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Lebanese Ground Forces

The Lebanese Army is a national institution in a divided society. The bulk of the Lebanese Armed Forces strength lies in their ground forces and it is by far the largest of the three branches of the military. After the establishment of the League of Nations mandate over Lebanon in April 1920, France formed the Troupes Spéciales du Levant (Levantine Special Forces), which were composed of Lebanese and Syrian enlisted personnel but commanded predominantly by French officers. The percentage of Lebanese and Syrian officers in the force increased gradually and by 1945 approximately 90 percent of the officers in the Troupes Spéciales du Levant were Arabs.

During World War II, Lebanese troops fought effectively in Lebanon with the Vichy French forces against British and Free French forces. After the surrender of Vichy forces in the Middle East in July 1941, volunteers from the Troupes Spéciales du Levant were enlisted in the Free French forces and participated in combat in North Africa, Italy, and southern France.

In June 1943, the French reconstituted units of the Troupes Spéciales du Levant, which were then attached to the British forces in the Middle East. In 1945, as the result of continuing pressure by Lebanese leaders for control of their own forces, the French turned over to them the Lebanese units of the Troupes Spéciales du Levant. These units totaled about 3,000 men and became the nucleus of the Lebanese Army.

Following independence in 1945, the government of Lebanon intentionally kept its armed forces small and weak due to internal politicking and its unique nature identity politics. Christian politicians feared that Muslims might use the armed forces as a vehicle for seizing power in a military coup d'état. Furthermore the Christians appeared unwilling to incur the cost of maintaining a large standing army. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Lebanon never spent more than 4 percent of its gross national product on the military budget. Furthermore, many Christian Lebanese feared that a large army would inevitably embroil Lebanon in the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, Muslim politicians were also worried that a strong army could be used prejudicially against Muslim interests because it would be commanded by Christians. Interestingly, at the same time they tended to feel that the military should be strong enough to play a part in the Arab-Israeli struggle. Finally, prominent politicians of all religious denominations have also tended to be feudal warlords commanding their own private militias and fearing that a strong army would erode their personal power.

There are questions as to whether Lebanon needed to retain their stock of aging and difficult-to-maintain Soviet equipment, particularly the T-54/55 tanks as well as the aging M-48 tanks. The Lebanese wish list included anti-tank launchers, and 100 tanks that work well. Lebanon would seek equipment where available, with possibilities such as purchasing radar from Russia and upgrading the LAF's tanks via purchases from China or Russia. LAF would be well served with V-hulled wheeled vehicles in lieu of more heavy tracked vehicles (e.g. M113 personnel carriers and tanks) because they would be more maneuverable and less destructive on Lebanon's roadways. LAF Commander General Jean Kahwagi stated in 2009 that he had the required $9 million to purchase 45 German Leopard tanks, but as of mid-2009 there had been no progress in lifting the hold to allow the EU to transfer the tanks.

US Department of Defense (DoD) officials hope to use new authorities to help other countries fight terrorism to buy spare parts for the Lebanese military. The “1206 funding,” named for the sectionof the 2006 National Defense Authorization Act that authorizes it, is designed to help other countries build capacity within their national military forces. President Bush approved the program in early May 2006, before theonset of violence between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah militia forces. In the case of Lebanon, DoD planned to spend $10 million to buy spare parts for vehicles, armored personnel carriers, helicopters and commercial utility cargo vehicles for the Lebanese military. Although DoD is taking steps to buy spare parts, actually handingthem over to Lebanon will be based on two conditions. These conditions, agreed to by the Defense and State departments, are that the Lebanese army be in a position to assert further control over its territory and that equipment provided by the program is used to help reduce Hezbollah’s operational space.

Although ill-equipped and underfunded, the Lebanese Army nevertheless proved its professionalism and cohesion in a large-scale purge of Islamist fighters hidden in Palestinian refugee camps in 2007, and is considered to be a professional, cohesive force by Lebanese and foreigners alike. Lebanese Army professionalism can thus be seen as rather strong. The LAF was responsive to its civilian leadership during the NAB conflict and that its actions conformed to international standards, the Geneva Conventions and the Law of Land Warfare.

In September 2007 Lebanon was reported to have ordered 40 Leopard-1 tanks and 32 YPR armored infantry fighting vehicles with 25mm guns and spare parts that were “offered by Belgium at a bargain price”. The money would come from what remained of the $100 million donated by Saudi Arabia in June 2007 to help the military crush an al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist group called Fatah Al-Islam in northern Lebanon. Beirut was waiting for Brussels to clear its own crisis — Flemish and Francophone parties failed to agree on a coalition government following general elections earlier in 2007 — and officially endorse the transfer. Belgium will replace the Army-surplus vehicles with variants of the Mowag Piranha-III.

By 2008 the LAF was in USCENTCOM-led discussions with the Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF) to transfer M60 tanks to replace the aging Soviet T-55s and U.S. M-48 tanks. This transfer will require Third Party Transfer (TPT) authority from the US. Lebanon's leadership was apprehensive about a planned second tranche of 46 M60-A3 tanks because of dissatisfaction with the first 10 A-3s that arrived from Jordan in May 2009. UAE had "committed" (but not yet provided by 2009) $17 million for ten M60 tanks slated for delivery to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), and had not yet committed $98 million to finance the remaining 56 tanks [for a total of either 56 or 66?? tanks].

By 2008 Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Elias Murr and Lebanese Army Commander General Michel Sleiman had developed a vision for transformation of the Lebanese Army to a more Special Operations-capable force equipped with a Close Air Support capability such as attack helicopters. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) had faced difficulties during the Nahr Al Bared (NAB) campaign in the summer of 2007. The LAF lost a total of 176 service members as a result of the fighting. (At the end of NAB, the LAF had 168 KIA. Since that time, and additional six soldiers have died of their wounds. The two Red Cross workers who were killed at NAB are now counted in LAF casualties.) The LAF had a hard time because of the narrow streets in the camp and the lack of equipment and ammunition for the LAF, and the LAF force structure and training did not meet national requirements.

The primary purpose of this transformed army would be to address terrorist threats inside Lebanon. Syria is still assisting the terrorists that are present in all thirteen of the Palestinian camps. Other Arab nations are using the camps in Lebanon as a dumping ground for their "dirty people."

At the strategic level, Murr said it was apparent that the army needed to shift its training and equipping focus to support more counter-terrorism operations. Murr said, "we don't need this heavy army that was trained and equipped by the U.S. in 1983. Things have changed since 9/11 and we need to rely more on special forces and fewer heavy brigades. We need light and medium weapons and attack helicopters to back up the grond troops." Murr surmised that he needed 10-15,000 Special Forces troops organized in 10-15 Special Forces regiments supported by 20-25,000 conventional troops. He thought that the army's current end strength of 60,000 was too large for the missions assigned. Murr wanted to only retain the five heavy brigades and place them on the borders. The remaining six brigades, and the five intervention regiments, would be disbanded and those personnel billets would be used as billpayers for the new SF Regiments.

The intent was to place all of these special forces under a single command structure that will be known as the Lebanese Special Operations Command (LSOC). The units that will comprise this command are the Marine Commando Regiment, the Ranger Regiment, the Air Assault Regiment and the Mountain Battalion that was being trained and equipped by the French.

Christians will not enlist to be regular infantrymen who are deployed in the south and on the borders as this places them too far away from their families who predominantly live near Beirut. More importantly, Lebanese law requires that the Army be 50% Christian and 50% Muslim. There is much room for the Christian population in the Army to grow. During a recent recruiting drive, there was a call for 5,000 troops; 50,000 men appeared for review. Of these 50,000, 45,000 were only interested in SF duty. There were over 8,600 Christians from Mount Lebanon, a Christian area, who showed up to enlist in Special Forces.

Recruitment efforts over the two years 2006-3008 netted 20,000 new troops for the Army at the same time that many draftees had been leaving the army. When this process began, the Shia accounted for 58% of the enlisted force; now they comprise 25% of the enlisted ranks. At the same time, the Army was able to bring the Christians to 25% and the Sunni/Druze component to 50% of the enlisted ranks. The Shia no longer "pose a threat" to the LAF, even if Nasrallah were to call on them to leave the army [as happened in 1984].

The Sunni troops in the Army are very loyal. Most of the Sunni troops in the Army come from the economically depressed region of Akkar in northern Lebanon. Every one that joins the Army from the north usually has an extensive network of family members who are also in the Army. As for the Shia, they come to the Army for a salary and to eat. Christians come with a sense of community service; this is why the elites want to serve in Special Forces. You won't hear this from the Army, but it is their reality.

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