By Riad Kahwaji
Amidst all the chaos the Lebanese arena has witnessed over the past few years, the one institution that is helping play a key role in keeping the country glued together is the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Despite the fact that the Lebanese government resigned nearly a year ago without being able to form a new cabinet and a parliament crippled by polarized debate over the economic situation all magnified by the huge influx of Syrian refugees streaming into the country from Syria, the LAF is managing to put out many fires that could set the whole country ablaze. Yet, the LAF finds itself today in a very challenging position as the Lebanese military is coping with a rising number of suicide attacks and inter-sectarian clashes without being sucked into the Syrian civil war and appears to not be taking sides with either the Sunnis or the Shiites. While the LAF is playing a strong active role in confronting extremist Sunni groups trying to move back and forth from Syria to support the rebels there, the Lebanese military has not done anything at all to stop the daily flow of hundreds of Hizbullah gunmen into Syria to back the regime forces there. Now with the Syrian sectarian civil war spilling over into Lebanon, the LAF faces its toughest challenge ever and with very little resources as the Lebanese military lacks the sufficient funds and equipment to cope with rising tasks.
Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta announced in a recent visit to Beirut on December 14 that his country, and in accordance with the recommendations made at the International Support Group for Lebanon meeting in New York last September, will host an international conference in 2014 to support the LAF. He pointed out that the conference will take place in Rome and will be done in close cooperation with the United Nations. Italy has a strong contingent of 1,466 troops serving with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFL) in south Lebanon. Italy is among the few European countries that provided the LAF with military aid over the past decade. In 2011 Italy donated to the LAF 16 Fiat CM-90 trucks and in 2010 about 63 IVECO utility vehicles and 24 ambulances and in previous years it donated various equipment such as night-vision goggles and riot gear. According to LAF sources Italy is expressing readiness to provide Puma 4X4 armored vehicles that are being gradually withdrawn from service in the Italian military.
Other European countries that provide military aid to Lebanon are Britain, France, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Germany. Russia and China are also providing some military assistance. Also some of the oil-rich Arab Gulf States provide military aid in the recent past, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But the lion’s share came from the United States that is providing millions of dollars-worth of annual military aid, although the volume varies in size from one year to another, nevertheless the flow is steady, especially since the Syrian military withdrew from Lebanon in 2005 ending a 29-year-long control of the country. However, the West is not being generous in providing the LAF with effective kinetic weapons. Most donations are in the form of vehicles, patrol boats, helicopters and support equipment. For example, a brand new 42-meter offshore patrol boat acquired through the American Foreign Military Fund (FMF) program remains without a principal weapon. The U.S. Congress is making it difficult for the American government to provide the LAF with any lethal weapons in order to appease the Israeli lobby, fearing that these weapons could fall into the hands of Hizbullah or extremist groups.
Although the Lebanese government passed a bill in 2012 endorsing the LAF’s five-year procurement plan worth one billion dollars, the Lebanese treasury does not have sufficient funds to execute the plan. Hence, the LAF is currently dependent on whatever aid the Lebanese military can receive from the international community. Simultaneously, the Lebanese treasury is hardly able to cover payments of salaries and benefits to the troops and officers of the nearly 60,000-man force. In order to identify what sort of aid the international community should pledge to the LAF in the coming Rome conference, one should first assess the threats the Lebanese military establishment faces today:
- The rising sectarian tension in the country, agitated by the Syrian civil war and Hizbullah’s involvement in the conflict there. Clashes between Sunni extremist groups and Alawite militias associated with Hizbullah and the Syrian regime are recurring in suburbs of Tripoli over the past year, and are highly-likely to break out again in the future. This violence could spread in the future with sporadic skirmishes between Hizbullah and Sunni groups in other cities such as Beirut and Sidon.
- Al-Qaeda affiliated groups are growing stronger in Lebanon with the influx of nearly one million Syrian refugees to the country, which already hosts nearly 400,000 Palestinian refugees. This number is significant compared to the Lebanon’s population of 4 million people. Even the predominantly moderate Lebanese Sunni community appears to becoming more prone to radicalization as a result of the intensive information warfare between the pro and anti-Syrian regime forces. This situation is being worsened by the political divide in the country between the Iranian-backed axis and the alliance led by Saudi Arabia. The LAF has come under increased attacks by Jihadist groups popping up in the country.
- The human trafficking of extremists across the sea and land borders, which is also associated with the Syrian civil war, is growing rapidly. The LAF needs to maintain control over a long sea stretch as well as land borders with Syria.
- UNIFL operations in south Lebanon require more support. In the past two years, the LAF withdrew several battalions from south Lebanon to carry out missions in northern and eastern Lebanon, also associated with the Syrian civil war and rising sectarian tension. The LAF’s obligation in supporting UNIFL operations are aimed at preventing the recurrence of war between Hizbullah and Israel. Several European countries have contributed troops to the peacekeeping force in Lebanon. More personnel are likely required.
- The growing requirements to patrol Lebanon’s economic zone to help protect the operations by international companies that are expected to start excavation work for considerable reserves of oil and gas believed to be in the area between Lebanon, Cyprus and Israel.
- International assistance is required to Lebanese security agencies to maintain peace and order in a politically troubled environment where criminal gangs are becoming heavily armed with light and medium weapons. The LAF is also called in some times to help in quelling riots sparked by socio-economic problems.
- The LAF needs help to protect the country against any foreign aggression, whether it is from Israel or any other foreign force, including Syria. This is of course the basic mission of the LAF.
Hence, in light of the above mentioned threats the main priority in LAF procurement plans should go to supporting counter-insurgency missions that are usually carried out by Special Forces regiments, supported by the infantry and air force. The LAF must be equipped to deal with road-side bomb attacks and suicide car bombs targeting its check points and convoys. Two of its checkpoints in Sidon were the target of suicide attacks earlier this week. Jihadist Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTP) found in the Syrian battlespace are migrating to Lebanon and therefore we should expect to see LAF face what the U.S. and Iraqi troops encountered in Iraq, such as roadside attacks using improvised explosive devices (IED) or suicide cars (VBEIDS) and the shelling of barracks by mortar or Katyusha rockets.
Therefore, the LAF needs more robust protected vehicles, especially armored cars, than what was supplied to it over the past few years such as the light-skinned Humvees and Land Rovers and M-113 armored personnel carriers (APC). Funds must be secured to help the LAF either provide a good number of its vehicles and APCs with effective armor that can withstand IED blasts and rocket propelled grenade attacks, or supply it with mine resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles. Also, the LAF must be enabled to equip many of its vehicles with remote controlled turrets (remote weapon systems –RWS).
The LAF is in dire need of advanced tactical communication systems that are secured to enable its troops to communicate without worrying about gunmen or Hizbullah eavesdropping on their conversations. The LAF relies now on civilian cell phones in many of its current operations to communicate with each other because whatever they possess now is old and obsolete or not secured and can be jammed.
The LAF also needs Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to enhance its intelligence gathering capability. The U.S. provided LAF in 2009 with a dozen RQ-11 Raven small tactical UAVs. But according to LAF sources, the drones are not proving to be reliable. He said the UAV can easily be overtaken by an adversary that can jam the frequency and take control of the drone. The U.S. also donated two Cessna Caravan reconnaissance planes to the LAF that are equipped to carry out surveillance missions day and night. These two assets are all what LAF owns for real aerial reconnaissance.
The LAF has ten Special Forces regiments, which number about 12,000 troops. However, not all of them are equally equipped with the proper gear needed in modern guerrilla warfare against battle-hardened extremists. These troops will spearhead most of the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency missions in Lebanon, and hence proper funds must be provided to ensure they all have night-vision googles, proper body armor, GPS systems and communication devices.
The LAF navy is poorly equipped, and has one vessel without a principal weapon that can patrol the economic zone. This is hardly sufficient to combat human trafficking and the smuggling of guns, and to protect future oil and gas rigs. The LAF must be enabled to build its naval capabilities swiftly.
LAF airpower is very weak. This branch of the Lebanese military needs urgent attention to give the land forces the air support they will need in counter-insurgency missions. Gazelle helicopters donated by the UAE a few years ago still lack sufficient fire control systems. France is promising to supply the LAF with HOT air-to-surface guided missiles, but has yet to deliver. So priority must be given to building the close ground support capabilities of the Lebanese Air Force, which does not have any fixed wing jets in service at the moment. Lebanon is trying to acquire a number of the British-built Hawk jets from a third party.
Thus, the LAF has many military and security requirements. Some quick and timely solutions must be found to fill the huge gap in Lebanese military capabilities. The anticipated Rome conference will hopefully look seriously into providing good solutions to LAF needs. But the LAF also needs some major political cover internally and externally to enable it to face up to the big challenges already mentioned above. The LAF will find itself caught in the crossfire between Sunni groups on one side and Shiite or Alawite groups on the other. The Lebanese military will be compelled to take action in a balanced manner. Casualties and collateral damage are possible in such scenarios. Thus, some precision weapons must be made available to the LAF.
A key question is how will the LAF deal with Hizbullah, a very well organized and heavily armed Shiite force in Lebanon, with respect to its military involvement in Syria? This is a perennial issue for the Lebanese authorities, especially the LAF, as they attempt to quell the rising influence of Sunni extremists in the country. Although this factor remains a very important detail that all internal, regional and international powers must contribute to solving, the major issue for now is to better prepare the LAF militarily to confront the new challenges threatening Lebanon’s unity and stability.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA