- First published on JUNE, 2021
Ahead of the second filling schedule of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in July, opponents of Africa’s largest hydropower dam project are running out of options for a mediated solution to a Blue Nile water rights dispute. The prospect of military strike action on the dam by Egypt, Sudan, and proxy forces remains unlikely but is becoming increasingly probable. PANGEA-RISK assesses the military capability and tactical options at hand in case a mediated resolution fails in coming months.
With just one month remaining until Ethiopia begins the second phase of filling the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), diplomatic disputes have again intensified with the dam’s opponents. In May 2021, Egypt and Sudan turned down a proposal by Ethiopia to exchange data ahead of the scheduled filling schedule start in July 2021. The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry invited the two countries to nominate operators to share data in an initiative it said could help to build confidence and improve communication, a move that was swiftly rejected by Egypt and Sudan which both reiterated their demands for a legally binding agreement. The Egyptian Irrigation Ministry described the offer as a “blatant attempt” to draw Egypt’s approval on the second filling of the dam, and Sudan said that, while data exchange is “necessary,” it would not agree to the proposal without a proper agreement on the filling and operation of the dam.
The accelerated dam filling timeline is also behind Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi’s more belligerent rhetoric, with the leader issuing a spate of warnings and threats aimed at Ethiopia – and the international community. Sisi has warned Ethiopia not to “touch a drop of Egypt’s water, because all options are open.” Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry wrote to the United Nations Security Council, warning that failure to reach consensus would harm Egypt and Sudan’s water interests and security, increase tensions throughout East Africa and the Horn, and “constitute a serious threat to international peace and security.” The warnings came after the latest round of African Union (AU)-sponsored talks between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan hosted by this year’s AU chair, the Democratic Republic of Congo, ended without agreement in early April.
With the absence of a political solution for the crisis that erupted from Addis Ababa’s intransigence, and Egypt’s impatience regarding the GERD, PANGEA-RISK assesses that these renewed “threats” bring the prospect of conflict into the realm of possibility. References of military action are now being voiced alongside ongoing diplomatic posturing, which could risk jeopardising negotiations completely. While Egypt does have military options, there are heavy constraints on its ability to project the full force of its military. Any option Cairo chooses to exercise will be risky at best and will also come with severe international consequences.
Background to the GERD hydropower dam dispute
The GERD is a USD 4 billion hydroelectric dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile. At 6.45 gigawatts, the dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa when completed, as well as the seventh largest in the world. The development of the GERD is paramount to Ethiopia’s development plans as it is expected to double the country’s electricity generation capacity and earn as much as a billion dollars annually from energy exports to Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, and potentially Egypt. Millions of Ethiopians have also contributed funds to the construction of the dam and see it as a source of national pride.
However, Sudan and Egypt both fear the GERD dam could lead to water shortages in their own nations. The latest round of talks over the GERD were held between 3 and 10 January but reached another impasse after Sudan objected to the terms of reference and refused to have African Union officials attend the negotiations. Several sources close to the GERD talks state that Sudan is trying to stall and sabotage the talks over procedural issues in a bid to drag these out. The strategy is being mooted by Egypt, as both Egypt and Sudan stand to benefit while Ethiopia’s international reputation continues to fade.
In particular, Egypt and Sudan seek support from the US, which has become increasingly critical of Ethiopia in recent months. Three leading Democratic US Senators, namely Chris Murphy, Patrick Leahy, and Ben Cardin, have since last year led a lobbying campaign to impose sanctions on Ethiopia over human rights abuses and repression of political freedom. In late May, the US administration imposed visa restrictions on targeted Ethiopian officials. As a result, US-Ethiopia relations have plummeted to rock bottom, which has favoured Egypt and Sudan’s stance on the GERD dispute.
Egypt strengthens ties with Sudan and steps up regional military co-operation
A recent de-escalation in tensions between Egypt and Turkey over Libya’s war, as well as with Qatar, has allowed President Sisi’s government to focus on building leverage in East Africa over the GERD dispute. President Sisi met with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on 11 March in Cairo, where they discussed their dispute with Ethiopia over GERD, from which 60-84 percent of water in the Nile River originates, and which is located approximately 30 km from the Sudan border. This followed a meeting on 6 March between President Sisi and the Sudanese effective head of state Abdel Fattah Al Burhan in Khartoum, where they discussed security coordination based on a defence co-operation agreement signed on 2 March.
In April, Egypt carried out a joint training exercise with Sudan called “Nile Eagles 2”. Departing from Merowe Air Base, located along the Nile, fighter jets simulated air raids (see SPECIAL REPORT: PROSPECTS OF ANOTHER WAR IN THE HORN OF AFRICA). According to Egyptian military sources, the exercise focused on the two countries’ abilities to “face joint challenges in order to secure the borders and protect resources,” in an apparent reference to the dispute over the Nile dam. The chief of staff of Sudan’s armed forces, General Mohamed Osman Al Hussein, said the exercise was “not targeting a certain country.” Conversely, Egyptian officials’ statements have been more threatening. Egypt’s Army Chief of Staff General Mohamed Farid issued a firm warning following the exercise at Merowe airbase, saying “the Egyptian army stands side by side with the Sudanese army in the same trench to defend it.”
Separately, the deputy head of Egypt’s military intelligence, Major General Sameh Saber El Degwi, signed an intelligence-sharing agreement with Uganda, referencing the countries’ shared reliance on Nile water in a public statement. General Farid signed a defence cooperation agreement with his Burundian counterpart in Cairo two days later. The development came as an unpleasant surprise to Addis Ababa, which, since the outset of the water crisis, believed it had the general backing of upstream countries. In reality, Ethiopia has never appeared more isolated, at the same time that the Egyptians are closing ranks around their allies.
It is noteworthy that in recent years, Egypt has been building and refurbishing a military mega-base in Ras Banas on the Red Sea shore, almost adjacent to the border between Sudan and Egypt and opposite Saudi Arabia’s Medina on the other side of the Red Sea. The base, located on the approach to the southern entrance to the Suez Canal, is presented as a means of projecting Egyptian air and naval power to protect its allies, specifically Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and to counter Iranian, Turkish (and Israeli) power in the Red Sea. However, it cannot be ignored that the military complex is within reach of the Eritrean and Ethiopian territories.
Al Fashqa border dispute: opportunity to project influence
Enhanced Egyptian-Sudanese military cooperation is almost certainly geared towards presenting a united front to the Ethiopian government over GERD negotiations and the Al Fashaga (Al-Fashqa) border dispute. Since 2020, the Ethiopian government accuses Sudan of invading Ethiopian territory, and its military of taking advantage of the security vacuum in the border area. This vacuum has been created by the government’s armed confrontation with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the north of Ethiopia (see ETHIOPIA: FOREIGN FORCES ARE INCREASINGLY DEPLOYED TO PROTECT STRATEGIC INFRASTRUCTURE). Hence, the 2 March defence agreement with Egypt marked a formalisation of increasingly close military relations demonstrated over the preceding six months. Sudan has traditionally maintained a neutral stance on the GERD, avoiding antagonising either neighbour. Although Sudan is concerned that the Dam could lead to flooding and ramifications for its own Nile dams, especially the Roseires, given the absence of GERD downstream impact studies, it would also potentially benefit from the GERD via affordable electricity and improved irrigation flows. Sudan’s recent rapprochement with Egypt is likely to have been prompted by the escalation since November 2020 of its Al Fashaga Triangle territorial dispute with Ethiopia, with Sudan likely attempting to use the GERD issue to obtain concessions from Ethiopia.
Coordination and joint Egyptian-Sudanese positions will be the strongest card to confront unilateral Ethiopian stances, especially with further Egyptian-Sudanese cooperation in the military field at a time when Sudan faces another security crisis with Ethiopia in the Al Fashqa region in eastern Sudan, where armed Ethiopian groups are trying to gain control with the help of the Ethiopian government. In fact, the Al Fashagah issue has given both Sudan and Egypt an important bargaining chip in the stand-off over GERD. This fact allows Egypt, for the time being, to explore other options against Ethiopia. As a result, a military confrontation at this point seems unlikely, even though both Egypt and Sudan are interested in weighing their military options.
PANGEA-RISK has maintained for several years that a negotiated solution to the GERD dispute remains the most likely scenario (see EGYPT, ETHIOPIA & SUDAN: COLLAPSE OF GERD TALKS AMID PRESSURES BACK HOME). However, the protracted standoff, related territorial and diplomatic disputes, and increasingly belligerent, nationalistic, and war-mongering rhetoric has increased the probabiliyu of a military standoff. As the Egyptian-Sudanese ties gain further momentum, questions remain about the strength of the tools that the two countries possess in persuading Ethiopia not to dispose of the Nile River’s water unilaterally and to stop any preparations for the second filling until an agreement is reached.
July deadline looming
Resolution by diplomacy which involves direct talks, negotiations or mediation by a third party is still the most likely scenario and most pursued after by actors in the resolution of the conflict, although the quest for a ‘neutral’ mediator, or trilateral negotiations involving Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia has remained elusive. This is further challenged by a lack of flexibility on both sides of the dispute. In particular, the existentialist arguments advanced by both sides, make resolution difficult.
Both the Egyptian and Ethiopian governments view the GERD as an issue of critical importance. Egypt relies on the Nile for around 90 percent of its water supply, annually receiving approximately 55 billion cubic metres of the Nile’s 88-billion-cubic-metre waters. Egypt and Sudan – which fear the impact of unregulated water flow downstream of GERD – both seek a legally binding agreement on the dam’s operation, including how quickly it is filled, how much water is released in long droughts and a dispute-resolution mechanism. Ethiopia regards the dam as a sovereign issue and has refused to be bound by anyone else on how it operates the GERD.
Both Egypt and Sudan opposed Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to proceed with the second phase of filling the reservoir at the beginning of the rainy season in July, regardless of whether an agreement is reached. Ethiopia is reluctant to enter into an agreement with binding dispute arbitration, fearing that this could lead to it being compelled to concede Egypt’s current water use as a quota. Resorting to international quartet members as mediators instead of observers in the GERD negotiations has become an Egyptian-Sudanese condition to resume negotiations. Ethiopia refused to resume negotiations through any international mediator other than the AU. This stance led to the withdrawal last month of an offer to mediate by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which PANGEA-RISK had previously seen as a potential game-changer given the UAE’s sound relations with all stakeholders in the GERD dispute (see SPECIAL REPORT: PROSPECTS OF ANOTHER WAR IN THE HORN OF AFRICA).
The most likely time for Ethiopia to make concessions on GERD negotiations – if at all – will be during June. Acting after the 21 June elections would lower the political stakes of making concessions on GERD negotiations for Ethiopia’s government (see ETHIOPIA: INSECURITY POSES THE PRIMARY CHALLENGE TO PRIVATISATIONS AND INVESTMENT). Measures that slow construction or the natural filling of the dam reservoir’ from July are very unlikely, but more probable are a new technical study on the GERD’s downstream impact and new negotiations moderated by the AU. There are no signs that such a meeting is imminent and no signs of even a resumption of negotiations, despite the second filling schedule’s pending deadline.
Reaching July 2021 and the beginning of the second filling of the reservoir without an agreement could be interpreted – and depicted – as tantamount to a declaration of war by Ethiopia on Egypt and Sudan. It is hard to say where the standoff might end if no agreement is reached. However, the dispute is souring relations among three important African countries, and there is a plausible danger of a flashpoint.
Military strength heavily tilted in Egypt’s favour
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 Defence Force (ENDF) ranks 60th. Egypt’s army is more than 2.5 times the size of Ethiopia’s, with 440,000 active-duty personnel compared to 162,000; the EAF operates 15,998 combat tanks and armoured vehicles, 31 times the number in the Ethiopian military (514). Cairo possesses about nine times as many combat aircraft as Ethiopia (215 versus 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 (the ENS Gamal Abdel Nasser and ENS Anwar El Sadat) 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 re-establish 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. 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 US equipment, including M1A1 tanks and F-16 fighter jets, along with increasing amounts of new weaponry from France, Russia, Germany, and other suppliers.
In response to joint military exercises by Sudan and Egypt at the same time as the Tigray War, Ethiopia deployed to the dam its newly created Northwest Command that was initially intended to spearhead the offensive into Tigray. Ethiopia has also increased anti-aircraft defences at the dam, including the Russian Pantsir-S1 air defence system, alongside an S-125 (SA-3) launcher. Local source reports state that the military has positioned a fleet of Su-27 Flankers armed with R-27 air to air missiles, and a further set of MiG-23 swept wing fighters with the same armament, close to the GERD to intercept Egyptian incursions. However, according to defence specialists consulted by PANGEA-RISK, such weapons systems would be inferior to Egypt’s military air superiority and would be unlikely to deter a potential Egyptian air strike on the GERD.
FIVE MILITARY OPTIONS FOR EGYPT
A direct military option scenario is most likely if Ethiopia starts filling the dam without a negotiated resolution with Egypt, leaving it with no alternatives. If Egypt were to consider direct military action, it would appear to have five live options: an overland strike, aerial raids, special forces deployment, Sudanese ground force operations, and proxy warfare (or indeed a combination of these).
An overland strike (low likelihood)
While Egypt’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 grouped in the north of the country, particularly in the Nile Delta. Egypt lacks significant base capacity in the south from which to organise 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 roughly 1,250 km 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. All things considered, the possibility of an Egyptian ground assault to take the GERD out of operation can be safely discounted, thus neutralising a major element of Egypt’s military superiority.
Aerial raids (moderate likelihood)
This might be Egypt’s most realistic option for a military strike to halt the operation of the dam. Egypt could utilise its French Rafale fighter jets in a deep-strike role, accompanied by US F-16s (with a maximum range of slightly over 4,000 km). For decades, the US refused to sell Cairo the F-15 fighter aircraft, instead of sending the lighter, shorter-range, and more manoeuvrable F-16, despite providing the F-15 to Saudi Arabia and Israel. Nonetheless, an aerial attack could be mounted out of Egypt’s airbase in Aswan and/or the new air and naval facility, Berenice Military Base, on the Red Sea due east of Aswan (about 1360 km from the GERD) at Ras Banas, which President Sisi inaugurated in 2020. The facility can support 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 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.
Special forces attacks (low likelihood)
Another option is the insertion of Egyptian special operations forces into Sudan. From there, the forces could move across the border and either harass the construction of the dam or attempt to sabotage the structure under the guise of militants. This would allow Khartoum to realistically pledge operational ignorance and blame supposed “terrorists”. The harassment tactic by special operations forces or militants would likely only delay the project, not arrest construction. Special operations teams would face a series of obstacles in trying to destroy the dam. Dams are critical infrastructure and routinely protected relatively well in most countries by dedicated military units. Ethiopia would be no exception, especially with all the contention already surrounding the project (see section on Ethiopian defences at the GERD above). So special operations forces would need significant skill to gain access to the dam successfully. There is also the problem that a small team of ground forces, no matter how elite, would be likely to be physically unable to carry enough ordnance to critically damage or destroy the dam.
Sudanese ground force operations (moderate likelihood)
While still unlikely, the most probable pathway for a direct military escalation would be a Sudanese ground forces offensive to capture the GERD site, with Egyptian air support. Local anti-government militants from Benishangul-Gumuz would also make up a nominal part of the attacking force, primarily for propaganda purposes. Ethiopia’s military is already thinly stretched by the ongoing Tigray conflict and other domestic insecurity issues, and would be unable to resist a joint Sudanese and Egyptian offensive, despite reported GERD anti-aircraft defences. The Ethiopian military would be likely to respond by providing weaponry, and artillery, and air support, to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North al-Hilu (SPLM-N al-Hilu) in Sudan’s Blue Nile state, facilitating them in attacking Sudanese forces and disrupting oil imports from South Sudan.
Proxy warfare (low likelihood)
The least costly cause of action may come through proxy force support in Ethiopia. Egypt may sponsor the resurgence of existing ethno-nationalist armed struggles in Oromo, Amhara, and Somali regions of Ethiopia, with the aim of putting pressure on the Ethiopian government. The below map of Ethiopian insecurity hotspots in the six-month outlook might illustrate which conflicts the Egyptian government may offer proxy support. Furthermore, Cairo might incite the Tigray region’s political opposition against Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government for perceived “displacement and in consideration”, against Tigrayan interests. Egypt might also exploit the territorial disputes between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Nonetheless, supporting proxy forces would likely require months of planning and resources for the creation of supply networks, enough to cause internal irritation for the Ethiopian government. Informed sources in both Egypt and Ethiopia have underplayed this scenario and stated that only minor efforts (if any) have been explored by Egyptian intelligence to bolster and use local proxies.
There is a high sense of scepticism around Egypt’s intent and capability to mount a direct attack against such a massive structure as the GERD hydropower dam. Observes and experts believe still believe the most plausible course of action for Egypt would be to secure international support and try to convince the Ethiopians to accept a compromise. Despite Cairo’s vastly superior capabilities, it would face formidable obstacles in mounting any sort of effective military action, whether it aims to intimidate the Ethiopians or severely damage the dam project. Generally, full-scale inter-state wars have lost prominence even in the case of mismatched rivals due to the presence of less costly alternatives, such as non-state proxies. Additionally, interventions of global powers, such as the US, invested in regional stability and determined on mitigating humanitarian and security fallouts, act as a buffer to open conflict.
Also, distance is a major obstacle for the Egyptian military option. Ethiopia is simply too far from Egypt, and since Egypt has not invested in any sort of aerial refuelling capability, it is beyond the combat radius of all Egyptian aircraft staging from Egyptian airfields. The only consolation for Egypt is that the dam is very close to the Sudanese border. Access to Sudanese airfields would place some of Egypt’s air force within range. However, operating from Sudanese territory could be politically complicated and would have international repercussions for Sudan along with Egypt. Sudan’s proximity to Ethiopia would also leave it vulnerable to direct military retaliation.
In the event, Egypt’s diplomatic and political options are exhausted and military action is instigated, Egyptian and Sudanese forces would be unlikely and unwilling to destroy the dam, due to the severe flooding this would cause downstream in Sudan, something Egypt has publicly acknowledged. The aim of any military attack would rather be to force Ethiopia into a binding agreement with advantageous water quotas and power supply arrangements for Egypt and Sudan.
As such, what we are likely to witness in coming months, are less forceful measures. Political posturing and aggressive rhetoric are likely to continue, and relations between the countries will remain strained. Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are likely to focus on smaller political and diplomatic wins that augment their leveraging power during negotiations. Realising that internal instability will weaken opposing countries’ negotiating powers is likely to result in some clandestine support for domestic rebel activity and opposition groups. Troop deployments along strategic borders – such as those of Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia – increases the likelihood of localised skirmishes.
A full resolution to this complex issue is unlikely over the coming months, and the current circumstances will mean that military action against Ethiopia remains unlikely, yet still probable.