How powerful is Egypt’s military?

The nature of warfare has evolved and, while numbers still matter, quality — of equipment, training, logistics and so on — matters significantly more.
December 24, 2017
Growing punch. A file picture shows an Egyptian Air Force fighter jet landing at an undisclosed location in Egypt following air strikes in Libya. (AFP)
Growing punch. A file picture shows an Egyptian Air Force fighter jet landing at an undisclosed location in Egypt following air strikes in Libya. (AFP)

Dubai- With its sheer size, Egypt is the behe­moth of Arab coun­tries and regarded by its peers as a nat­ural leader in Arab affairs. However, after years of lagging, there is every sign that Egypt’s giant military is determined to close the technologi­cal gap between it and its regional rivals.

Egypt has a population more than two-and-a-half times the Arab world’s next most populous coun­try, Algeria. To put Egypt’s popula­tion into perspective, if Saudi Ara­bia, Iraq, Jordan and Syria were one country, there would still be more Egyptians. With a GDP of $330 bil­lion, the Egyptian economy is sec­ond only to the $620 billion GDP of Saudi Arabia.

Unsurprisingly, the Egyptian mili­tary has historically been regarded as the strongest among Arab coun­tries since the 1952 revolution that established Egypt as a republic. Through the 1950s and 1970s, the Egyptian military remained firmly in the lead in various coalitions of Arab countries in fighting against Israel until the 1973 Arab–Israeli War culminated in the Camp David Ac­cords and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty.

From 1962-65, Egypt was heavily involved in the ill-fated North Yem­en Civil War and in 1977 in a short border war with Libya but has since remained largely out of the war-fighting business.

It is only since the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime that Egypt has made tactical interventions into Libya to shape the outcome of that country’s civil war. Addition­ally, the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS), evidenced not least by the devastating attack on the Sinai mosque on November 24, stirred the Egyptian military into greater activity.

Since the 1970s, Egypt has been the largest recipient of military aid from the United States after Israel, representing nearly 25% of Egypt’s approximately $5.5 billion annual defence expenditure. As a result, Egypt has maintained the Mid­dle East’s largest standing force of about 450,000, though, important­ly, approximately two-thirds of that number is conscripts.

Egypt has traditionally relied on strength from brute numbers to project military power and its leadership credentials, in particu­lar with ground forces. The nature of warfare has evolved and, while numbers still matter, quality — of equipment, training, logistics and so on — matters significantly more.

Until a few years ago, defence ana­lysts would have viewed large parts of the Egyptian military’s equipment inventory as redundant and Soviet-era. Whereas the progress of, for example, the Chinese, Emi­rati or Australian militaries over the past three decades has been self-evident in terms of their modernisa­tion and competencies, it has been less easy to gauge the evolution of Egypt’s military power. Egypt, how­ever, may be staging a quiet come­back as a military force.

With 240 F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft, 46 AH-64D Apache attack helicopters, 30 C-130 Her­cules, nine E2C Hawkeye 2000 air­borne early warning and control aircraft, the Egyptian Air Force is comparable in size and strength to the Turkish Air Force, one of NATO’s most potent.

Possessing quantity and qual­ity, the Egyptian Air Force presents a formidable force with a growing punch. It is acquiring two squadrons of the latest French-made Rafale multirole fighter and will receive 50 MiG-29 fighters from Russia by 2020.

For its air defence, Egypt has the Russian S-300 system in service and may procure the more capable Russian-made Antey-2500 ballistic missile defence system.

The Egyptian Army remains one of the world’s largest. It operates more than 1,100 M1 Abrams main battle tanks — the US Army and Ma­rine Corps’ tank of choice — which has been produced locally under li­cence since 2005.

Egypt also operates more than 1,700 M60 Patton and 500 T-62 main battle tanks and is acquiring almost 800 Caiman mine-resistant ambush protection (MRAP) vehicles, as well as 800 RG-33 MRAPs from the Unit­ed States.

However, like with its air power, Egypt is not staying totally Ameri­can: Cairo will procure at least 500 units of the highly capable T-90 main battle tanks from Russia.

The Egyptian Navy has been un­dergoing significant equipment modernisation. In 2014, the Egyp­tian Navy inducted four US-made Ambassador MK III fast missile craft and ordered four 2,500-tonne French-made Gowind-class cor­vettes with an option for two more.

In 2015, the Egyptian Army re­ceived a Russian-made P-32 Molni­ya-class missile craft, one French-made FREMM multi-purpose frigate and two Mistral-class amphibious assault ship paid for by Saudi Arabia that will be equipped with Russian-made Ka-52 Alligator helicopters. This year, the Egyptian Navy induct­ed into service two of four German-made diesel-electric attack subma­rines based on the Type-209 design.

With these acquisitions Egypt has been modernising its forces with an approach that has clearly looked to new suppliers, notably Russia, but also France and Germany, to meet future capability requirements.

With its involvement in Libya and growing alignment with the Saudi-led bloc, despite its decision to not deploy ground troops to Yemen, Egypt may take on more responsi­bilities and more visible roles in coa­lition operations.

When it does so, it will become easier to judge how far the Egyptian military has evolved, not just with equipment but also with doctrine, concepts and operational delivery.

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