Correction: A misquote of Ofir Winter has been corrected to describe “the Israeli legitimate fear that some in Egypt still perceive Israel as an enemy.”
JERUSALEM — For a country that is in economic chaos and lacks a state enemy teeming at its border, the rapid buildup of Egypt’s military arsenal has raised eyebrows in Israel.
Egypt has acquired a long shopping list of arms over the years, and its amped-up arsenal has elicited more questions than answers among Israeli experts. The purchases — most of which occurred under Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — indicate an Egypt dedicated to returning to its former glory and declaring to the rest of the region that it is a force to be reckoned with.
Some items on the list with the most hefty price tags include the acquisition of 387 M1 Abrams tanks since 2010 as well as 762 mine-resistant, ambush-protected, armored trucks; a $1 billion deal for an S-300VM anti-aircraft system; and 50 Mikoyan MiG-29 twin-engine fighter jets in a $2 billion deal expected to be completed by 2020.
That is a partial list of items Egypt has recently obtained, according to a paper by Yagil Henkin, a military historian with the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.
“The problem with assessing Egypt’s military build-up is that people assume they know why Egypt is doing it. They built a very convenient explanation, but I don’t know the real answer. We should consider several factors,” he cautioned.
One obvious explanation is that Egypt wants to project a sense of power in a region of tumult. According to the commander of the Egyptian Navy, Adm. Osama Rabie, the shopping spree is intended to protect Egypt’s newfound natural gas resources and implement counterterrorism measures.
According to Henkin, however, that justification doesn’t hold water.
“This is quite surprising, to say the least, because it differs radically from concepts, such as the Israeli one, in which gas fields are protected by speedboats and anti-missile systems, and not by attack and reconnaissance helicopters flown from large, lightly armed helicopter carriers that are able to carry hundreds of their soldiers and land them on their enemies’ shores, all of which is not very relevant to protecting gas fields at sea,” Henkin wrote of Egypt’s new pair of French Mistral-class helicopter carriers.
Ofir Winter, a research fellow for the Institute for National Security Studies, said Egypt wants to become “a leading force in the Arab world.”
“Other explanations that I’ve heard is this need to boost the image of the regime — to ‘Make Egypt Great Again,’ ” he said, referring to U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign tagline “Make America Great Again.”
The third reason, Henkin suggested, could have vast geopolitical consequences for the region, if true: creating a safe haven for Russian deployment in the region.
The baseline for such a cooperation is already underway, with Russia signing a deal with Egypt in November to allow Russian military jets to use its bases and airspace.
“What Egypt has done is try to diversity its suppliers and is in effect going from being a client of American power back to being a great power on its own. It is going back to the days of [former President Gamal Abdel] Nasser [Hussein], who understood non-commitment may be a better solution,” Henkin explained.
Henkin said much has been learned from the failed Phalcon radar deal between its neighbor and China, where the United States nixed the deal at the 11th hour and backed Israel into a corner.
Egypt does not want to be beholden to a single supplier. And as such, the country purchased a diverse array of arms from France, China and the United States, as well as Russia.
The fourth and perhaps most worrisome explanation for Israelis is the possibility that a cold peace with Egypt may break out into a conflict down the line.
Both Henkin and Winter believe this is a far-fetched scenario, but one that cannot be dismissed.
“Of course there is the Israeli legitimate fear that some in Egypt still perceive Israel as an enemy. I can see why Israel has a certain fear regarding some of its purchases, even though I don’t think it’s possible for them to have any plans in the future to have a conflict with Israel,” Winter said.
“If there is a moment they are on our borders, that would be a moment to get concerned, and it will probably [be] too late. Now is a moment to get concerned,” Henkin warned.
“We allowed Egypt to put into Sinai more than is allowed in our peace agreement with them,” he said, citing Israel’s willingness to ignore clauses in the peace agreement that forbid mobilizing Egyptian troops for the joint goal of defeating the Islamic State group. “ISIS is a force to be reckoned with. The arms control clause in the peace agreement is now an empty shell, and that’s cause for concern.
“Taking all these delicate concerns into account, the upshot is that Israel must maintain basic capacity for mechanized warfare against modern armies. It must not assume the present situation, in which Israel had a crushing material military advantage against its enemies ... will remain the same against other possible adversaries.”
In any event, Egypt certainly isn’t trying to be discrete about its newfound military prowess. “Everybody who follows Egypt can notice this trend over the last years. They don’t hide it,” Winter said.