The nature of the next war between Israel and Egypt, if it happens

Commentary: Egypt and Israel have many reasons not to challenge one another on the battlefield. However, a confrontation might occur against the will of one of them or perhaps both of them. Therefore, the IDF must be prepared for a potential conflict 

An Israeli tank is seen after crossing back into Israel in August 2014 at the end of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. Photo: REUTERS/Baz Ratner

The security relations between Egypt and Israel are quite good, but this is not the case in terms of their economic, cultural and social ties because Egypt sticks to a cold peace. Furthermore, Egypt, despite its enormous economic hardships, pours money into building up its military. Egypt is not under a significant security threat from another country in the region. It has some friction with Turkey, such as over Libya, but this tension is unlikely to bring about an all-out war between them. They also don’t share a border, while Israel and Egypt do.

Under extremely severe circumstances, a conventional conflict might transpire between Israel and Egypt, even in a limited scope. Egypt is preparing its armed forces for the possibility of a war with Israel. For example, in May of this year, Egypt signed a contract to buy 30 advanced French Rafale fighters. It is meant to improve Egypt’s chances if it has to fight the powerful Israeli Air Force.

In a future conflict between Israel and Egypt, components from previous conflicts between the countries will bear significant weight. After all, the battles will once again take place in the Sinai. Even with all of the changes that have occurred in the past few decades in the Egyptian and Israeli militaries, part of the combat patterns from the 1948-1973 wars will remain relevant, while undergoing adaptation to the present reality. The goal of aerial superiority will remain a central component, and its achievement will make it possible to provide assistance to the various ground and naval forces, such as via bombings, transfer of supplies, and provision of intelligence. Bombings may be very efficient in an exposed expanse such as the Sinai, in which ground units will be vulnerable to attacks from the air, as was proven in 1967.

The Egyptian Air Force is rather strong, and possesses over 200 F-16 aircraft. The IDF may also find itself preoccupied with other fronts at the same time, including Iran and Hezbollah, and perhaps even campaigns against Hamas and Syria, which would disrupt its efforts to focus its aerial strength against Egypt.

In light of this, it is possible that neither side will benefit from total air superiority, at least during the first stage of the campaign between Israel and Egypt. Furthermore, the Egyptian antiaircraft capability may disrupt bombings of its forces. It should therefore be taken into consideration that it may not be possible to decide the campaign in Sinai through the sole use of fire from the air, requiring the use of fire from the ground. Thus, a ground campaign could develop with a mutual maneuver.

The operative goal of each side would be to destroy the enemy forces and push them out of the Sinai. This conflict will include components which the IDF has not experienced in battle since 1982, such as anti-tank combat and air attacks. Other components will be completely new, such as an Israeli corps dealing with an Egyptian corps. Furthermore, the Israeli Navy might battle the Egyptian Navy in the Red Sea and in the Mediterranean Sea for the first time since 1973. There is considerable room for various maneuvers in an open expanse such as the Sinai; however, a division maneuver, and certainly a larger maneuver at night, while colliding with the opponent, will serve as quite a challenge with regards to command, control, and intelligence.

If there is a war between Israel and Egypt, the use of thousands of advanced, similar U.S. weapon systems such as the F-16 and M-113 represent a unique component, compared to previous conflicts, and one which would increase the probability of "friendly fire." The Egyptian military might be more careful in designating certain areas of Sinai as "non-traversable" for AFVs, in light of its forlorn experience in this field, due to instances in which the IDF successfully utilized this to infiltrate between Egyptian lines such as in 1967. Both sides may also carry out vertical air outflanking, such as for the purpose of capturing a vital position, as the IDF did in 1956, or for positioning ambushes and obstructions such as the landing of Egyptian commando forces in 1973.

Israeli forces will have a relatively easy time penetrating the depth of Sinai in the absence of fortified Egyptian military areas, which is in contrast to the situations in 1956 and 1967, when the breaching of the Um Katef and Raffiah sectors was required. Unlike 1973, the Egyptian military will not be forced to overcome the obstacle of the Suez Canal when heading towards northern Sinai. Should the Egyptian military surprise Israeli forces with a rapid maneuver at the start of the conflict, the IDF will have to be ready to carry out counterattacks in order to halt or at least delay the Egyptian progression until the arrival of reserve units, as was the case at the start of the Yom Kippur War.

Each side will contemplate forward defense or defense in the depth of the Sinai. From a military perspective, Egypt would prefer to rely on the Gidi and Mitla passes in the Sinai or progress towards the Israeli border and withdraw when necessary while conducting depth defense, which necessitates a high level of maneuverability. However, it is possible, if only due to considerations of pride and national honor, that the Egyptian military will receive an order to prevent the IDF from achieving any ground-based achievement, meaning that it will use forward defense close to the border with Israel. This approach may prove costly to Egypt, as in 1956 and 1967, not to mention that the Egyptian military will not have infrastructure at its disposal in northern Sinai, as it did in 1956 and 1967.

The IDF could face a similar dilemma in the depth of Sinai. If the fighting continues, even in the framework of attrition, an Israeli military presence at the heart of the Sinai will result in the establishment of infrastructure like that in the late 1960s. The gradual transition of IDF bases to the Negev, which is strengthening the layout that currently exists there vis-à-vis Egypt, will also assist in an Israeli deployment in the Sinai. Another option at the IDF's disposal would be to maneuver across the peninsula or to stay in the Negev and burst into the Sinai solely for the sake of raids. This means entrance into the Sinai for the purpose of maximal destruction of an Egyptian force, followed by a withdrawal back into the Negev.

The variety of challenges faced by the IDF, should a conflict occur only with Egypt, necessitates manpower qualification. Despite the Israeli soldier’s capability to adapt to changing circumstances, it would not be enough, primarily in light of his focus on fighting guerilla warfare and terrorism in recent decades, rather than fighting a conventional military.

All in all, Egypt and Israel have many reasons not to challenge one another on the battlefield. However, a confrontation might occur against the will of one of the countries or perhaps both of them. Therefore, the IDF must be prepared for a potential conflict with Egypt. While preparing for the possibility of combat on other fronts, primarily against Hezbollah, the IDF's conventional combat capability should also be nurtured.


Dr. Ehud Eilam has been dealing with and studying Israel’s national security for more than 25 years. He served in the Israeli military and later on he worked for the Israeli Ministry of Defense as a researcher. He has a Ph.D and has published six books in the U.S./U.K. His latest book is Containment in the Middle East (University Press of Nebraska, 2019).

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