This week several countries met in Rome to support the Lebanese armed forces. This came not a moment too soon, at a time when the civil war in Syria as well as domestic security threats in Lebanonhave strained the capabilities of the military institution.
The institution’s newfound focus on counterterrorism, border control, and internal security has imposed a considerable financial and logistical burden on Lebanon. Though relatively small, the support of the United States remains vital to the armed forces. While the Saudi gift of $3 billion has offered expanded capabilities, it will do little to alleviate the logistical burden of maintaining the army’s mainly American weapons systems.
The most cost-effective way of enhancing the armed forces’ capabilities, given Beirut’s limited financial resources, is developing a close partnership with a friendly country whose armed forces have similar training and weapon systems. Egypt stands out as such a country. Closer examination reveals a broad commonality between the Lebanese and Egyptian armed forces.
Not only does Egypt have American equipment ranging from M60 main battle tanks to M113 armored personnel carriers, Humvees, and trucks, it has various Russian weapon systems, such as field artillery and 122 mm rocket launchers, as well. The Egyptian defense industry produces a wide range of weapons systems as well as ammunition and spare parts for a fraction of the cost of their Western counterparts. For example, Egypt was a main Arab arms supplier to Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war during the 1980s, providing technical assistance and the massive firepower necessary to repulse Iranian infantry attacks.
Some of Lebanon’s ordnance, such as the type used by the 105 mm gun of the upgraded M48 and the M60A3, may only be available in Egypt. During the fighting in Nahr al-Bared in 2007 the Lebanese Army received such ordnance from Egypt.
Additionally, the Egyptians have upgraded the M113 to an infantry combat vehicle with a 25 mm gun turret and improved armor. The Lebanese Army has 16 similar ex-Belgian M113 variants in service with the airborne regiment. In recent clashes in Tripoli these vehicles proved superior to the regular M113s armed with .50 caliber machine guns. It is worth recalling that several of the army’s casualties in the fighting in Sidon last year came from head injuries sustained while firing the M113’s poorly protected machine guns. The VBCI eight-wheeled vehicle proposed by France to the Lebanese Army has similar firepower, but comes with a much higher price tag.
Should the need arise, the Egyptian Air Force also has a large fleet of C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. These can deliver ammunition, spare parts and, if necessary, troops to semi-prepared airstrips and small runways such as the one in Hamat, along the coast of northern Lebanon.
The legal framework for such cooperation already exists within the context of the Arab League’s Common Defense Pact. Most important, both the Lebanese and Egyptian armed forces share similar training and doctrine. Egypt’s army is also well versed in servicing and assembling American hardware, which no other donor country can do.
Others factors, such as a common language, favor cooperation with Egypt, with English being the common technical language. In the 1990s only Arabic was used in the Syrian War College in Homs. This proved a major hindrance for Lebanese officers, who, on technical issues, were used to reading specifications and data in English.
Though U.S. support has been invaluable in developing the capabilities of the Lebanese armed forces, it is no substitute for a regional partner with a common language, heritage, and doctrine.
In his recent West Point speech, President Barack Obama stressed the need for U.S. cooperation with regional powers. Yet U.S. military assistance has not prevented Lebanon’s slide into Iran’s sphere of influence. Egypt, as a leading Arab nation and one in close proximity to Lebanon, is in a better position than the United States to counterbalance Iran’s ambitions through closer cooperation with the armed forces.
One area in which Egypt beats Iran hands down is in its maritime capabilities. The Egyptian Navy, with it’s relatively modern U.S. frigates, is fully capable of patrolling the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, including Lebanon’s extended economic zone, which is not far from Egypt’s. It is not inconceivable that Egypt may become a customer for Lebanon’s natural gas, which lies in that zone. Cooperating with Egypt on the matter would negate the need for Lebanon to deploy small vessels that would add little in monitoring the EEZ and would only serve to divert scarce resources better allocated elsewhere.
While the planned acquisition of three 40-meter patrol boats under the Saudi-financed French plan would enhance the seagoing capabilities of Lebanon’s navy, such vessels would remain severely restricted in terms of electronics and firepower and would be unable to adequately patrol the EEZ.
To complicate matters, Lebanon has no maritime surveillance aircraft nor any credible maritime search and rescue capability. Cooperating with Egypt would provide such support rapidly and at great savings. The cooperation would, additionally, be welcomed by Saudi Arabia, which may find it politically and financially expedient in its support for Lebanon’s armed forces.
Moreover, Egypt’s opposition to radical Islamic factions would make any cooperation with the Lebanese armed forces politically acceptable to both moderate Sunnis and Shiites. A comprehensive policy in support of the armed forces must include regional partners. Egypt should be at the top of the list.