Does Egypt really have a stronger military than Turkey?
(Refiles to correct typos)
Egypt is now a stronger military power than its rival Turkey, according to the 2020 Military Strength Ranking. The new ranking is significant since it comes at a time when Turkey and Egypt are at loggerheads over a Turkish-Libya maritime deal, Turkey’s gas drilling off the coast of Cyprus, and the ongoing conflict in Libya.
According to the ranking, which utilises more than 50 individual factors to estimate a nation’s military strength, Egypt has leapfrogged Turkey by advancing three places since last year, becoming the ninth most powerful military ahead of Turkey, which has dropped from ninth to 11th place.
Egypt and Turkey both have very powerful militaries by regional standards.
“The Military Strength Ranking is a nice point of reference, but I personally don’t think it should be taken at face value,” said Oded Berkowitz, the deputy director of intelligence at MAX Security, an Israel-based security intelligence firm.
“Like any kind of index or report on a very broad scale, it inherently misses much of the nuances,” he said. “This is not just with regards to Turkey versus Egypt, but throughout the list.”
Berkowitz believes it is difficult to make such assessments since various factors can change on “a case by case basis depending on the relevant country, the geopolitical situation at the time, other actors that are involved, and so forth.”
It is in this context that he sees the present situation in Libya, where Egypt and Turkey support opposite sides of the conflict, as unique.
In Libya, Turkey is giving direct military support to the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and Egypt is one of the backers of the Libyan National Army (LNA) headquartered in the eastern city of Tobruk.
“Egypt and Turkey were both covertly, to an extent, supporting opposing sides in the conflict for years, until recently when Turkey perceived its side, and interests, as under high threat, which along with other factors, brought it to officially start a direct military intervention,” Berkowitz said.
Since there are presently no similar factors in the conflict that could compel Egypt to take similar more direct measures, “the equation is an official direct military intervention (Turkey) versus indirect, covert military assistance (Egypt), which makes it naturally unbalanced,” he said.
Berkowitz also stressed that each theatre of conflict needed to be examined and assessed in its own specific context along with the broader geopolitical situation.
“For instance, Turkey right now is pretty stretched militarily as it’s involved in two conflicts outside of its borders (Syria and Libya) in addition to its continued domestic counter-militancy campaign against mainly Kurdish forces,” he said.
Consequently, Turkey’s capabilities to project military power beyond its borders is presently strained.
“Egypt also has limited capabilities to project power beyond its neighbouring countries, but is somewhat more free to do so, as its current military commitments are fewer,” he said.
Turkey and Egypt have been major rivals in the Middle East and North Africa since July 2013, when a military coup in Egypt deposed Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, who was supported by Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
After the coup, the army chief responsible for Morsi’s ousting, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was elected president of Egypt. Sisi, with the support of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, cracked down on the Brotherhood.
“Egypt certainly feels threatened, not just by Turkish support of the Muslim Brotherhood, but by Turkish regional ambitions, especially in the east Mediterranean and in Libya,” said Nervana Mahmoud, an independent commentator on Middle East issues.
“Egypt feels Turkey’s hands everywhere, from Erdoğan’s support for Hamas, to his ambitious expansion in Africa, to his open support of the government in western Libya,” she said.
Mahmoud said that in a region where most states were either failing or weak “the Egyptian leadership sees its military strength as its main line of defence against the regional ambitions of other Middle Eastern powers, particularly Turkey and Iran.”
Levent Özgül, an Ankara-based military analyst and founder of BlueMelange Consultancy, pointed out that both Turkey and Egypt “are strong military countries based on historically robust armed forces, military cultures and large populations.”
Turkey’s military, he said, was largely land-based with enormous fire-support capabilities, several drones, a huge helicopter fleet and high-level NATO-logistical standards – it remains the second-largest army in the alliance. Turkey also operates a fleet of warships armed with lethal anti-ship missiles, submarines, and an ageing air force which, nevertheless, maintains important support aircraft.
The Turkish military, he said, “mostly depends on land warfare and using old, but modernised, tanks and armoured vehicles along with Fırtına 155/52 howitzers and anti-tank missiles.”
Egypt, on the other hand, has substantially improved both its air force and navy with “rapid and aggressive modernisation efforts” in recent years with acquisitions from the United States, France, and Russia.
Cairo operates two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships it bought from France, while Turkey has not yet launched its upcoming flagship and first amphibious assault ship, the TCG Anadolu .
Özgül pointed out that Turkey had struggled to modernise its fleet of warships, adding only four new ships to its navy in the last 25 years.
However, its submarine programmes are very important for Turkey and the country has made big leaps forward in its submarine capabilities in the eastern Mediterranean,” Özgül said.
The Turkish Air Force also has not received any new fighter jets in the last 12 years.
Turkey’s armed forces are also “obsolete”, consisting of old U.S.-built M60 tanks and German-built Leopard 2A4s, the analyst said.
Egypt, on the other hand, possesses well over 1,000 U.S.-built M1A1 main battle tanks along with Russian-built T-90MS tanks, both of which are “much more modern than Turkey’s tank fleet,” Özgül said. Egypt operates U.S.-built Apache helicopter gunships, while Turkey operates less advanced, albeit modernised, U.S.-built Super Cobra attack helicopters.
Over the last few years, Egypt also substantially enlarged and improved its air force, primarily by acquiring advanced Dassault Rafale multirole jets from France and modern MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets from Russia.
Egypt, Özgül said, also has a “huge geographical advantage” over Turkey in the Mediterranean. Turkey’s air force is hugely constrained and incapable of carrying out combat air patrols over most of that sea, and especially not over Libya, given its limited aerial refuelling capabilities.
When it comes to establishing air superiority beyond its borders, Turkey also faces severe limitations. Its purchase of Russian S-400 air defence missiles resulted in the United States suspending sales of 100 F-35 advanced fighter jets that Turkey had ordered. This means it might not have any warplanes for the TCG Anadolu, which can only support jets with a vertical take-off capability.
Meanwhile, analysts say Turkey’s S-400s are likely only to be used for the defence of Ankara.
“There is no chance of Turkey deploying S-400s on its eastern Mediterranean coast due to severe NATO objections,” Özgül said, adding that Ankara’s four batteries were also negligible when it comes to the defence of Turkey’s entire airspace.
Egypt, on the other hand, has a far more extensive array of air defence missiles, most notably the advanced Russian-built S-300s and U.S. Patriots.
But domestically built Turkish missile systems need time, technology and a lot of money, before they become operational, Özgül said. “Therefore, Egypt’s air defence network is far more capable than Turkey’s,” he said.
Most of Turkey’s F-16s are not modernised. Some analysts have said that Turkey also lacked pilots to fly all of them as a result of the widespread military purges following the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. Its fifth-generation TF-X fighter project is also unlikely to get off the ground for the foreseeable future.
While both countries armed forces are very powerful, Egypt’s military may soon prove to be a highly formidable opponent of, and obstacle to, Turkey’s goals in the eastern Mediterranean, Libya, and beyond.
© Ahval English
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.