Will Egyptian army turn on Israel?
For almost 30 years, the Israeli government did not ask the IDF what it possesses vis-à-vis the Egyptian front, what it needs, how much time it will take to prepare, and how much it will cost. For some 30 years, the political leadership did not demand to see plans with timetables and priorities in case of a strategic revolution on the Egyptian front. For 30 years, the politicians – and also the army – stuck their heads in the sand, knowingly and deliberately degenerating our capabilities vis-à-vis the Egyptians.
Minimizing the military capabilities on this front can be explained as a natural, appropriate process and part of the fruit of peace. Following the Camp David Accords, the clear instructions were to avoid any activity that could be interpreted by the Egyptians as provocative and aggressive, including the gathering of intelligence. However, erasing the knowledge accumulated for years in respect to the Egyptian theater is unforgivable.
The loss of knowledge is not measured by huge budgets, brigades and planes. It's about people and work groups that preserve capabilities such as combat doctrines and intelligence information. This know-how is the basis for embarking on a military buildup, the day such order is given. Yet much time has passed since the days where the IDF was intimately familiar with Egyptian officers and every unit entering or leaving the Sinai.
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The Egyptian front is fundamentally different than all the fronts the IDF prepared to face in the past decades. The know-how and capabilities pertaining to the northern front can apparently only partially address the western front in the Sinai. If someone looks for a camouflage net fit for the desert, he won't find it in any IDF warehouse. Maybe only in the IDF museum. And this is just an example, of course.
Flawed doctrine?Only now, after Mubarak's fall, the Israeli government is starting to ask questions and ordering the army to do its homework, almost from scratch. As always, this is done late. How long will it take the army to rebuild the knowledge infrastructure? The answer is disputed. The optimists say it's a matter of months. The pessimists claim that the price of all these years of doing nothing will be heavier. Today the situation is also much more complex: Any Israeli activity meant to produce intelligence on Egypt will be interpreted as a provocation and encourage elements that want to annul the peace treaty.
The IDF Intelligence Branch clung to the perception of an orderly regime change in Egypt. This doctrine prevailed even on the eve of Mubarak's fall. This simplistic perception expected the Mubarak regime to hand over power to a group of senior security officials, headed by Omar Suleiman, which will in turn hand it over to Gamal Mubarak or another successor to be designated by the Egyptian ruler.
Mubarak's fall a surprise (Photo: AP)
Senior Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad and former Southern Command Chief Yoav Galant attempted to question this thesis. Both argued that the army, rather than Suleiman, will end up taking power, whether this is done in an orderly manner or not. However, the Intelligence Branch stuck to its guns.
Meanwhile, a conception emerged regarding the advance warning to Israel in case of a strategic change that will prompt the annulment of the peace treaty. This conception, even today, refers to a warning of years. First, Egypt is expected to be preoccupied with regime change and establishing the new leadership, and then, if and when, the Egyptian army will have to build itself for war.
Hence, all-out drills vis-à-vis the Western front were almost never held. The exercises that did take place were mostly administrative. All of them ultimately resulted in one clear and grim conclusion: As long as there's peace with Egypt there's no problem, yet if this peace ends, we certainly have a problem. Moreover, this problem will grow if Egypt is not our only front.
400 jets, 3,600 tanksBrigadier General (res.) Shlomo Brom, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, estimates that Israel has at least two years until a change is underway in Egypt. For the time being, the Egyptian army is in a defensive posture, it has no offensive plans pertaining to Israel, and it did not practice such plans. Moreover, Sinai is an ideal territory for the "new war," where Israel holds a clear advantage given its ability to quickly spot targets and eliminate them. Meanwhile, WikiLeaks quoted American military advisors to the Egyptian army who say it's built for a 1973-style war.
However, the changes in Egypt are so rapid that nobody can tell what will happen there tomorrow morning. Should the military rule maintain its grip on power, we may have some time. Should the army lose power in favor of a civilian rule, everything is possible.
Well-equipped army (Photo: AP)
Any attempt to portray the Egyptian army as a weak military is irresponsible. After all, it's one of the largest and most well-armed armies in the region. The Egyptian Air Force comprises more than 400 fighter jets and nearly 100 gunships. The Egyptian armored corps has some 3,600 tanks of different types, including advanced US Abrahams tanks manufactured in Egypt. The army also has a huge number of artillery guns, almost 1,600, and surface-to-surface missiles.
The basic premise in Israel is that should the peace treaties be annulled, the US Administration would stop supplying the Egyptian army, causing it to decay, as happened to Iran's armed forces after the Shah was ousted. It's a logical assumption but it's not set in stone. The knowledge Israel possesses regarding Egypt is so limited that predictions premised on these assumptions are shrouded in doubt.
Moreover, Western military experts who monitored the Egyptian army in recent years determined with certainty that the military buildup in Egypt aims to address one threat: The State of Israel. According to WikiLeaks, Amos Gilad complained to the Egyptians over maneuvers characterizing Israel as an enemy.
Government's crucial roleOne cannot blame the Egyptians for building their military force to face what they perceive as their most significant threat. The Libyans and Sudanese do not constitute a genuine threat. Moreover, the same Western experts say that over the years the Egyptian army restricted itself to defensive maneuvers. A shift to offensive plans, which includes crossing 300 kilometers of desert en route to Israel, requires a long process of acquisition, training, logistics, and operational plans. The experts say the Egyptians are not even close to this; let's hope the experts are right.
So when should we take a decision to revive military functions that were curbed following the peace treaty with Egypt? Terminating a division takes a year, but building one and making it operational is a process that may take years.
Brigadier General Brom argues that the State of Israel should not be taking any decision at this time that will require it to make huge investments in the Egyptian theater. However, he says that at this time already we should invest in renewed thinking, preparation of plans, and improvement of neglected intelligence capabilities.
At the same time, the very engagement in a possible clash with Egypt has a potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Incautious and disproportional activity vis-à-vis Egypt may prompt Cairo to see us as a real threat.
The IDF is still led by veterans of the Second Lebanon War, who displayed rather mediocre capabilities in preparing and utilizing our forces. Will these people be able to take the right decisions on time? If not, the government has a crucial role here: Pester the army and demand answers within a responsible time, to ensure we are not caught off guard again.
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