PastForward is a deep research offering from ThePrint on issues from India’s modern history that continue to guide the present and determine the future. As William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Indians are now hungrier and curiouser to know what brought us to key issues of the day. Here is the link to the previous editions of PastForward on Indian history, Green Revolution, 1962 India-China war, J&K accession, caste census and Pokhran nuclear tests.
Four Mirage III jets screamed over the single runway at Factory 36, outside Cairo, followed in quick time by two Vautour II bombers. Three Egyptian MiG 17s lined up on the runway went up in flames, along with a MiG19 and two Hispano HA-200 trainers. An An-12 transport, its fuel tanks punctured, spewed fuel across the parking bay. The 1,000-pound bombs on the Vautour IIs cratered the runways. Left with no targets, the fourth Mirage III pilot amused himself by shooting up a concrete engine test-bed.
Earlier that morning—5 June 1967—the Egyptian air force had been shot out of the sky, in large measure due to innovative tactics designed by a young Israeli Air Force officer, Jacob ‘Yak’ Nevo. Although the war between the Arab coalition and Israel would drag on for another five days, it was, for all practical purposes, over.
From the Factory 36 building, Indian Air Force officer Group Captain Kapil Bhargava watched the carnage unfold. Together with technicians from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Group Captain Bhargava had been at the heart of Egypt’s efforts to develop the indigenous German-designed Helwan HA300 combat jet—co-funded by India, which hoped the Brandner E-300 engine could also be used on its own supersonic HF-24 Marut.
The Egypt-India jet production dream was killed that morning, by the Israeli Air Force. Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser decided his military had enough of domestic technology acquisition and turned to Soviet imports.
Fifty-five years on, though, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has arrived in Cairo for a three-day visit, carrying proposals that could see the revival of Egypt-India jet technology cooperation. Egypt is considering the purchase of up to 70 Tejas light combat aircraft. Like the Indian Air Force (IAF), Egypt operates the Rafale, but needs a smaller and less complex fighter to provide bulk to its force and a stepping-stone for its pilots. India, government sources say, has offered to set up a production line in Egypt if the deal goes through. Egypt is also interested in Indian-made missile systems, as well as the Advanced Light Helicopter and Light Combat Helicopter.
Singh’s talks with his Egyptian counterpart, General Mohamed Zaki, will explore new initiatives to intensify military-to-military engagements and deepen cooperation between the defence industries of the two countries. This, after decades of sketchy contact despite India-Egypt’s close ties in the Nehru-Nasser heyday of the Non-Aligned Movement.
India’s Egypt bid
Egypt became the world’s third-largest arms importer in 2016-2020, after Saudi Arabia and India. India has just a 0.2 per cent share of the global arms export market—smaller than Brazil, Czech Republic and South Africa—and is now hoping Egypt could provide opportunities for its defence-industrial complex.
The fate of the new deals, though, will depend not just on the quality of technology India is able to bring to the table, but the wider strategic relationship. A common anti-colonial background, deep historical ties along with the personal friendship between then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser saw the ties between the two countries reaching an all-time high in the first decades after Independence.
From being close partners in the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt-India ties eventually became a casualty of geopolitics. Five years after the 1973 war, Egypt became the first country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, and drifted into the Western orbit. India, increasingly close to the Soviet Union, ended up on the other side of the Cold War.
Today, though, there are again compelling reasons for renewing strategic cooperation. An estimated $200 billion of Indian trade passes through the Suez Canal each year, giving India an obvious interest in Egypt’s security. China has set up a naval base in Djibouti, posing a potential threat to Indian access to Suez, underlining the need for Egypt-India security cooperation. Like many other countries, moreover, Egypt has been hard-hit by the disruption of wheat supplies from Ukraine, and is looking to India for help.
Finally, as expert Mohamed Soliman notes, Egypt is a key actor in a new network of alliances across West Asia, tying together India and Israel with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The coalition is critical to India’s energy security needs, as well as its long-term security interests in West Asia.
The largely-unknown story of Egypt-India combat jet cooperation helps flag some of the pitfalls that need to be avoided if the full potential of the relationship is to be realised.
The German designers
The story centres around the legendary aircraft engineer Kurt Tank—the designer of Nazi Germany’s feared Focke-Wulf 190 fighter, and the Focke-Wulf 200 long-range transport. Following World War II, Tank negotiated for jobs in the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and nationalist China. He ended up, though, in Argentina, designing the FMA IAe 33 Pulqui II for General Juan Domingo Perón’s government. The contract was cancelled amid severe economic difficulties, and Tank moved to India.
From 1955, Tank served as Director of the Madras Institute of Technology, where his students included former President APJ Abdul Kalam. Later, he shifted to HAL, to lead the Marut project, the outcome of then Prime Minister Nehru’s push for a domestic defence-industrial base.
The Marut project, though, lacked an engine that could fulfil its design potential. The Bristol Siddeley Orpheus 703, which powered the Folland Gnat, lacked the thrust the new aircraft needed. The Gas Turbine Engine Establishment was working on an indigenous engine—though it would eventually turn out to be incompatible with the Maruti, but that was years in the future. India turned down a proposal from Rolls Royce to finance further development of the Orpheus 703 and chose to turn, instead, to Egypt.
Like the Marut, the Helwan HA-300 had been designed by an out-of-work German engineer—in this case, Willy Messerschmitt, a convicted war criminal and designer of the famous World War II Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter. Messerschmitt’s firm had also designed the Me 262, the world’s first operational combat jet. After the war, Messerschmitt began working in Spain where he designed the Hispano Aviación HA-200 advanced trainer—the building block for the Egyptian HA300.
Egypt’s new jet, like the Marut, used an Orpheus engine. The country, though, had little chance of being granted licence-productive rights for the Orpheus engine—the United Kingdom had gone to war with President Nasser over the Suez Canal in 1958, after all. Egypt, therefore, decided to build its own engine, the E300, which was meant to be capable of giving the HA-300 up to twice the speed of sound (Mach 2), and an operational ceiling of 12,000 metres.
India decided to co-finance the engine effort—hoping it would be able to use the engine in return for selling its own, larger and more capable Marut to Egypt. Group Captain Bhargava and a team of HAL engineers were dispatched to Factory 36.
The plan unravels
From the account of Group Captain Bhargava, it’s clear things didn’t go according to plan. First up, the German team in charge of the aircraft wanted only a European test pilot, not an Indian one. Then, the Helwan HA-300’s revolutionary wing design created a number of potential flight stability issues. Bhargava refused to fly the plane until the problems were rectified, leading Messerschmitt to accuse him of “being chicken.”
“My response was that I was not just chicken— I was s**t scared,” Bhargava recalled. “I said I would be very dead if I tried to fly the aircraft until its deficiencies were removed.”
The problems were eventually resolved, and Bhargava made the first flight of the Helwan in October 1964. The six-day war that broke out the next year, though, killed progress. Engineers working on the E300 engine, journalist Ronen Bergman has recorded, were targeted for assassination by Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad. The engineers who survived fled.
Four prototype E300 engines, meanwhile, had completed thousands of hours of static tests, and some air testing had also been carried out on the transport aircraft hit in the 1965 raid. A third prototype of the HA-300 was fitted with an E300, but never rose into the air. ”My attempts to fly the V-3 with the E-300 engine, designed specifically for the HA-300, did not succeed due to problems with the engine,” Bhargava wrote.
As the project continued, India realised Egypt wasn’t interested in buying the Marut, and withdrew finance. Finally, Bhargava records, Egypt itself ran out of patience and money, and killed the project in 1969.
HAL eventually handed the Marut to the Indian Air Force in 1964, with the Orpheus engines—but, scholar Amit Gupta has observed, it was “was technically obsolete by the time it was first delivered.” The aircraft was repurposed into a moderately-successful ground-attack role, and played an important part in the 1971 war, knocking out massed Pakistani armour in the Battle of Longewala. The Indian Air Force, however, knew it would never fulfil its frontline potential, and pushed for the Hawker Hunter and Dassault Ouragan to be imported.
Egypt and India never got the jets they hoped would give them an indigenous capability—the consequence of the lack of an adequate industrial base, as well as insufficient research resources and financial muscle.
Almost six decades on, though, the strategic imperatives that drove the collaboration still exist: Heavily dependent on imports, both countries know that true military modernisation will need the creation of a defence-industrial base at home.
Fledgling military-to-military cooperation has also begun. Earlier this summer, Indian Air Force aircraft conducted exercises along with the Egyptian Air Force. Egyptian Air Force chief Air Marshal Mohamed Abbas Helmy Md Hashem visited New Delhi to meet with his counterpart Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari and Army Chief General Manoj Pande.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of diplomatic ties between India and Egypt too.
Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, there’s been an uptick in diplomatic efforts to engage Egypt. Former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj paid a visit to Cairo in August 2015, soon after President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi took office. The Egyptian president visited New Delhi the next year. Egypt’s defence minister, General Sedki Sobhi came to India in 2017, while now-Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visited Cairo in 2018.
The defence proposals Defence Minister Singh is taking with him could lay the foundations for a genuine strategic partnership.