Egypt's armed forces today: A comparison with Israel
By DAVID M. WITTY
In a previous article, I wrote about the deep-seated hostility Egyptians have towards Israel at the historic and cultural levels despite a longstanding peace treaty between the two nations and their increasing levels of security and economic cooperation. I also discussed Egypt’s massive conventional military buildup that could only reasonably be used in a war against Israel as all the other threats on Egypt’s borders and in its Sinai Peninsula are largely irregular not requiring a large fleet of tanks, aircraft, and ships. Egypt seeks to achieve a perceived conventional military superiority over Israel, or at least a perceived parity. This is reinforced by the annual rankings of the U.S. based Global Firepower Index, which ranks Egypt as having the ninth most powerful military in the world, while Israel is ranked as having the eighteenth. Egyptians make much of the annual rankings, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi once remarked that Egypt could defeat Israel in any future war.
Neither side wants a new war, but Egypt prepares for one because of past hostilities, and since conventionally, Israel is the most powerful nation in the region that could pose an existential threat. Egypt cannot dismiss the remote possibility of an event or policy change that could again make Israel an enemy. Likewise, Israel prepares for the possibility of a war against Egypt because it is the only nation that can challenge it conventionally, and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is believed to be preparing for the contingency of a regime change in Egypt. In addition, Israel is committed to being able to defeat any possible coalition of Arab nations. Both Israel and Egypt evaluate potential threats not according to their intentions but according to their capabilities, and both nations have strategically surprised each other over the years. Using the planning model of capabilities versus intentions, both Egypt and Israel continue to plan for the possibility of a war even with their current cooperation. Neither side can rule out the possibility of war, regardless of its unlikelihood, although preparations for war are seldom discussed due to other events in the region.
There are a number of scenarios, although highly unlikely, that could lead to a new war between the two nations. A confrontation worse than previous ones between Israel and the Palestinians could create an uproar on the Egyptian street that forces the Egyptian leadership to take steps to defend the Palestinians. Technically, the Sinai Peninsula is a demilitarized zone, and per the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, Israel must approve all Egyptian military buildups in Sinai, which is regarded as a humiliation in Egypt. Egypt might decide to end the demilitarization of the Sinai unilaterally, and in turn, Israel might be unable to tolerate a massive presence of Egyptian troops on its border. Terrorists based in the Sinai might attack Israel to such an extent that it feels compelled to take military action, and Egypt would be unable to tolerate any official Israeli presence on its soil.
In this light, a closer examination of the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) and the IDF is needed, and the Global Firepower rankings are based strictly on factors such as population sizes, amounts of weapons and equipment, defense budgets, infrastructure, and geography. For example, Egypt has the largest military in the Middle East, with 438,500 active troops and 479,000 in its reserve force. The IDF has an active force of 169,500 and a reserve force of 465,000. However, the rankings do not take into account nuclear capabilities, nor intangible factors such as past performance, experience and doctrine, and quality of individuals and training, and other assessments note that the IDF is the most capable military in the Middle East. How would the IDF and EAF match up in a conventional war? All data below is from The Military Balance 2020 by the International Institute for Strategic Studies unless otherwise noted.
The EAF active army is 310,000 strong, of which around 200,000 are conscripts. There is also a reserve army force of 375,000. The army is a heavy force, with four armor divisions, eight mechanized divisions, and one light division, along with various independent brigades. Taking into account the independent brigades, the active army has an equivalent strength of 17 divisions. It includes an impressive tank fleet, the fourth largest worldwide, but it is highly mixed of different origins and only about half are modern. There are 3,620 tanks, of which 1,130 are modern U.S. designed M1A1s, 1,150 older U.S. M60As, 200 old T-62 Russian tanks, and finally 1,400 T-62s and obsolete T-54/55s in storage, or about a third of the tank fleet. There are almost 6,400 other armored vehicles such as infantry personnel carriers, mostly of US and Soviet origin, or vehicles produced domestically. There over 1,900 artillery pieces, towed, self-propelled, and multiple rocket launchers.
The EAF army is not expeditionary nor designed to fight insurgents and is viewed as weak in maneuver warfare with a top-heavy and rigid rank structure with too many officers with little authority or responsibility. Training is preplanned with set scenarios with preestablished outcomes, and debriefings of training are carefully managed to avoid highlighting weaknesses or any valuable lessons learned. Conscription methods are flawed, corrupt, and involve the exploitation of personal connections and bribes to avoid tough assignments. Conscription by the enlisted ranks is viewed as “unfortunate,” and university graduates do everything possible to avoid it. Conscripts receive only 45 days of training, are mistreated by officers, and are ill-trained infantrymen at best. Even the enlisted in elite units are poorly trained. The large reserve army receives little to no training and has been in a state of decay since 1973. Videos of bizarre graduation ceremonies for military schools and academies attended by Sisi and the military leadership invite ridicule. There are soldiers jumping through burning hoops mounted on moving four wheelers, muscle bond men body posing on moving flatbed trucks, and graduates doing jumping jacks and other exercises, which per an announcer, the men have learned at an academy. The army has a political role and has overthrown Egypt’s ruling regimes in 1952, 2011, and 2013 and ruled the country directly. It also controls a large part of the economy and is considered the nation’s most powerful economic entity, distracting it from its military duties. The Egyptian army is said to resemble its counterpart of 1967.
The Egyptian army’s current capabilities can be examined in its ongoing campaign to defeat Islamic State affiliated insurgents in the North Sinai, where it has struggled. Since 2013, insurgent and terrorist attacks in the Sinai have been unceasing in spite of the army amassing 42,000 troops to defeat some 1,000 to 1,500 insurgents. In a largely conventional approach to counterinsurgency, Sinai operations have been highlighted by airstrikes, artillery bombardments, mass arrests, the displacement of the civilian population, the destruction of homes, and extrajudicial killings, which go unpunished. Soldiers fire weapons indiscriminately and randomly and lack discipline, and are mainly trained on resisting insurgents attacks on fixed checkpoints rather than counterinsurgency. The command structure overseeing Sinai operations is rigid and inflexible; at one point in 2017, Sisi gave the EAF an arbitrary timeline of three months to restore security and stability there. The leadership has failed to make needed structural reforms in the army required to fight insurgents or address underlaying social tensions in Sinai’s population since this would force an open discussion of grievances which would be politically unwelcomed. The leadership either believes the problem is temporary, can be contained, or believes changing the structure of the army would undermine its abilities to fight a conventional war, which its basic force structure is geared towards.
The IDF is structured fundamentally differently than the EAF and acknowledges that it will always be outnumbered and must quickly take any battle to enemy territory. The active army consists of 126,000, of which 100,000 are conscripts. Limits in manpower caused the army to depend on high firepower and technology and it has seen combat in every decade since its creation. It consists of two armor and five infantry divisional headquarters, special operations forces, three armor and one mechanized infantry brigades, and four independent battalions, an airborne brigade, and three artillery brigades.
However, the bulk of the army is in its reserve force of 400,000 which is regularly and rapidly activated for training and duty. Its structure consists of four divisional headquarters, nine armor brigades, eight mechanized brigades, 16 light brigades, four airborne brigades, and five artillery brigades. Including active and reserve forces, the army roughly has the equivalent of about 14 divisions. The IDF has 1,650 locally produced Merkava tanks designed specifically for Israeli tank doctrine, of which about two-thirds are in storage. There are 6,330 armored personnel carriers, and of these, 830 are Israeli designed and built on tank chassis, and the remainder are US M113s in storage. Israel has a 641 artillery pieces, self-propelled, towed, and multiple rocket launchers, of which a little over half are in storage.
Despite being a conscript force, the army has high quality personnel and training, and Israeli Jewish youth have maintained a consistent enthusiasm for joining. There has been criticism in recent years that the army is not properly prepared for a major ground war, however, its training is being overhauled, and it is believed the IDF seeks major improvements to ground forces, although there is also debate whether large ground forces are needed. The IDF is considered a world leader in the development of armored vehicles. The IDF has never overthrown the government or ruled the country.
In a short, surprise offensive war, the EAF army could probably inflict significant losses on IDF army before Israel had time to mobilize its reservists due to the EAF’s overwhelming numbers in personnel and weapons, but if the war became protracted, Israel would prevail due to the superior quality of equipment and individuals and ability to rapidly mobilize reservists. On the reverse, in a short or protracted offensive war by Israeli army, it would likely inflict a significant defeat on EAF army. But no war is fought by land forces alone.
Egypt has the tenth largest air force in the world with 584 combat aircraft. The backbone of the air force is the U.S. F-16, of which 240 were procured, although today, only 208 are in service. It also operates 14 modern Russian MiG-29s, 24 modern French Rafales, along with older fighters, 30 Chinese J-7s, 65 French Mirages, and 40 MiG-21s. Egypt has 45 AH-64 Apache and 30 Russian Ka-52A attack helicopters. Russia is expected to supply Egypt with Su-35 advanced fighters, an aircraft that is considered a competitor to the most advanced U.S. fighters.
A challenge the EAF air force faces is that it operates aircraft of several different origins: U.S., French, Russian, and Chinese. This means Egypt must maintain platforms with unique training and qualification requirements for pilots and maintenance personnel, with different spare parts and maintenance systems. As personnel switch between operating aircraft of different origins, they require new training and qualifications. It also means that the combined fleet cannot be networked to operate as a whole due to different communications equipment, and this will be further complicated by the Russian Su-35.
Between 1980 and 2014, the U.S. was the largest exporter of arms to Egypt, but it has since been replaced by France and Russia. However, because of the long history of U.S. cooperation, Egypt depends heavily on the U.S. F-16, but due to the U.S. commitment to maintaining Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME), the U.S. F-16s given to Egypt are near civilian versions of the jet with significantly less avionics, reducing its abilities as compared to the F-16s operated by other nations. Due to the QME policy, Egyptian F-16s, which can only operate using U.S. munitions, do not have fire and forget air to air missiles, significantly reducing capabilities. This is being corrected as Egypt diversifies its sources of armaments, but it will take years to reduce the heavy reliance on U.S. equipment.
U.S. officers struggled for years to train Egypt’s F-16 pilots to effectively operate the aircraft, but their efforts have mostly been failures. Egyptian pilots do not conduct debriefings, there are no honest assessments of the pilots’ performances, and bad flying techniques have become institutionalized. Egypt’s F-16 pilots fly less than half of the hours flown by their U.S. counterparts, and for years, Egypt suffered one of the worst F-16 crash rates in the world. After Egypt sent combat aircraft to participate in the Saudi led coalition in Yemen, Egyptian air force personnel were sent to the UAE for additional training after coalition personnel noted their lack of experience in modern air warfare, and the aircraft were ultimately returned to Egypt due to inability to operate with the remainder of the coalition. In Sinai, the air force has been unable to effectively target insurgents, has mistakenly hit civilians, and conducted airstrikes near populated areas. In 2015, an EAF attack helicopter killed and injured a group of Mexican tourists on a picnic on a popular tourist route in the western Egyptian desert. The tourists were accompanied by an official Egyptian police escort.
The IDF air force consists of 354 combat aircraft, all of which are modern. Fighter aircraft are all US platforms: 225 F-16s, 83 F-15s, and 16 F-35s. It also operates 43 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. The IDF emphasizes airpower, and its pilots are considered among the best, if not the best, in the world due to stringent entry and training requirements. The IDF is also a world leader in the development of drones and precision guided munitions, and Israeli F-16s, the bulk of the fleet, employ an air to air missile that guides itself to a target while the launching aircraft evades. The IDF is the first foreign operator of the US F-35, which is considered one of the most advanced fighters in the world and will have acquired 50 by 2024.
In an offensive or defense air war, the IDF likely could quickly and significantly defeat the EAF air force, achieving air superiority, due to Israel’s advantage in quality of equipment, training, and pilots. The main platform of both air forces is the U.S. F-16s, but an Israeli F-16 missile can target an Egyptian F-16 at a range of 35 kilometers beyond the maximum engagement range of the Egyptian aircraft. Likewise, even if an Egyptian aircraft could get within range to engage an Israeli fighter aircraft, the IDF’s electronic warfare capabilities are among the best in the world and give it a high ability to survive attacks. This is before even adding the addition abilities of the IDF’s other aircraft in an air superiority role. Of course, the EAF’s acquisition of modern French and Russian combat aircraft could change this balance, but this will take years, and Egypt’s pilots might not be up to the task.
Egypt has the seventh largest navy in the world. The fleet includes seven submarines, three of which are modern German Type 209s, while four are old Chinese vessels of questionable serviceability, in addition to one French destroyer, nine frigates of US, Chinese, and French origin, seven corvettes of Spanish, U.S., and South Korean origin, and two French amphibious assault ships capable of launching helicopters and carrying tanks and troops. The navy has greatly expanded in recent years, but the increase of naval assets has strained maintenance requirements and little thought has been given of how to properly support them through the years, or how to integrate so many ships of different origins. In addition, some of the ships operate with reduced capabilities since they lack full weapon systems. For example, land-based air defense systems affixed to vehicles were placed on the decks of the amphibious assault ships.
IDF Navy has three Dolphin and two Tanin German designed attack submarines, three corvettes, and 42 other smaller patrol craft. The submarines are believed capable of launching nuclear cruise missiles and are considered difficult to detect. The navy, although small, is of a high quality, modern, and it vessels have a full complement of weapons.
In a naval clash, the IDF would probably restrict itself to protecting Israeli shores and Mediterranean gas fields other than possibly using its submarines to attack Egyptian vessels. Egypt would rely on its superior strength but would be unlikely to risk losing any of its capital ships against smaller Israeli craft, which would be a significant prestige loss. However, due to numbers, Egypt would likely prevail in a naval conflict if the leadership is willing to risk losses, but a success at sea would not be decisive factor in a conflict between the two nations.
Egypt has an Air Defense Command separate from the other services. Its principle long range weapon is an export version of the Russian S-300 air defense system, and its acquisition was expected to affect the regional balance of power. Israel expressed concern over the sale of the same system to Iran. Egypt also has a lot of other Russian and U.S. systems, some of which are dated. A challenge for Egyptian air defense is it no longer has accesses to the annual U.S. grant of Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for the additional purchase of U.S. air defense systems since U.S. FMF is geared to areas primarily related to counterterrorism and security against irregular threats, or maintenance of existing systems Egypt already possesses. The IDF has one of the world’s most advanced air and missile defense networks. The IDF’s air defense capabilities are based around its modern systems of Arrow 2 anti-tactical ballistic missiles, Iron Dome, US Patriot PAC-2, and David’s Sling. Israel likely has a clear superiority in air defense systems due to its clear technological advantage but the S-300 could present challenges to the IDF.
Ballistic Missiles and Nuclear Weapons
The EAF has surface to surface ballistic missiles of the Soviet era such as FROG-7s and Scud-Bs, or more modern Sakr-80s developed with France and designed to replace the older FROG-7s, and North Korea is suspected of supplying missile parts to Egypt. Israel has a clear superiority in missiles, and the IDF has nuclear capabilities that greatly increases its strength relative to Egypt, with an estimated 24 nuclear Jericho 2 intermediate range ballistic missiles, as well as the believed ability to deliver nuclear weapons with its F-15s, F-16s, and submarines. Israel has a clear superiority over Egypt in missiles, although it would likely only use its nuclear capability as a last resort.
There is much ambiguity regarding Egypt’s official defense budget, which is placed at $4.7 billion in 2019 and includes an annual $1.3 billion in US Foreign Military Financing (FMF). Another estimate placed average annual defense expenditures as $3.74 billion between 2010 and 2019, but this does not include the annual US FMF grant. Egypt’s defense budget appears to be about 1.5% of GDP. However, creating confusion, are Egypt’s large weapons procurements. Egypt was the world’s third largest arms importer in 2015-2019, a change of 212 percent from the previous five years. In recent years, Egypt has purchased $8 billion worth of jets, ships, and a military satellite from France, $2 billion for submarines from Germany, $3 billion for Russia MiG- 29s and the S-300 air defense system, and an additional $2 billion for Russia Su-35 fighters. Of course, the payments for these weapons are spread out over many years, but they alone are $13 billion, which is more than three times Egypt’s official annual defense budget not counting US FMF, which can only be used to procure U.S. equipment. Egypt’s military procurements are likely not included in its official budget. Egypt’s expenses for weapon procurements are thought to be through economic assistance from UAE and Saudi Arabia, funds from the EAF’s economic endeavors, and financial assistance from the nations selling the weapons.
Israel heavily funds its military establishment to compensate for its disadvantage in manpower through the procurement of the most advanced weapons. Israel’s defense budget was $19.6 billion in 2018 and $19.3 billion in 2019, in addition to $3.1 billion in US foreign military financing in 2018 and $3.3 billion in 2019. Israel had an annual average of defense spending of $17.8 billion between 2010 and 2019. It used 5.3 percent of its GDP on military spending in 2019, among the highest 15 nations in the world. Israel is also one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries and spends about 4.5 percent of its GDP on research and development, almost double the global average, and 30 percent goes into military products. By comparison, the U.S. only spends about 17 percent of its research and development funding on weapon developments. Israel also has a robust defense industry and was the world’s eight largest arms exporter between 2014 and 2018. Clearly, Israel is superior to Egypt in terms of defense funding.
The IDF could defeat the EAF in a conventional war due to its overall quality and its technological and budgetary edge over the EAF, which it dwarfs in comparison, without even considering that Israel has a nuclear option if a worst-case scenario presented itself. This is also reinforced by the fact that in previous wars with Egypt, Israel also fought a coalition of Arab nations. But today, the two armies of Israel’s traditional opponents, Syria and Iraq, have been gutted in internal conflicts and have lost a great deal of conventional strength. However, the EAF could probably inflict significant casualties on the IDF in a major war. Of course, neither Israel or Egypt is interested in a future war, but the rhetoric from Egyptian political and cultural leaders that Israel is still an enemy and that the EAF has a superiority over the IDF could leave them with less policy options if the two nations faced a true crisis in their relations.
However, as Egypt continues to diversify its sources of arms away from the U.S., the Israeli advantage will continue to lessen if Egypt is successful in absorbing the weapons systems and using them to their full capabilities. But this would also require the EAF to make significant internal reforms in its structure and culture, which is much less likely. The leadership of Egypt likely recognizes the EAF’s inferiority to the IDF, but if it cannot at least claim it can defend the nation against a country it has fought five wars against in the past, the regime, which gains legitimacy through the perceived strength of its armed forces, would lose credibility.
David M. Witty is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel and Foreign Area Officer. He has over thirteen years of experience living and working in the Middle East, including seven years in Egypt. He is an adjunct professor at Norwich University’s Online Security Studies Program. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidMWitty1.