The Egyptian Military and the Arab-Israeli Military Balance

  • Feb 10, 2011

    As protests continue in Egypt, attention has increasingly focused on the Egyptian military to act as arbiter between the government and the people.   Recent statements by the Egyptian military indicate that it will play a prominent role in any transitional phase.  The Egyptian army is conscription-based, which many believe give it closer ties to the populace and makes it less likely to violently crack down on the protesters.  Regardless of the outcome of the current crisis, Egypt maintains one of the largest and most modern militaries in the Arab world, and could pose a significant threat to Israel were relations between the two states to worsen.

    Israel has a peace treaty with Egypt, and relations between the two nations have been relatively stable in recent years.    While a cancellation of the peace treaty with Israel seems unlikely at this point, a new regime in Egypt may not be nearly as friendly towards Israel as Mubarak’s government.  This report examines the military balance between Egypt and Israel, as well as the other Arab states in the region.  This report is available on the CSIS website at

    If forced to counter a threat from Egypt, Israel’s defense planning would be significantly complicated.  However, while publicly focusing on other threats, the Israeli military has never stopped developing contingency plans for the possibility of conflict with Egypt.  The Egyptian military, on the other hand, has not deployed or provided support structures tailored to meet the needs of confrontation or war with Israel. The Egyptian conventional military, despite its size and years of US aid, still remains far behind Israel’s in almost every respect, and by itself would stand little chance against the forces of Israel.  Egypt does, however, maintain a significant missile force, and may have chemical warheads for some of them.  Egypt may also have covert biological weapons designs.

    The Egyptian Army has shown remarkable restraint and professionalism thus far, due in part to years of US military assistance and training, which focuses on professionalism and respect for human rights.  The US has been giving this training and military aid to Egypt for decades, and Egypt has grown increasingly dependent upon it.  US military assistance totaled some $1.29 billion in 2008 – adding an addition 37.1% to Egypt’s $3.4 billion defense budget. It is unlikely that this trend will change, making US assistance all that more essential to Egypt’s long term plans for military procurement.

    Egypt’s holdings of modern weapons platforms are second only to Israel in the region (Turkey is not included in this analysis).  Egypt’s army maintains a modern mix of M-60 and M-1 tanks supported by national industry and facilities. Most of Egypt’s soviet era armor is held in storage or in reserve.

    Egypt maintains much larger numbers of combat aircraft than it can properly support – in effect, disarming by over-arming. As is the case with the Egyptian Army, Egypt maintains a substantial pool of low-grade and obsolete weapons platforms that do not serve any apparent military purpose. Furthermore, while Egypt continues to acquire growing numbers of F-16s, the air force has suffered from a steady number of crashed aircraft and poor systems integration.

    Egypt, Israel and Syria all have large numbers of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), but only the Israeli Air Force has truly modern medium and long-range systems, radars, and command and control facilities.

    Egypt and Syria may have chemical warheads for their Scud missiles, and it is possible they could have covert biological designs. It is unclear, however, that either country has advanced beyond unitary or relatively simple cluster warhead designs. Both countries have aircraft, and a potential capability to create drones or UCAVs for delivering chemical or biological weapons.

    Egypt has an unknown number of “Scud-Bs,” and at least 9-12 mobile TEL launchers. There are a number of reports that it has operational “Scud-Cs” that it produced using technology it obtained from North Korea. Reports indicate that the CIA detected Egyptian imports of “Scud-C” production technology in 1996.

    Egyptian and Jordanian commitments to peace with Israel have not stopped either country from maintaining significant fighting capability towards the end of the 1990s. Egypt and a number of other Arab states are making progress in improving manpower quality, but Egypt lacks recent combat experience and faces political and cultural problems that are compounded by a swollen and inflexible military bureaucracy and a garrison mentality.

    Egypt has maintained relatively consistent manning levels since the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace accord. While the Egyptian officer corps continues to benefit from U.S.-sponsored international training and military professionalization, overall manpower suffers from a continued reliance on conscription and the militarization of social welfare.

    Egypt continued to develop domestic military industrial capacity while remaining on a recapitalization path with no clear end state.  Egypt hopes to expand its holding of modern SP artillery in addition to both surface and air-launched ATGMs. It has also sought to develop and update its holdings of SHORADs by purchasing additional Avenger and Stringer missiles. Egypt has also moved to ramp up co-production of M1A1 tanks.

    Egypt cut its spending as a percentage of GNP in the early 1990s and that spending has been low ever since. From a peak of 13.7% of GDP in 1984, Egyptian defense spending has been cut significantly over time, reaching 2.4% of GDP by 2000 and then fluctuating between 2.1% and 3.9% over the 2000 to 2009 period.

    Egypt has become more dependent on US assistance than any other state in the region. US military assistance totaled some $1.29 billion in 2008 – adding an addition 37.1% to Egypt’s $3.4 billion defense budget. It is unlikely that this trend will change, making US assistance all that more essential to Egypt’s long term plans for military procurement.


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Anthony H. Cordesman