Egypt Seeks to Beef Up Military Might, Maintain Its Leading Role in the Arab World

AS Mideast nations clamor to improve their arsenals, Egypt, too, is joining in the arms bazaar. Egypt has asked the United States for more F-16 warplanes, tanks, armed personnel carriers, artillery, and helicopters. It is to receive 46 Turkish-built F-16s in 1993, and Apache attack helicopters and Hellfire missiles from the US.

Major Arab force

With the destruction of Iraq's military infrastructure, Egypt arguably has the strongest armed forces in the Arab world: the largest number of troops (450,000 men); the experience of four wars with Israel; and large amounts of weapons and training received from the US.

In order to maintain its strength, Egypt wants to update old Soviet equipment it purchased from the mid-1950s until the 1973 war with Israel. Sixty percent of Egypt's weaponry needs to be modernized, according to Lt. Gen. Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister.

``The Gulf war taught Egypt a lesson that there is and will be a high probability of military aggression taking place in the Middle East,'' a Western diplomat says.

Western and military sources confirm recent press reports that Cairo is exploring the development of Soviet-designed ground-to-ground Scud missiles and mobile launchers. An Egyptian military source with connections to the Defense Ministry concedes that Cairo may be modifying existing models. Egypt has had Scud missiles with a 200-mile range since the 1973 war, when it used three of them against Israel.

Missile development is not new to Cairo. In the mid-1980s, with help from Argentina and Iraq, it tried secretly to build the Condor-3 missile with a range of 600 miles. But under pressure from the US, Egypt ended its participation in the joint venture.

A Western source suggested that Cairo may even be in touch with the North Koreans to purchase more Scuds. It is unclear, however, where the government would get the money to pay for them given its severely depressed economy and lack of hard currency.

President Bush's May 29 arms control initiative, aimed at halting sales of surface-to-surface ballistic missiles and limiting the development of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, may well put a damper on Egypt's plans of developing an improved Scud missile.

Getting help to pay for arms

During US Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney's visit to the region in late May, he confirmed that the US would continue to assist with Cairo's security needs. The US wants ``Egypt to have strong forces capable of repelling aggression whenever necessary,'' Mr. Cheney said.

Egypt receives $1.3 billion a year in US military aid. In addition, the US last year forgave Cairo's $6.7 billion military debt and persuaded other Western creditors to forgive about $10 billion of Egypt's $20.1 billion foreign debt.

As one Western official puts it, after these efforts Washington no longer feels beholden to Cairo and is unlikely to increase aid. Therefore, Egypt is now looking toward the Gulf states to provide some sort of funding or aid in return for its expected role in a regional security arrangement.

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