Street battles in Beirut’s Borj Abi Haidar neighborhood during August, as well as the border skirmish between Lebanese and Israeli forces that left three Lebanese and one Israeli dead, have highlighted the importance of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in maintaining stability in the country. But while Lebanese politicians talk about strengthening the LAF, most of them do not really want a strong national army. A strong LAF would mean empowered state institutions that, in turn, would weaken feudal political leaders who have been in power for decades. Lebanon’s current weak state institutions allow politicians to offer their supporters services such as medical care, education, and welfare support. Should the Lebanese ever decide they are serious about strengthening the LAF, their first steps should include formulating a real defense strategy and increasing spending on military procurement.
After the Lebanese civil war ended in 1991, Syria’s military played the central security role in the country and kept the LAF both nationally and internationally marginalized and away from international attention. Following the 2005 Syrian withdrawal, the LAF slowly began to rearm and equip itself as a fighting force. But with no domestic defense industry or real procurement budget, the LAF has had to largely rely on foreign donations. The United States and other outsiders became increasingly aware of the LAF’s needs after it ousted an al-Qaeda inspired group entrenched in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared in 2007. An underequipped, undertrained army was sent into an urban fighting environment. Commanders managed the battle via regular cell phones, and soldiers had little ammunition, no real air support, and limited intelligence. The LAF won the battle after three months, but it cost the lives of 169 soldiers.
This confrontation showed the international community the potential value of the LAF and highlighted the importance of a strong state capable of curtailing the growth and infiltration of violent extremist groups in Lebanon. But because of the continued state of war between Lebanon and Israel, most Western countries donated insufficient, secondhand, or technologically outdated military equipment. Since 2006, the United States has provided more than $600 million worth of vehicles, spare parts for aging aircraft, Howitzers, ammunition, light weapons, radios, and training. Substantial aid came also from the United Arab Emirates (Gazelle and Puma helicopters) and, to a much lesser extent, from Germany (coastal patrol boats), France (training), the U.K. (spare parts) and Belgium (armored transporters and ambulances). This support was much needed after decades of an undeclared international embargo on weapons to the LAF, but it was far from adequate in strengthening the military.
The LAF is often seen as a test case for institution building in Lebanon because it enjoys the support of the vast majority of Lebanese across the sectarian spectrum. But the lack of real political will is reflected, for example, in the “National Dialogue Table” talks, held every few months since 2006 with the stated aim of formulating a national defense strategy. Participants have used the talks as a debating club, putting forth superficial proposals chiefly for public consumption and failing to make any real contributions toward formulating a defense strategy.
Another sign of the lack of seriousness with which Lebanese leaders approach the LAF lies in the absence of a realistic procurement budget. Out of a $1 billion annual defense budget, more than $800 million goes towards salaries (including hundreds of generals and close to a thousand colonels) and only $30 million per year is allocated to procurement, most of it spent on spare parts and logistics. In comparison, defense budgets for Jordan and Syria for 2009 were respectively $2.3 billion and $2 billion. According to a study by the Center for Strategic International Studies, between 2005 and 2008 Jordan spent $1.6 billion and Syria $5 billion on equipment orders.
In the latest talks on creating a procurement budget, the minister of national defense announced in mid-August the establishment of a Central Bank account to which private citizens could donate money to support the army’s weapon procurements. But this idea was again a public relations exercise. Indeed, the account has not been opened yet because it should, by law, be opened by the cabinet, which the ministry did not consult before its announcement. Moreover, even if the donations account were to open soon, no country can realistically plan its military procurement budget based on charitable donations.
With no real defense strategy or a serious procurement budget, the LAF is pushed into a domestic security mission for which it is not prepared. Should it play that role effectively, it would clash with the multitude of local politicians protecting rogue armed supporters. The fact that it cannot ensures a weak military institution to the advantage of the same old established political elites, most of whom are former civil war warlords. This domestic role also comes at the expense of an external security role, in which the army would take over Hizbollah’s self-declared mission of protecting Lebanon against Israeli aggressions.
Real-world empowerment of the LAF would start by finding the right balance between foreign assistance and national spending in order to implement a comprehensive build-up and procurement plan. The army command has such a plan in hand, which would include infrastructure construction (barracks, airfield upgrades, etc.), operational main battle tanks, air-to-ground capable jetfighters (for air support against militias in scenarios similar to the LAF’s 2007 operation at the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp), short range anti-aircraft missiles, anti-tank missiles, transport and attack helicopters, naval landing craft, and other basic military development needs. The plan would cost more than $2 billion.
In the last few years, the LAF has found itself in a relatively stable national context for the first time since the 1970s, liberated from dominance by either Israel or Syria. The Lebanese military should seize this moment to do what has not yet been done in post-independence history: open dialogue channels with political leaders in order to persuade them to think and budget for long-term military development in Lebanon.
Nadim Hasbani is director of communications at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.