Lebanon News

Military assistance patches Army’s gaps

Lebanese soldiers check artillery that were unloaded from a ship at the port in Beirut, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Despite chronic gridlock throughout government institutions, experts, diplomats and former officers say that the Lebanese Army remains an effective fighting force – due largely to foreign military funding. U.S. Embassy officials in particular said that the Army’s status as a respected and professional national institution – which they said draws its members from across confessions and geographic communities – was a primary driver of military aid.

Over the past decade, the U.S. alone has provided over $1.5 billion in aid to the Army – including funding for weapons acquisition, counterterrorism, border security and training for soldiers and officers.

According to analysts, these trends in support were on track even before the war in Syria broke out in 2011. “U.S. aid started shifting after the Nahr al-Bared crisis in 2007,” Riad Kahwaji, the CEO of the Institute for Gulf and Near East Military Analysis, told The Daily Star. In 2007 fighting between Islamist extremists and the Army destroyed much of the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon.

During and just after the period of Syrian hegemony that ended in 2005, foreign aid to the country’s security forces had been limited. “The LAF was in a difficult state,” said David Schenker, a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

This came to a head during the three months of brutal fighting in the Palestinian camp.

“The battle should have lasted two weeks – not three months,” said Gen. Elias Farhat, a retired Army general who was on active duty at the time. “But it dragged on because of our poor equipment.”

This battle sparked a significant increase in aid to Lebanon, said Schenker, at the time a U.S. Defense Department official. So dire were the Army’s basic needs, Schenker said that “we basically flew in C-17 [transport aircraft] filled to the brim with ammunition.”

The 2011 start to the war in Syria, however, further altered both Lebanese and international military strategy in the region.

U.S. planners began to see Lebanon as a bulwark against spillover from violence in Syria and the spread of militant groups like Daesh (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda affiliates.

“The situation dramatically changed once terrorist groups emerged in the country,” Farhat said.

Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, described current U.S. strategy as an attempt to form a “military shield,” around Syria that included Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

With the Army engaged in active fighting on the country’s northeastern borders against militants, U.S. military aid increased rapidly. “It just made sense given the expenditure rates,” Nerguizian said. “[The Army was] firing 65 artillery rounds a day” last year.

In short order, he said the rush of equipment meant the Army “went from not being able to fight for a week, to being able to fight for months without outside help.”

According to experts and diplomats, the current aid program is significant – delivering small arms, ammunition and armored vehicles, as well as high-tech drones and rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft.

“I would say the overall structure of military aid has been broadly unchanged in terms of its intent, pace and scale since 2011,” Nerguizian said. Kahwaji agreed. “After that point, we saw deliveries of M198s and M109s [artillery pieces] and self-propelled guns,” Kahwaji explained.

The Army recently received a Cessna AC-208B Combat Caravan fixed-wing attack aircraft equipped with hellfire missiles. U.S. Embassy officials also highlighted an upcoming delivery of six A-29 Super Tucano aircraft, designed for close air support.

“This will be the first time that the Air Force will receive new attack aircraft in a very long time,” Kahwaji said. “Airpower is one of the biggest gaps in the Army’s capabilities and a lot of attention has been paid to filling this gap.” This hardware is in addition to the considerable funds spent on training programs.

At first however, much of the equipment that the Army receives in foreign aid appears relatively out of date. Many tanks are armed with older 105mm cannons and the recently donated Cessna – a small, front propeller aircraft – barely appears stable enough to fire the powerful hellfire missile.

According to Nerguizian, however, all of this is part of a distinct acquisition strategy on the part of the Army to maximize resources. “There is a rationale to getting either used or secondhand equipment,” he told The Daily Star. “The aircraft they’ll be receiving are modern, but it isn’t a jet,” Nerguizian said, explaining that need and reality was more important that top-range hardware. “The reality is that going supersonic in a country like Lebanon will put you either over Syria or into the Mediterranean.”

The same rationale applies to armored vehicles, he said. “At the end of the day, the LAF is at most firing 40mm rounds at soft targets. They don’t need 120mm tank rounds,” he said, using an English acronym for the Army.

Nerguizian explained that the Army is searching for weapons platforms that effectively serve a broad set of purposes while simultaneously placing the smallest logistical and financial burden on the force. “It’s naturally going to be a mix of older systems – tanks from the 1950s, and then top-of-the line Barrett .50 caliber sniper systems.”

Despite the magnitude of foreign funding however, the military still has unfulfilled needs. Both Kahwaji and Farhat noted that advanced early warning systems and radar installations topped the list of Army procurement priorities. Nearly all of the Army’s naval radar stations were destroyed during the 2006 War with Israel, after the Jewish state claimed that Hezbollah tapped into one of its installations to fire a missile that nearly sank an Israeli patrol boat.

However, some problems in the Army’s procurement and acquisition systems go beyond the force itself. Over the past several years, political parties have been unable to pass plans or legislation that would support domestic military spending.

According to MP Bassem Shabb, a member of Parliament’s National Defense and Interior Committee, a national strategy was introduced to Parliament several years ago. “It was supposed to improve the different capacities of the LAF over five years through domestic spending,” he said. “But it didn’t happen because we had no [state] budget. Moreover, when the law was passed and came up for discussion, its [funding] was slashed by about 40 percent.”

Lebanon has not passed a state budget since 2005 due to deep political divisions.

But Shabb said that the cuts were purely fiscal and not influenced by the influx of foreign aid.

“I don’t think the reasoning was that sophisticated,” he said.

Nerguizian agreed, noting that nearly every political group has failed to sign significant domestic military spending increases. “You don’t have a set percentage of GDP for defense. You don’t have a set budget for acquisitions that reflect broader changes since the 2006 War or other LAF deployments around the country,” he said.

For average politicians, he said, there were simply other budget lines that they felt were more important.

It remains to be seen whether current budget negotiations will produce a concrete plan.

This situation leaves the Lebanese military theoretical open to cuts in funding – should international donors limit contributions. “This is why American aid is essential,” Shabb told The Daily Star.

It remains to be seen how the foreign aid limits proposed by the new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump will affect support for the Lebanese military. While Shabb said he was “concerned,” he said he had discussed this with authorities. He also added that he was confident that larger programs and projects – including the delivery of the A-29 Super Tucanos – would continue as planned. “Large procurement programs like that are not under threat,” he said.

Farhat also said he had confidence in the U.S. Defense Department. “The current Secretary of Defense [James Mattis] used to be the commander of U.S. Central Command,” he said, referencing the American military headquarters that covers much of the Middle East. “He understands the situation well, and has always been interested in providing aid to the LAF.”

U.S. Embassy officials were also sensitive to the concerns, but noted their confidence in the Army’s capabilities. “All we’re doing is supporting it and trying to give them more capabilities,” an official said. “[But] the success they’re having is something that they’ve done themselves.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 17, 2017, on page 3.

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