Defense Update - News Analysis by David Eshel

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Egyptian Military Buildup- a Threat to Israel?
A dispute-ridden public debate has currently intensified, due to the recent events, over Egypt's intentions toward Israel, should the Palestinian conflict escalate into a regional warlike situation.
Some of the rightwing hardliners in Israeli politics and academic sources, have taken a firmer view than the defence establishment, which still maintains its traditional assessment, that Egypt does not, in the forseen future, pursue a warpath against Israel again.
Foremost in their negative approach towards Egypt are rightwing ministers like Avigdor Lieberman and Uzi Landau and Knesset member Dr Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset subcommittee for Defence Strategy and IDF Buildup. But Israel is not alone in its rather pessimistic outlook on Israel-Egyptian military relations. The debate has also reverberated in the corridors of the pre-September 11 Pentagon and US State Department. there the main focus concentrated over the future issue pertaining to the continued supply of sophisticated arms deliveries to Egypt and the preservation of Israel's so-called " quality edge" in a stable Middle East, if such could be maintained under the ongoing peace process crisis.
The following article concerns itself with an assessment of Egypt's military power, its warfighting capabilities and the realistic prospects of an escalation in the ongoing conflict situation, which could endanger the present stability of "moderate" Arab nations, including Egypt and draw them into a regional war against Israel.
The Egyptian Military Build-Up: Why So Much?
In order to be able to assess the combat value of the Egyptian armed forces in the present decade, it is necessary to review the developments, which have occured in the modernisation process since the peace agreement with Israel some twenty years ago.
First and foremost, there is wide discrepancy in the real defence spending volume over the past decade alone. Here there is conflicting information available, which has to be examined carefully.
The US Central Intelligence Agency estimate is that Egypt's defence spending in the 90s, was US$ 3,2 billion anually average.( about 8,2% of the national budget). Major Shawn Pine, a US specialist in counter intelligence claims, in an in-depth study published by the rightwing oriented Ariel Center for Policy Research( ACPR), that Egypt's real defence expenditure reached closer to US$ 20 billion.
Leading Israeli academic sources, which doubt Pine's estimates, do however agree, that the defence budget has increased during the last decade and could be around US$ 7-8 billion annually.
Dr Steinitz, estimates a 15-20% increase of defence expeditures due to Egypt's growing concern over regional instability.
Since the signing of the mutual peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in March 1979, the United States has supplied Egypt with military equipment and advanced weapons systems in value of over US$ 38 billion. Like Israel, Egypt receives annual grants totalling US$ 2, which iclude US$ 1,3 billion in military assistance, the second largest in US foreign aid sofar. But this is only part of the aid that Egypt benefits from its peace agreement with the Jewish State. Thanks to its, even minor, contribution to the US led coalition against Saddam Hussein in 1991, the US has erased some US$ 7,1 billion in outstanding debts, as well granting supply of surplus weapons systems, which have substantially helped to speed up the urgent modernisation process of Egypt's armed forces following the 1973 war.
A radical transformation of Egypt's armed forces has taken place and reflects substantial changes in its infrastructure. Since 1973, the Egyptian order of battle ( ORBAT) has increased, both quantitative and qualitative. From ten divisions, of which only half were armoured or mechanised, the present ground forces have 12 divisions, all but one are armoured and mechanised. Even more significant is their equipment. After the 1991 Gulf War, Egypt, with US assistance established its "Factory 200" project, an ambitious undertaking, which is assembling ( partly producing) the US General Dynamics Land System M1A1 Abrams MBT. In addition to the 555 tanks of this type already in service with the Egyptian armoured corps, further 200 or more will become available by 2007, providing at least two, if not three armoured divisions, a critical mass for an offensive oriented strategy.
In all, an estimated 7-% of the entire armoured arsenal is currently equipped with western type tanks. Of the 1700 M60A1, 835 have already been upgraded to M60A3 configuration, as have been part of the remaining 580 ex-Soviet supplied T-62, which remain servicable, in second line units.
The US has recently supplied two regiments with the 227mm MLRS artillery rockets, which will enhance, the sofar relatively neglected mobile support for offensive operations.
The modernisation of the mechanised divisions is also proceeding as planned. With some 2000 US M-113, about half of the total number of APCs already in service, further modernisation will include 611 Dutch YPR-765 armoured infantry vehicles to replace the aging Russian BMPs.
Having embarked on a myriad of five year acquisition and modernisation plans, the Egyptian airforce has, and still maintains the highest funding priorities. By reaching some 220 first line F-16 fighters, of block 40 configuration, which includes advanced technology transfer from the US, the EAF is nearing western standards, at least in the qualitative field. Although of its 500 combat aircraft inventory, roughly half is of advanced western standards, further deliveries under the Peace Vector program further advanced technology are anticipated. Currently, eight of the 21 fighter squadrons are equipped with F-16 carrying GBU-15 glide bombs and smart weapons such as the AFM-84 Harpoon.
Air-to-air combat capabilities include the purchase of 271 AIM-7M Sparrow and 314 AIM-9M Sidewinder missiles supplementing the extensive arsenal of AGM-65A/B/D Maverick, Exocet AM-39 and Rockeye missiles.
36 advanced AH-64A Apache attack helicopters, all of which could be upgraded to D model equipped with the Longbow radar will enhance offensive capabilities in anti-tank support, which is already including 540 Tow-2 launchers and 1000 Hellfire-2 laser guided ATGW.
Despite its emphasis on offensive airpower, Egypt remains committed to enhancing its air defence but retaining its independent Air Defence Command, a relic from the ex-soviet doctrine.
With some 80,000 men, organised into five divisions these forces include apart from the aging 90 batteries of SA2/3/6 SAM ( to be upgraded), 12 batteries each of I-Hawk ( to be modified to Phase III PIP standard), Chapparal and Crotale, as well as fixed AAA sites. More important additions are one Patriot PAC-3 battery ( 2 more on option) and 50 vehicle mounted FIM-92A Stinger Avengers which could enhance mobile air defence support. The Egyptian navy has long been the achilles heal of Egypts armed forces, but this has changed substantially over the last decade, with a significant restructuring and modernisation process.
Apart from including some highly effective surface and underwater capability, the navy has gained marked advantage by purchasing American supplied state-of-the-art weapons and detection systems, including underwater-to-surface Harpoon missiles, which pose considerable concern to Israeli naval commanders. According to Dr Steinitz the Egyptian naval modernisation is one of Israel's most serious concern, as it marked a distinctive strategic shift from the sofar protective inshore combat doctrine and the current move to an open sea capability, which could endanger Israel's strategic lifelines. As for non-conventional weapons, Egypt has stockpiled large quantities of various chemical weapons. Israeli intelligence reports indicate the expansion of the large Abu Zabaal chemical production plant near Cairo. Although CW are more or less "standard" issue weapons, Egypt has sofar not been as active in this field as other Arab armies in the region, but this could change, if, for example, biological warfare will become a future threat.
Israeli and US intelligence sources have recently become concerned with Egyptian activity to obtain access to the North Korean ballistic missile technology, and especially a 1100km range No-Dong class missile. US legislators have repeatedly requested information on such projects from Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, as to what purpose such offensive oriented acquisitions could serve in Egypt's defence.
Testing Egypt's Intentions.
The Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv, held its traditional Independence celebrations in a suburban beachfront hotel. Replacing the absent ambassador Bassiouni, who was recalled several years ago, was his deputy the current charge d'affaires Ihab Sharif. " What will happen if Egypt is drawn into another war with Israel by an escalating conflict with the Palestinians?" he was asked. Sharif's response to the challenge was firm: " Don't even think about that possibility. We are a peaceful people, we do not want to speak about war". Sharif's reply was quoted in the Egyptian press.
Similar comments were made by Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Maher, and President Hosny Mubarak has repeatedly made it clear, that " war resolves nothing it only brings misery and death".
However Egyptian Defence Minister Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi was more outspoken when he addressed his troops: " Should a situation develop under which Egypt will have to revert to force against Israel, Egypt is ready and its army stronger that in 1973". Senior aides to President Mubarak have threatened military response if Israel attacks Palestinian authority targets, according to The Middle East newsletter. Most analysts in Israel, believe however, that these statements are for internal consumption and that a warlike confrontation with Egypt, under Mubarak's regime is most unlikely.
According to the latest edition of the Middle East Military Balance 2000-2001 published by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv, tension between Egypt and Israel seems to result from the manner in which the two countries perceive one another as powerful players in the Middle Eastern arena. Egypt being the largest of Arab states, and Israel being the most technologically advanced country in the region make the two natural rivals. Israel remains concerned over Egypt's military build-up, which in the absence of potential threats can provide only justification against Israel's military superiority, which Egypt perceives as threat to its own regional hegemony. But the mainstream of Israel's defence community, continues, in spite of the fierce rethoric and media against Israel, to regard Egypt's intentions adhering to the peace agreement, at least in its military sphere.
Those who defend this view, consider the many benefits that Egypt has reaped from its peace with Israel as the main reasons for a continued strategic trend in Egypts defence policy. But this view is only one side of the coin.
In Egypt, beneath the thin strata that supports peace with Israel, most of Egypt's society is opposed to peace on the ground of national and religious issues. Thus the negative attitude reflected in the Egyptian media, could, under changing political conditions, affect the overall strategic outlook from the Nile. At the extreme spectrum of Egypt's society, which cannot be underestimated, remains the bastion of anti-Israeli sentiment. Should the political arena in the Middle East shift to radicalism, then Egypt may not remain spared of dangerous political changes and the peace with Israel will be the first to suffer a deadly blow.
Sofar the United States has claimed that that the massive arms deals with Egypt have been intended for defence or deterrence. It also made it clear that sharing information with Israel over military aid to Egypt, which is at peace is, not directly in America's interest. This position, along with recent developments in US global strategy in the middle east, has caused concern in Israel over the growing strategic importance of Egypt vis-a-vis Israel's traditional stance to the United States. Egypt's special position as a moderate leader in the Arab world, could, in Israel's view, substantially enhance its strategic weight in the ongoing anti-terror campaign waged by the Bush administration.
Former Defence Minister Ben Eliezer, rejects such a concern. Although he is visibly worried by Egypt's rapid military build-up in its offensive capability, this has yet to ripen into a realistic threat. Ascribing considerable importance to mutual military relations, as both nations face threats by fundamental terrorist elements, Ben-Eliezer mentioned the recent secret visit by Egypt's intelligence chief Omar Suleiman to Israel. Suleiman, 63, who is considered a possible candidate to succeed Mubarak met with leading Israeli officials to discuss mutually important issues, including counter terror activities.
But there are some deep seated strategic issues, which are in the core of Egypt's national aspirations and which have remained suppressed during the last decades.
According to retired Colonel Yoash -Chatto Zidon, a former rightwing Knesset member, who had served as chief of planning and operational requirements in the air force, " the most probable course of events will be the maintaining of Egypt of its option of joining a pan-Arab coalition to do away with Israel. It maintains its claims for the Southern Negev, Israel's highly strategic asset, as a land bridge that should join Africa with Asian Arabia under Egyptian domination". This rather far-fetched assessment is not shared by most of the Israeli defence establishment, but has been for many years, since the 1948 war, a widely discussed topic, on Egypt's strategic intentions, by leading academic oriental researchers.
Zidon substantiates his claim on secret Egyptian documents, captured during the 1967 Six Day War, in which the late president Gamal Abdul Nasser formally set these objectives as basis for the capture of the southern Negev. Wether Egypt will maintain its strained, but sofar intact peace or opt for war would depend on the following factors:
- wide ranging developments in the present US led anti-terror campaign, leading to serious destabilisations in the Arab world and the forming of a strong anti-western alliance between Syria-Iraq or Iran that overthrows the Hashemite Kingdom in support of an escalating conflict between Israel and Palestine.
- an Islamic fundamentalist takeover from the present secular regime in Egypt
- the new regime declaring the peace agreement null and void and preparing for an all out Jihad, in which Egypt under a radical regime would take a leading position.
- exploiting international support for the Arab cause, as an extreme rightwing regime in Israel loses its traditional political support from the United States.
One or more of these somber developments cannot be considered unrealistic in view of the present global situation.
Some concern in Israel is the fact, that the Egyptian armed forces have stepped up their offensive oriented exercices during 2001. In a massive show of force, which had no equal since the preparations for the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Egyptian Third Army held an extensive maneuver, the operational scenario of which was in the Sinai Peninsula. Israeli intelligence, is closely monitoring those movements in an increased alert status, but sofar has not taken any precautionary action, regarding those exercises as routine.
An Islamic Upheaval in Egypt- a Dangerous Path to War with Israel
As long as President Hosny Mubarak remains in power, a warlike contingency seems not only unrealistic, but also, by all counts illogical from Egypt's national interest viewpoint.
But all this can change, abruptly, once, for various reasons, an Islamic fundamentalist upheaval overthrows the secular regime and declares the peace process null and void.
One of the reasons for such a development could be the death of president Mubarak, or a military coup after a massive disruption of Egypt's officer corps, of the kind which crippled the Iranian armed forces after the fall of the Shah. The catastrophic results of a domino effect from an overthrow of General Pervez Musharaf by Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan, followed by Indonesia, could have devastating results inflicting on regional politics in the Middle East. With such huge arsenals of modern high lethal weapons massed in this already turbulent area, anything could happen when radical extremist elements take over.
However a careful assessment of the factual data, under which a future Israeli-Egyptian warlike situation could develop may not be so pessimistic after all the prospects are soberly examined.
First and foremost, the present regime in Egypt is doing all in its power to maintain its stability and has sofar been successful in subduing some of the most serious threats by extermist elements.
The peace process with Israel survived not only severe crisis outside Egypt, like the 1981 nuclear reactor attack on Bagdad, the 1982 IDF invasion of Lebanon and two bloddstained Intifadas in Palestine, but also the assassination of Anwar Saadat and two attempts on Mubarak, and finally a mutiny of the elite Central Security Forces in 1986 in Egypt. Some extreme acts of religiousely inspired violence during the last decade were put down by ruthless force.
Without going into detail of the various Islamic Fundamentalist movements which have haunted Egyptian internal politics for decades, two of the leading ones should be mentioned in the context of any future developments which could destabilise the moderate regimes.
Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyah emerged during the seventies and gained power two decades later, affected by the militant ideology of Sayyid Outb ( executed in 196), who paved the way for the establishment of several Islamic militant branches in Egypt. Operating in self contained and highly conspiratory cells, these have sofar unsuccessfully tried to penetrate the armed forces. The Egyptian Jihad movement has been actively involved in internal terrorism, its mainstream led by the notorious Ayman al-Zawahiri, a key leader in the Osama bin Laden Al-Qaida. The Jihad regards Sheikh Umar Abd-al Rahman, imprisoned in the US as their spritual leader. The goal of both parties is to overthrow the Mubarak regime and replace it with an Islamic state. A serious development, which could have dangerous consequences, should the Islamic fundamentalism gain power elsewhere, is the return of the Afghan veterans, past and present, who are highly trained in subversive activities and sabotage, and have valuable combat experience using modern weapons.
Facing up to such a threat, the Egyptian security forces under General Abd al-Halim Moussa acting as Interior Minister have committed themselves to completely eliminate the Jihad organisation in Egypt, as well as other subversive parties acting to undermine the state.
The regime's cautiouseness is hardly surprising under its past experience: Among the late president Saadat's assassins were a full colonel on active service and another officer in the reserve. In the wake of the 1986 CSF uprisings, no less than 20,000 of its members were dimissed, due to Islamic infiltration. Assassinations of high ranking officials were made possible only by complicity of disloyal officers. Thus Mubarak set about an extensive restructuring program, under which scores of widely dispersed "military cities" were built in remote areas, trying to isolate the military from dangerous civilian society influence. Substantial educational effort has been invested to disqualify Islamic Fundamentalist ideologies, pointing out the discrepancies from basic Islamic theologies that such fundamentalist advocate. Sofar, the effort has paid off and the army remains loyal to the regime, but the crucial question is, for how long this can be sustained, before the growing Islamic influence will eventually infiltrate into those vital security circles.
Operational Considerations
There is little doubt, that the Egyptian armed forces in 2005 are a formidable military power, compared to other Arab nations in the region and that in numbers, at least, it can reach parity with Israel, if the present trend for build-up and modernisation process continues.
However, there are some traditional inherent qualitative weaknesses in its military infrastructure, which cannot be addressed so quickly, even if sufficient funding will be accorded to purchase the necessary hardware.
- there remains an acute shortage of skilled manpower to operate the highly sophisticated weapon systems under modern combat stress.
- Although most of the army is already western trained, the bulk of the senior command still originates from the form Soviet military doctrine, which is too rigid in its command and control system to operate under highly mobile combat situations, which the Egyptian armour will face in the Sinai desert, on which a future campaign could be fought with Israel.
- under the present political system, it is doubtful wether a new initiative by tactical commanders will be encouraged by the leadership, in the forseeable future.
- limited offensive capabilities through lack of sufficient mobile combat support elements, such as modern self propelled and autonomic artillery, mobile air defence assets, advanced and integrated air-ground support procedures and a mobile logistical support tail, all necessary to conduct long- range mobile operations. ( some recent additions, such as the MLRS and Avenger Stinger could become crucial elements, but larger numbers have to be bought to redress this operational deficiency).
- due to geo-topographical constraints in Sinai, any future Egyptian contingency move into the
peninsula against Israel, could become an operational and logistical nightmare for the following reasons:
1. In contrast to former Israeli-Egyptian wars in Sinai, the IDF has redeployed after the withdrawal into the southern Negev, where the bulk of its armoured forces are now located.
2. All major IAF airbases are within striking distance to cover the entire Sinai peninsula, which
which would make any hostile move highly vulnerable to massive airstrikes.
3. A major IDF armour attack, moving into Sinai at short notice, could seize the strategic passes
(Mitla, Jiddi and Tassa) combined with rapid deployed airborne troops, blocking any west-east moves by the Egyptian Third Army into Sinai, and turn the entire western Sinai into a huge armour killing zone.
4. IDF forces could rely on relative short ranged supply support, while the Egyptian forces would have to rely on support bases in the Canal zone, all logistical support movement having to cross the Suez Canal by bridges, ferries, pontoon bridges or a single underwater tunnel, all extremely vulnerable to hostile air attack. Supply ranges would increase as the battle moves eastward.
Much discussion has been over the military importance of the construction of the Ahmed Hamdi tunnel project, under the Suez Canal. The effort of building a permanent crossing of the Canal into Sinai was a vast engineering undertaking, one of the most important projects after the signing of the peace agreement with Israel.
It forecast a traffic crossing capacity of over 60,000 vehicles per day. However, due to erosion water began leaking into the two lane tunnel and extensive restoration work has started to overcome this problem. Moreover, the tunnel also suffered severely from the vibration of heavy loaded trucks. Under such circumstances it is hardly likely, that Egypt considers the Tunnel for military purposes, as it would be quite impossible to move large tank collums under the Canal. Thus, the new project of the 4km cable-stayed car and railway bridge, going up south of Qantara which will hang seventy meters over the Canal, could become the preferred solution, but still be a lucrative target for air attack in a war situation.
Summing Up
Egypt has a strong vested interest to adhere to the present " cold peace" with Israel to continue to reap the benefits from the US and the international community.
As long as the Mubarak regime remains in power a safe estimate is that Egypt will maintain its
present attitude to prevent another war with Israel, clearly aware that it would inevitably result in a catastrophic failure to all its national aspirations.
But such a military adventure could become much more realistic, once the present regime is overthrown by Islamic fundamentalists. Then the strategic ties with the United States and the West could be regarded as adverse to the fundamentalist religious radicals aims and a Pan-Arab nationalistic Jihad against the Jewish infidels could become once again Egypt's prime objective.

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