India, Egypt ties: from fighter jet development in the 1960s to collaborating on defence industry today

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In this photo from September 2022, Rajnath Singh observes the Helwan 300 fighter jet during his visit to the Egyptian Air Force Museum in Cairo. The fighter jet was a joint development project between India and Egypt.

In this photo from September 2022, Rajnath Singh observes the Helwan 300 fighter jet during his visit to the Egyptian Air Force Museum in Cairo. The fighter jet was a joint development project between India and Egypt. | Photo Credit: Defence Ministry/Twitter

During a two-day visit to Egypt in September 2022, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited the Egyptian Air Force Museum in Cairo and witnessed the Helwan 300 fighter jet, which was jointly developed by India and Egypt, an effort long before ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’ came into vogue.

This week, as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is set to witness India’s indigenous military hardware roll down Kartavya Path as part of the Republic Day parade, the two countries are looking to deepen defence industrial cooperation. Cairo is considering a range of Indian hardware for its forces.

During Mr. Singh’s visit last year, India and Egypt had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to further enhance bilateral defence cooperation. The two sides agreed to focus on “joint training, defence co-production and maintenance of equipment”.

India’s participation in Egypt’s aircraft industry in the 1960s was the direct result of a close understanding between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, wrote Group Captain Kapil Bhargava (retd), who as a Squadron Leader in June 1963 was deputed by the Indian Air Force to work as a test pilot in the Egyptian Aircraft Factory 36 at Helwan. He has the distinction of undertaking the first flight of the Helwan HA-300 fighter jet, designed by Willy Messerschmitt. The first flight of the HA-300 was undertaken on March 7, 1964 and lasted 12½ minutes, he wrote in a long account on bharat-rakshak.com.

India’s interest was in developing the E-300 turbojet engine for its own indigenous HF-24 Marut fighter designed by another German — Kurt Tank. Extensive testing was done with two prototypes and the third prototype was just beginning taxi testing when the project was scrapped in 1969 for a variety of reasons: financial considerations, Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war and the Soviet Union offering its fighter jets to India.

According to information on globalsecurity.org, a contract between India and Egypt was signed in September 1964 for the engine and India helped fund development of the E-300 engine. The E-300 engine was eventually used in the Indian HF-24 Marut fighter. Two Egyptian pilots came to India in 1964 and attended the Indian Air Force test pilot school to prepare for the HA-300 flight development. India also provided a Marut fighter for the E-300 project.

Elaborating on the reasons for the project falling behind, Group Capt. Bhargava notes that Indian policymakers, including the Chief of Air Staff, were quite confused about collaboration with Egypt. According to them both countries would use the HF-24 fitted with the E-300 engine. “The Indian authorities had not realised that the Egyptians were not interested in the HF-24,” he wrote. “When this became clear, official Indian enthusiasm for the E-300 also disappeared. This was the death knell of the HA-300 project. Foreign experts working at Helwan began to drift away. The Egyptians also ran out of patience and money, and closed the project in May 1969.”

Fast forward to 2023, and Egypt is actively considering India’s indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LAC) Tejas, also being actively considered by Argentina and Malaysia. Both Indian and Egyptian Air Forces also operate the French-origin Rafale multi-role fighter.

Egypt has expressed interest in acquiring a range of military hardware including the Advanced Light Helicopter, Light Combat Helicopter and Akash surface to air missile systems, among others. To sweeten the offer on LCA, HAL is even considering a maintenance facility in Egypt which can also cater to its potential market in Africa and Middle East, it has been learnt.

India has offered assistance to Egypt in developing its own domestic defence manufacturing base, officials said, noting the close and historical ties between the two countries.

Interestingly, India, after making several failed attempts at developing an indigenous fighter engine, is now considering proposals from three global engine manufacturers — General Electric, Rolls Royce and Safran — for co-developing an engine for its future fighters.

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