The commander of all US military forces in the Middle East said the Biden administration plans to approve Egypt’s years-old request to buy F-15 fighter jets, despite almost certain opposition among lawmakers due to Cairo’s human rights abuses.
“In the case of Egypt, I think we have good news, in that we’re going to provide them with F-15s,” Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee today.
McKenzie said the approval process “was a long, hard slog” and added that Egyptian officials "felt it took too long.”
“That’s the basic criticism of our ability to provide weapons to our friends and partners: it takes too long to get them,” McKenzie said in response to a question by Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) during a hearing today.
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment, citing longstanding policy on potential arms sales that have not yet been formally notified to Congress.
Why it Matters: Gen. McKenzie’s remark suggests the Biden administration is willing to sidestep promises of a human rights-based approach to foreign policy — and risk a potential showdown with lawmakers — in order to improve Washington’s ties with Cairo, while strategic rival Russia remains bogged down in Ukraine.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration said it would re-direct $130 million of the $1.3 billion in US annual security aid to Egypt after Cairo failed to meet human rights benchmarks laid out by Washington.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who called the withholding a "slap on the wrist," attempted to block a $2.2 billion sale of Super Hercules C-130-J cargo planes to Egypt over the issue of human rights abuses, but the resolution was rejected 81-18 in a floor vote last week.
Opposition to Paul's resolution was raised largely on arguments that the C-130-J aircraft could not be used as offensive weapons, unlike the F-15.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has also advocated withholding US military aid to Egypt over human rights concerns, is seeking additional information from the administration about the proposed F-15 sale, a congressional aide told Al-Monitor.
Rights groups have said as many as 60,000 political detainees remain in Egypt’s prisons nearly a decade after President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi seized power in a 2013 coup.
Despite Sisi's human rights record, the Biden administration has relied on the Egyptian government as an ally in the region, praising its role in negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas last year.
The Context: Egypt’s interest in the F-15 dates back to the 1970s, but Washington’s approval has remained elusive, even as regional neighbors Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have received the Boeing-made aircraft.
The US has also historically sought to limit Egypt's acquisition of air-to-air missiles with ranges longer than 80 kilometers (50 miles), despite appeals from Cairo.
After the US paused arms sales to Egypt following Sisi's seizure of power in 2013, its government sought to diversify its supply of military hardware, signing deals for French Rafale fighter jets and Russian Sukhoi Su-35s.
US officials under the Donald Trump administration conditioned Egypt’s potential purchase of the F-15 in part on the cancellation of its $2 billion 2018 deal with Moscow to purchase up to 30 Su-35, according to a former American official directly familiar with the negotiations.
The outgoing CENTCOM chief and other US officials have cautioned their counterparts that Cairo would risk congressionally mandated CAATSA sanctions and receive an inferior aircraft if they completed the Su-35 deal. Egypt has also reportedly struggled with compatibility issues with the Russian planes.
The status of the Sukhoi agreement remains unclear, though Egypt was reported to have received at least some of the Su-35s last year before opting for additional Rafales instead of further deliveries from Russia. A representative for Egypt's embassy in Washington did not return Al-Monitor's request for comment by publication time.
The F-15 talks hit further snags in recent years over Cairo's requests for certain components, including over-the-horizon targeting suites, which the prior US administration turned down.
McKenzie, who took charge of US Central Command in 2019, has privately advocated selling the F-15 to Egypt during both the Trump and Biden administrations, two former officials said. The general stopped in Egypt's capital last month on his final tour of the region as CENTCOM chief.
Regional Tensions: The Biden administration is also in talks over upgrading Turkey's fleet of lighter, smaller F-16s after Ankara's access to the stealth F-35 was revoked in 2019. The administration has not yet clarified whether it thinks Cairo's acquisition of the highly-capable F-15 could alter the balance of air power in the eastern Mediterranean.
At the very least, progress on the F-15 proposal seems to suggest the Biden administration is not seriously concerned about Egypt's veiled threats to use force against Ethiopia over its massive Nile dam project.
- Tibor Nagy, who oversaw US policy towards Africa at the State Department during the prior administration, told Al-Monitor it would be “almost unthinkable” that Cairo would try to conduct airstrikes against the GERD.
- “With our weapons come our values,” CENTCOM commander McKenzie assured lawmakers when asked during the hearing about outstanding US arms sales to the Middle East.
- “They're not going to be able to do anything they want with those weapons. They’re going to have to be applied in a manner consistent with the law of armed conflict and the law of war,” he said.
- Israeli officials have also signaled their support for the F-15 sale in recent years, a second former US official told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity.
What’s Next: Not all details of the planned F-15 sale have been finalized, one of the former US officials said, meaning there will likely be time for opposition in Congress to mount before the administration issues a formal notification.