The British government is preparing a “substantial” new package of military assistance to the Lebanese Army to supplement its existing program, according to British diplomatic sources. The new package, which will triple in one year the British government’s total military assistance to the Lebanese Army since 2006, was the focus of discussions Friday between Army commander Gen. Jean Kahwagi and other top military officials and Gen. Sir David Richards, the British chief of the defense staff, who was on a visit to Beirut.The announcement, details of which have yet to be made public, comes two weeks after a 24-hour battle between Lebanese troops and followers of Sheikh Ahmad Assir, a radical Salafi preacher, in the Abra neighborhood of Sidon which highlighted the Army’s improvements and limitations.
“The [Lebanese Army] is playing a critical role in preserving Lebanon’s hard-won peace in the face of the present challenges arising from the conflict in Syria,” Richards said in a statement.
He also commended the professionalism demonstrated by the Army’s response to recent episodes of violence and its role in securing Lebanon’s borders.
Nonetheless, the new assistance package will focus on the Army’s ability to better control Lebanon’s notoriously porous border. It will emphasize “British specialization” and include non-lethal equipment such as protective material, surveillance and reconnaissance devices.
Last year, the British government provided the Army with five observation towers which were erected along a stretch of the northern border in Akkar between Abboudieh and Mqaibleh. The fifth and last tower at Abboudieh was completed Thursday.
Since 2006, the international community, led by the United States, Britain and France, has significantly increased its military and security assistance to the Army to build up its capabilities and last year, London said it would double its training programs.
Britain has spent approximately $7.7 million since 2006 in security assistance, according to diplomatic sources. The new assistance package will triple that amount to bring it closer to $21 million.
The program will “help build the capacity and increase the number and reach of the border regiments,” the diplomatic source said.
Analysts and foreign military sources in Lebanon say the Army has seen marked improvements in its capabilities since 2007 when many of the military’s training and equipment deficiencies were exposed during the three-month battle against Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in the north.
Although much of the initial foreign training assistance after 2006 was devoted toward Special Forces regiments, in particular the Rangers Regiment, the Air Assault Regiment and the Naval Commandos, today the Intervention Brigades and the Mechanized Infantry Brigades also have seen improvements in equipment and training.
The training is intended to eventually allow the Intervention Brigades and regular forces to handle flare-ups such as Abra or repeated clashes in Tripoli rather than having to deploy Special Forces troops every time.
The Abra battle was another step on the learning curve. Initial assessments of the Army’s performance, specifically the Rangers Regiment which led the assault, note evidence of a general improvement in tactics and training and utilization of new equipment. But there were shortcomings as well. The majority of the Army’s 18 fatalities were from sniper fire.
“The [Army] was relatively effective in using its own snipers but they really have a weakness in terms of counter-sniper [fire] and getting a realistic sense of where the dead zones and blind spots are,” said Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a specialist on the Lebanese Army.
Given that sniper fire is a common phenomenon in urban clashes here, Nerguizian said the international community could help by providing technical systems for counter-sniper operations.
Another shortcoming was the lack of use of the Raven Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, a small man-portable drone that is intended to provide real-time footage to troops on the battlefield. According to Nerguizian, who wrapped up Friday a fact-finding trip to Lebanon, the Army argued that the loitering time of the Raven was much less than the manufacturer’s claim of 90 to 120 minutes and therefore impractical to use.
Another lesson learned from the Abra fighting was that the soldiers preferred to use the RPG-7 anti-tank weapon rather than the United States-supplied AT4, a Swedish-manufactured one-shot disposable missile system. The soldiers were more familiar with the RPG, and its smaller blast radius compared to the AT4 helped reduce collateral damage. Furthermore, an RPG operator has a weight-to-round advantage over the AT4 as he can carry one launcher and fill his backpack with individual rounds. The AT4 is a one-shot disposable system which limits how many an operator can carry.
The recent battle between the Rangers Regiment and Assir’s followers should help the Army address its lingering shortcomings and better face the challenges ahead as Lebanon continues to be buffeted by the war in neighboring Syria.