French-built Egyptian frigate "Tahya Misr"
The French nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is steaming through the Red Sea on its way to the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal for joint maneuvers with the Egyptian navy in preparation for a reduced coalition offensive against Islamic State’s deepening grip on Libya. debkafile’s military sources, reporting this, say it will be the Egyptian navy’s first joint exercise with a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier; and also the first drill to be conducted by the new Egyptian missile frigate Tahya Misr (Long Live Egypt!), which underwent a series of exercises after it was delivered by the French DCNS naval shipbuilders last June.
The Charles de Gaulle departed the Persian Gulf Monday, Feb. 22 and is due to reach the eastern Mediterranean in the first week of March. The Egyptian frigate’s weapons systems can shoot down planes and ballistic missiles as well as striking naval or ground targets. But the vessel has been stripped of its regular electronic warfare and satellite communications systems for the exercise – apparently after a quiet understanding between France, Egypt and Israel.
The Egyptian frigate was originally designed to secure the Suez Canal against potential terrorist attacks from the Islamic State networks in the Sinai Peninsula and their offshoots in the Canal cities of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez. The warship was moved into the Mediterranean after President Francois Hollande and Egyptian President Abdul-Fatteh El-Sisi moved forward on plans for a joint assault with Italy to root out ISIS positions in Libya.
The three powers have agreed to launch this offensive in late April or May, debkafile’s military and counterterrorism sources report.
The joint naval exercise will meanwhile drill coordination between the French and Egyptian navies and air forces in readiness for the combat operation. They will practice landing fighter-bombers taking of from the Charles de Gaulle decks at air bases in Egypt’s western desert near the Libyan border, for refueling, reloading munitions or emergency landings, when damaged by enemy fire.
They will also rehearse joint marine landings from French and Egyptian warships.
Our sources report that the trilateral assault plan has undergone repeated revisions in recent weeks, mainly because President Barack Obama has had second thoughts about his initial scheme for the United States to lead the operation in Libya – this time from the front.
His first plan was for a large marine contingent to land on the Libyan coast under heavy air cover. But lately, he can’t decide whether to deploy any US troops at all and inclines towards leaving the main onus of the anti-ISIS campaign in Libya to European and Middle East armies.
A final decision is expected by our Washington sources to substantially scale down the original plan. The dithering in Washington has led to delays in Paris, Cairo, Rome and London on drawing up a final list of ISIS targets to be hit and the size of the invasion forces, although the operation is just weeks away and time is pressing.
Islamic State commanders, viewing this lack of resolve, are beginning to feel safe in their Libyan strongholds, after drawing confidence from the recent downsizing of coalition strikes against its forces and bases in Iraq and Syria.
Since a small coalition vanguard for the main offensive landed in Libya last year, nothing much has happened to hold back ISIS advances in Libya, except for US drone strikes.
The White House spokesman Josh Earnest said this week that President Obama planned to address the terrorist organization’s advances in Libya with top military officials.
Also this week, Libyan military officials reported that 15 French Special Operations experts had been in Benghazi for the past two months, assisting Libyan national troops in fighting the extremists. According to another report, a "small number" of British advisers has joined US military operatives who are giving local militias “tactical training in Misrata.
However, the joint French-Egyptian naval-air force drill about to take place is the most substantial sign that a real operation to confront ISIS in Libya may finally be about to go forward.