, making an intervention in Ethiopia far less likely for the foreseeable future. But if Cairo’s calculations change and attention returns to the threat posed by the GERD, Egypt’s government would need to decide what it could realistically accomplish through military action. Most likely it would come down to political signaling to force a diplomatic intervention rather than a decisive military operation to put the dam out of commission. Even an intervention intended to achieve a symbolic impact, however, would be fraught with risks, not least of which is the possibility of an embarrassing military fiasco that would strip the Egyptian armed forces of their image of competence in the eyes of their own people, thereby damaging the EAF’s political authority and opening it to new popular challenges.

Egyptians still remember their country’s ill-starred intervention in Yemen in the 1960s, which has served as something of a psychological brake on sending troops abroad ever since. Not as many recall Egypt’s first invasion of Ethiopia during 1874-1884 under Khedive Ismail Pasha, launched with the aim of creating an empire that would control the whole of the Nile, including the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. The Egyptian forces, largely consisting of conscripted fellahin and former American Union and Confederate officers, proved no match for the Ethiopian warriors, who defeated them in a series of engagements culminating in the Battle of Gura in March 1876. The defeat was considered so disastrous that news of the battle was suppressed to avoid damaging the khedive’s government.

History may not repeat itself, but President Sisi––should he find it necessary to use military means to address the GERD crisis––would do well to remember that it often has poignant lessons.

Charles Dunne is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about him and read his previous publications click here