Size isn't everything
Senior officers say that even though they can't say so openly, one of their great fears is that if a war breaks out in the region, Egypt will be part of it.
Senior officers say, in not-for-attribution conversations, that even though they can't say so openly, one of their great fears is that if a war breaks out in the region, Egypt will be part of it. To support this claim, they cite impressive data about the Egyptian Army.
Indeed, since the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty two decades ago, the Egyptian army has undergone an intensive build-up process that has transformed it from a fighting force based on Soviet weapons systems into a modern army equipped with the finest weapons the West has to offer. Sixteen years ago, only 20 percent of the armor and 50 percent of the aircraft in the Egyptian arsenal were of Western manufacture, whereas today 85 percent of Egypt's tanks and planes are either American or French.
The Egyptian army consists of some 455,000 regular troops and it has 3,500 tanks, more than 550 war planes, more than 100 attack helicopters, about 5,000 armored vehicles and 3,500 artillery pieces.
The Egyptians are manufacturing, under license, the Abrams tank, an advanced battle tank, and are acquiring an ever growing number of them. The Egyptian Navy has 60 vessels, including 22 missile boats. Recent reports say that the United States will supply Egypt with 53 Harpoon 2 sea-to-sea missiles (which the Israeli Navy doesn't have) and four advanced vessels that carry the missiles. Egypt also has more than 100 ballistic missiles and a dense air-defense system, which is organized in 100 battalions.
Egypt's acquisition of Western weapons is a source of great concern to the Israeli army, and has led Israel to pressure the Americans not to sell Cairo certain weapons systems. Hence the recent report about the understanding achieved between Israel and the United States according to which Egypt would not be able to buy F-15 war planes. Hovering in the background of the discussions between the representatives of the Israeli defense establishment and their American counterparts is the hazy concept of "preserving the qualitative edge" of the Israel Defense Forces.
Of course, it is the duty of the IDF to prepare itself to cope with all possible threats, even if they have a low probability of being realized, including the possibility of a war with Egypt. However, any such deployment must be based on a professional analysis, which takes into account not only the quantity of weapons in Egypt's possession, but also the arena conditions and the deployment of the Egyptian fighting force, and especially the intentions of the Egyptian leadership.
It would be a mistake to base security policy toward Egypt on the nightmare scenario of right-wing political figures, who maintain that Egypt harbors clearly belligerent intentions and is only waiting for the propitious moment. Otherwise, the authors of these scenarios ask, why does Egypt need such a large and advanced army?
In the past year, the Egyptian leadership under President Hosni Mubarak has adopted a line that is both clear and firm. War is not an option from Egypt's point of view, the Egyptian leader says. Of course, one could argue that this is merely another Egyptian ploy. However, an examination of Egypt's economic situation, its dependence on the United States and its long-term political goals will show that going to war against Israel is contrary to its national interests.
But even if a war does erupt and Egypt takes part in it, the military options at its disposal are limited. The use of land forces is problematic, because Egyptian armor will have to cross the entire Sinai Peninsula, during which it will be vulnerable to strikes by the Israeli Air Force, which has developed a highly effective combat doctrine against armor.
In the aerial sphere, the Egyptians suffer from inferiority against Israel. The use of war planes to attack targets deep inside Israel is liable to exact a very high price from the Egyptian Air Force, which the results of the attack will not justify.
Egypt has Scud missiles with a range of 300 kilometers, but the Egyptians know that Israel has highly potent weapons with which to react to a missile attack on its civilian population. The Israeli deterrence in this case may well induce the Egyptian leadership to decide against launching ballistic missiles at civilian targets. In the event of an attack from the sea, the Israeli Navy will be able to thwart the main part of the assault.
The rearguard battle that Israel is fighting against the sale of advanced American arms to the Arab states is the right thing to do, but its long-term prospects of success are limited. The interests of the United States override the promise to maintain Israel's qualitative advantage.
In the final analysis, therefore, we will find ourselves facing an Egyptian army that is equipped with advanced American weaponry. The IDF is supposed to create the qualitative edge by developing munitions that the other side doesn't have, including combat doctrines and upgrading the quality of the personnel. The Egyptian army is indeed large and impressive, but the government needs it more for domestic reasons than for use against Israel. We must not ignore it, but the attitude toward the threat it represents has to go beyond a narrow focus on the number of tanks and planes it has.
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