How powerful is Egypt’s military?
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.