Major Military Factors in a Future Conventional Confrontation, Israel and Egypt as a Case in Point

There are several possible scenarios for Israel's next war. In recent years it has seemed that Israel's future war would be against Iran and possibly Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah. However, sometimes a war flares up where it is least expected, as one that might occur between Israel and Egypt.

A collision between Israel and Egypt could happen after the era of Hosni Mubarak. The "Muslim Brothers" could increase their influence in Egypt and maybe even take over the country. This alone could jeopardize the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. A new Egyptian regime, if only to divert the attention of the public from internal problems, might deploy forces in the north of Sinai as part of demonstrating its sovereignty in the entire peninsula. This would create a severe crisis between Egypt and Israel that might end in a war, since the demilitarization of Sinai – a certain future main battlefield – is an essential condition of the peace treaty.

In such a war several major military factors would come into play. Each of them would be analyzed separately in order to highlight its importance. The focus would be on lessons learned from the 1948-1973 Arab – Israeli wars, in particular on the Egyptian front. Although almost four decades later, we would have the same sides on the same ground, conducting land, air and sea maneuvers that would resemble those of the 1948-1973 wars, as this article will show. Naturally, military technology, weapon systems etc. have improved dramatically but the fundamental rules of conventional warfare that existed in the wars between Israel and Egypt from the 40' to the 70' would not change, i.e. the way the Israeli and Egyptian armies would maneuver and operate against each other in the wide open area of Sinai would basically be as it was in their past wars.

The armies of Israel and Egypt would be based on the fighter – bombers and armored vehicles such as the tank. Those weapon systems would be the decisive tools in the clashes.

Gaining air superiorityin specific sectors like Sinai, for example, would be essential. This goal could be achieved by attacking the enemy's air fields as the Israeli air force did in 1967 although air defense and underground hangers would make it more difficult now. The purpose would be to destroy or at least to confine enemy planes to their bases, thus preventing them from participating in the fight in other sectors.
Since both air forces rely on planes that intercept or bomb, any plane that would be busy protecting its air fields in the rear, as was the Egyptian air force during most of the 1973 war, would not bomb ground units on the front line.

Another way to dominate the skies would be to shoot down planes in massive scale, but this tactic needs more time compared with annihilating them on the ground in their air fields, and also requires the enemy to send its fighters to battle. The latter can be forced upon the adversary just like the crossing of the Suez Canal by the IDF in the 1973 war pushed the Egyptian air force to try to destroy the Israeli bridgehead, an effort that cost them many planes. In a future war this could happen again, for example if the IDF tries to seize a vital spot such as a crossroad or the passes in Sinai, prompting Egypt to send her planes to bomb the Israeli ground units, and enabling the IAF to intercept them. This emphasizes the importance of wining air to air combat, which means that the side finding out during the war or even assuming in advance that its air force is inferior in this area, might try an all out attack on the air fields of the other side as a last alternative.
Air – ground attacks could be crucial, particularly in an open area like Sinai, as was proved in the 1967 showdown. The complexity and risks of close air support might push both sides to rely more on bombing the land units before they reach the front line. This was done by Israeli planes in the 1956 war. Other aspects of air warfare would be air - sea operations, delivering supply and equipment and maybe also strategic bombardment on the rear as Israel did in Egypt during the war of attrition in the late 60'.

In the land campaign there would be massive collisions between hundreds of armored vehicles as tanks, artillery, combat engineer and those of the infantry as occurred in past wars such as the 1973 showdown.

One of the intriguing issues of a possible future war between Israel and Egypt would involve implementing defense in depth, or forward defense in Sinai. During the early stages of a conflict, Israeli and / or Egyptian forces might penetrate deep into the demilitarized Sinai. It is possible that unlike the 1956 and 1967 wars there will not be a fast decision early in the campaign. In this situation an army that advances 100 - 150 kilometers into Sinai and then faces a very stiff resistance would have a dilemma: adopting forward defense which demands deployment far from his bases while fighting a fully functional army whose supply lines are much shorter, or choosing defense in depth, i.e. giving up ground until an opportunity enables launching a counter attack.

In the battles in Sinai there would be several vital operational factors. There could be a collision between Israeli and Egyptian units in the magnitude of a corps which would be a huge challenge as far as command and control. Another factor would be the ratio between the sizes of the forces to that of the battlefield. Yet, in a vast area as that of Sinai, there would be enough space to maneuver. There would also be vertical flanking for all kinds of aims: laying down ambushes as Egypt did in the 1973 showdown, launching raids as Israel did in the attrition war in the late 60' and capturing key posts like crossroads as Israel did in the 1956 war.

One of the unique challenges of a future war between Israel and Egypt, compared to former wars, would be the implications of assimilating similar weapon systems by both sides, such as F- 16, AH - 64 and M- 113, which would increase the risk of "friendly fire" and would help to deceive the foe. For example ground units would find it a challenge to identify, particularly in low visibility, if F- 16 that approaches them is coming to assist them or to attack them or their friends in that sector.

Another new and important factor is that neither side would enjoy having military infrastructure such as fortified posts in all of Sinai. While in the 1948-1949, 1956 and 1967 wars Egypt had possession of the Sinai as Israel did in the 1973 showdown, in the next war most of the peninsula would be basically empty of military infrastructure. Therefore both armies, particularly if the war goes on, would build all kinds of camps while trying to exploit the current infrastructure in Sinai, including the civilian one.

A fierce struggle to control sea routes in the Mediterranean could break out. Israel might have a problem because its navy lacks naval aviation that could cope with Egyptian planes carrying long range air to sea missiles. Another fight could occur in the Red Sea and on the Sinai shores particularly during amphibian assaults.

As in past wars the ability to adjust to changing circumstances in combat would be crucial. For Israeli soldiers, who have been used for more than 20 years now to deal with guerrilla and terror in mostly urban and populated areas, Sinai would be a different theater of operation. In the battles in the mostly open area of Sinai few citizens would be involved, making it easier for the Israeli troops, who would not have to take into consideration the need to avoid harming the population, a problem that existed during the clashes with the Palestinians. On the other hand, similar to the Egyptian army and in contrast to past wars, there would be relatively few Israeli troops having had experience in conventional warfare. In addition, the motivation of each side would probably increase the closer its troops were to their country's centers of population, like it was with the Egyptian troops in the 1973 showdown.

All in all a war between Israel and Egypt would include many familiar factors from past wars. But since neither the Israeli or Egyptian army has been tested in combat against a conventional army since 1991, running land, air and sea operations on vast scales against such an army would be a demanding task. Furthermore there would be new factors as well, such as the demilitarizing of most of Sinai from military infrastructure and the similarity in weapon systems. Defense in depth or forward defense in Sinai would also be an important issue.

This brief summary is based on an extensive research of Ehud Eilam, who has been working on it for several years as a personal project. The research is based on books, articles and hundreds of unclassified documents from the IDF Archives and Israeli State Archives from the 50' to the 70', all of them open to the public. The research adheres to academic standards and currently has about 65,000 words in Hebrew, not including about a thousand footnotes.


**This article was first published on the website of the Zvi Meitar Institute for Land Warfare Studies, Latrun

Ehud Eilam resides in the DC area. For questions and comments to Ehud
please write to: [email protected]