Russian gunships give Lebanese firepower

March 2, 2010 at 1:27 PM
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BEIRUT, Lebanon, March 2 (UPI) -- Russia's offer to give Lebanon at least 10 Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships free of charge, instead of the supersonic MiG-29 interceptors that Moscow had in mind, is more in keeping with the Lebanese military's operational priorities and capabilities.

Moscow's move is also a slap in the face for the Americans, who have refused Beirut's request for heavy firepower because they fear such weapons systems could fall into the hands of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah or be turned on Israel somewhere down the line.

And given the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric from Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Israel that many fear presages a new shooting war, that moment may be closer than anyone would like.

The Russians agreed to provide the heavily armed and armored gunships during a three-day visit to Moscow in late February by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, a former commander of his country's armed forces.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev promised the MiGs in 2008, with the Russian defense ministry paying for upgrading the jets and delivering them to Lebanon.

But the Lebanese apparently felt the jets were too advanced to be easily assimilated into their military and, in the final analysis, stood little chance against Israel's powerful air force, or any other in the region come to that.

The Lebanese daily As-Safir quoted an official in the military delegation that accompanied Suleiman to Moscow as saying: "The budget of the army cannot sustain the huge expenditures linked to the MiGs which require constant maintenance."

Suleiman said in a statement: "We need combat helicopters … The army needs this type of helicopter, especially if they are supplied with missiles."

Lebanon's minuscule air force comprises two 1950s-era British-built Hawker Hunter fighter jets, both currently grounded, and 58 helicopters.

These are 13 French-built SA-3241 Aerospatiale Gazelle helicopters, five of them non-operational, and 45 utility/transport helicopters. These include 16 U.S.-supplied Bell UH-1H Vietnam-era Hueys -- seven of them unserviceable -- and a motley collection of Aerospatiale Puma and Alouette II and III craft, most of which are grounded.

None of these aircraft have serious ground-attack capabilities, which are needed to counter insurgencies rather than large armored forces. This is the army's priority.

During three months of urban fighting in 2007 in north Lebanon between the army and Islamist militants -- in which 171 soldiers were killed -- the Gazelle helicopters were turned into makeshift attack platforms with crews manhandling bombs out of the side doors.

The leftist As-Safir reported in February that the Pentagon has proposed supplying the Lebanese with Hawker-Beechcraft AT-6 or Brazilian-built Embraer Super Tucano propeller-driven aircraft to bolster its reconnaissance and counter-insurgency capabilities.

But there is growing antagonism within the Lebanese government about U.S. reluctance to provide heavy weapons to give the army some punch -- and with Washington's concern for the security of the Jewish state, which has repeatedly invaded Lebanese territory since 1968. Hezbollah fought the Israelis to a standstill in a 34-day war in 2006.

The political issues concerning the military are complicated further by the existence of Hezbollah's own non-state armed force that reportedly includes thousands of rockets and missiles for use against Israel that constitutes a parallel force to the army.

Hezbollah is also not keen on the state acquiring the kind of firepower that might one day be used to confront the Iranian-backed movement.

Since 2005, when Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut, the United States has provided the Lebanese with arms and equipment worth some $532 million.

This was largely intended to strengthen state institutions against Hezbollah, which is the only militia in the country still armed since the 1975-90 civil war ended. It claimed it needed the arms to resist Israel.

The Russians, seeking to counter U.S. power, have their own agenda.

They are making a determined effort to restore the influence Moscow had in the Middle East during the Soviet era that ended two decades ago. Arms sales are a key element of this strategy.

Israel will be just as dismayed as the Americans at Russian arms entering Lebanon, although a small force of Mi-24 gunships hardly constitutes a major threat to the Jewish state. But Suleiman says he hopes to develop a long-term military cooperation agreement with Moscow.

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