Egypt and Israel's Changing Defense Strategy

For 30 years now, Israel's peace treaty with Egypt has afforded the IDF (Israel's Defense Forces) the ability to build-up its forces, with little consideration of developments on its southwest border. Since the "cold peace" between both countries was established in 1979, Egypt's ability to confront Israel, militarily, has been neutralized. The IDF has not had to divert major resources to Israel's southern front, nor focus much attention on the de-militarized zone in the Sinai. 

According to outgoing IDF Chief of General Staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who gave a keynote address at the Israeli Herzliya Conference on February 7, 2011, Israel's defense strategies are now going through a process of change. The current uprising in Egypt came as a surprise to the IDF leader, but also to his counterpart in Egypt. Ashkenazi claimed that in the midst of regional tensions occurring with Arabs and non-Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites, and radicals and moderates, Israel was finding itself in the middle of a new reality.

"In general, the reality that is developing around us, we can view as an opportunity. It is a greater strategic and defense challenge to Israel. There has been a strengthening of the radical camp," Ashkenazi acknowledged.

Speaking about situations beyond Egypt, he said, "Iran is behind the financing, arming, training, and equipping of most of the terror organizations, not only in our region."  Ashkenazi sees a weakening of the moderate camps of the traditional Arab leadership in the Middle East, including a waning of American strength in the region.

The IDF is reassessing its military doctrine in view of recent events in Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan. Israel's military is looking to strengthen the nation's assets, hoping to get the West to acknowledge Israel as an island of stability in an increasingly hostile hotbed of radical Islam.

Recently, Israeli analysts estimated that the IDF would now have to stretch its resources to the limit, looking not only to defend the tiny Jewish state against Iranian proxy, Hezb'allah in the north; and Hamas in the south; but, also against an unstable Egyptian regime. The Israeli government is concerned that Egypt may lose control over terrorist groups trying to operate along its long porous border with Israel.

Already, a gas pipeline recently exploded in Egypt, possibly due to a terrorist attack, cutting off gas supplies to Israel and Jordan. In order to stop Bedouin forces from igniting terror in the south, Israel agreed last week to allow 800 Egyptian forces into the Sinai, in violation of the peace treaty.  Now, the Egyptian government has asked to expand that number, but Israel has refused, citing its desire to not re-open the peace agreement during the current state of upheaval. 

For years, IDF generals have expressed concern over Egyptian military exercises conducted near Israel's border. Israeli military officers have acknowledged their frustrations with Egypt's expanding defense capabilities, helped along by U.S. military aid totaling $1.3-1.5 billion each year since 1979.  America has made good on its promise to supply Egypt with advanced military equipment as a result of Egypt's continued willingness to keep the peace with Israel.

As events unfold in Egypt, and the likelihood that the Moslem Brotherhood will have greater influence in any future Egyptian government, the 30 year peace treaty is already being questioned by Egyptians.  The IDF is preparing for a worst-case scenario, which could include an outbreak of war on two fronts at once -- something the IDF has not had to consider since the Yom Kippur War of 1973. 

"I belong to the generation of the Yom Kippur War. The battlefields in the past were distant and sophisticated, and we paid the price of war there; the loss of territory. We would lose part of the country, and the same was true in the south," Ashkenazi said, reflecting on the changes today because of the emergence of new radical groups. He talked of the need to fight on more than one front in the future. "The main change for us is on an operational and technical level," he explained. 

The IDF will now try to figure out how to build up its forces according to a different set of parameters which are far-reaching.  This not only includes Egypt, but the increased threat from Iran and other rogue states. Israel is preparing for sub-conventional, conventional, and non-conventional warfare. 

Ashkenazi talked about fighting a different kind of war. "Today, you don't see divisions. It is a hybrid enemy.  They are hiding in the nature reserves and among the civilian population. The war is occurring above your head in the depth of the home front. We were always told to move the war away from the civilian population. But, now the largest proportion of the fighting is on the home front," he acknowledged.

Israel's defense budget has been based on how many fighter jets, tanks, armored personnel and IDF reservists are needed to contend with threats coming from Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza, as well as internally, from the Palestinians.  The IDF's current resources are not built-up enough for it to deal with the possibility of Egypt as a new "live" front. Israel will have to increase its defense spending, considerably, to defend the home front in the future. To make matters worse, this comes at a time when American foreign aid to Israel and other countries is being re-evaluated by the new U.S. Congress. It could mean an eventual decrease in U.S. military aid to Israel.

The IDF cannot afford to wait on the outcome of future U.S. financial help in order to boost its defense forces. It has to prepare now for the current shift in the Middle East, which has become a strategic warning to the Jewish State. Therefore, the IDF is developing a multilevel defense strategy, which includes the refining and operational use of its own anti-missile defense systems.  Israel faces a serious future missile war, as its enemies obtain advanced missile capability.

Ashkenazi admitted that Israel is concerned about a situation where there is inadequate mobilization of the civilian population while missiles begin to fall throughout the country affecting the entire home front. "We must prepare and defend strategic centers and population centers, to realize our military might and strategic ability. This war of missiles will grow," he explained referring to the capabilities of Hamas in the south, Hezb'allah and Syria in the north, and Iran.

Israel needs an active defense that allows the IDF to operate efficiently and effectively.  "As part of our concept of security, our ability to cope with war is still there. It's not enough to try and solve everything in using our fire power. I wish we could do it. What we need is a strong ability to maneuver on the ground, as well."

The IDF has a large weapons arsenal but needs strong military intelligence in order to accurately hit enemy targets. Israeli military officers are focusing their attention on intelligence gathering and high level training for their troops in order to be ready for low intensity conflict, as well as all out war. 

No matter what the outcome of events in Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan, the IDF will need to reassess its military capabilities in lieu of the current facts on the ground. Those defense experts involved in writing Israel's military doctrine will be going back to the drawing board soon. They will evaluate how to effectively keep the deterrence in place on Israel's southern border with or without an effective Egyptian peace treaty.

According to MK Maj. Gen. (res.) Matan Vilnai, a leader in Israel's Ministry of Defense, who also referred to the IDF's challenges at the Herzliya Conference, "The strategic environment surrounding Israel is becoming less and less stable." Vilnai believes there has been a global change in the nature of wars. "Most people cannot understand the meaning of this change. We are now in a third world war," Vilnai proclaimed.  He sees a weakening of the whole free world along with the development of a Beirut/Damascus/Tehran axis of evil.

As many experts in Herzliya attested to, the greatest threat to the region is Iran: its goal to obtain a nuclear weapon, its advanced ballistic missile capability, and its growing terrorist alliances towards regional hegemony. Now, Iran may take advantage of the instability in Egypt and try to turn the country into another Gaza, using the Moslem Brotherhood behind the scenes to radicalize the nation.

Reaching out to its natural allies, the Moslem Brotherhood may help prepare the Egyptians, while Hamas prepares the Gazans, for another war with Israel. 

The sooner the IDF can overhaul its current military strategy to meet future threats, the more secure Israelis will feel as they recognize increased danger to their security on all fronts.  Some Israelis say that these new challenges to the Jewish State are the most serious since 1948, as Israel faces the possibility of a future multi-front war against overwhelming odds.

At the Herzliya Conference it became evident that the IDF is seeking new partnerships in the free world; those who will stand by Israel's side during future times of great uncertainty in the Middle East region.

C Hart is a news analyst reporting on political, diplomatic, and military issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East and the international community.