Lebanese Air Force

By 2000 the Lebanese Air Force was believed to have virtually no airworthy fixed wing aircraft. The few fighter aircraft they possessed are old and outdated planes that had no combat value. Instead the Air Force has invested in helicopters with limited firepower and survivability. These aircraft are also bound to fair weather conditions because of their limited capability. Their continued operations are still heavily concentrated on domestic operations, primarily narcotics trafficking and other criminal violations. In 2000, there were only apprximately 800 active personnel in the Air Force.

The Arab-Israeli War of 1948 revealed that Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Israel possessed a national Air Force while Lebanon lacked this capability. The Armed Forces Commander at that time, General Fouad Shehab recognized this deficiency during the battle in the south and decided early in 1949 to fill the gap. The Rayak Military Airport was a neglected relic of World War I but was reconstructed with the help of the French who also began to train the Lebanese in aviation mechanics.

Since the army had a limited Air Force, their first mission was to help put an end to a group of outlaws seeking refuge in the Hermel Barren Heights in Bekaa. This group had existed for a long period, insubordinate to the authorities even in the times of the Ottomans and French. They were always well armed after each act of violation to laws, retreated to hide in the inaccessible high and distant mountains. On the 20 August 1949, a military operation was launched. When the outlaws realized that the Air Force eliminated their ability to use the mountains as safe haven, they decided to submit and abide by the law and entered in negotiations with the authorities.

The Air Force was regarded as a success and the government began to invest in development of Lebanese pilots and new air bases. With the help of the French and British, the Lebanese Air Force soon had Lebanese pilots at the control of their aircraft. The foreign assistance of the British and French helped slowly modernize the Lebanese Air Force but their operations were concentrated on domestic missions and in conjunction with internal security forces.

By the late 1980s the Lebanese Air Force consisted of about 800 mostly Maronite enlisted men and officers under the command of General Fahim al Hajj. Its main base was Al Qulayat airfield, in the north near the Syrian border--an area under the control of Syrian forces. Additional military airfields were at Riyaq in the Biqa Valley, and at Halat near Jubayl, where United States forces built an emergency landing strip using part of the coastal highway.

French Mirage fighters acquired in the 1980s were used briefly against militants in Palestinian refugee camps, and gave the Lebanese a temporary sense of international support for their security needs. In fact, the Mirage deal was a considerable scandal even by Lebanese standards. International outrage quickly put an end to their use in camps. The jets were acquired in a secretive way that sparked charges of corruption and decades of litigation. For political, financial and logistical reasons the aircraft were never used again, deteriorated, and eventually were traded away at discount prices. In year 2000, the grounded Mirage aircraft were sold to Pakistan.

The Lebanese Air Force has assumed a growing role in combating forest fires. Beginning in 1999, the Lebanese Army acquired 10 fire-fighting “buckets” which are mounted to helicopters and release 1,100 liters of water each. In 2002, the Lebanese Army acquired five more. The buckets are filled in the sea or inland water bodies (Qaroun lake) and can be released anywhere in the country within 30 minutes of notification. Airborne fire fighting has proved instrumental in containing forest fires when they are reported early, but less effective when the blaze has propagated. The fire-fighting unit of the Lebanese Air Force maintains direct contact with regional army stations and the civil defense.

In May 2007, friction between the Lebanese governmental authorities and the armed Palestinian radical Islamic group Fatah al Islam in the Nahr al Bared refugee camp resulted in open armed conflict with the Lebanese Army when Palestinian militants attacked an Army guard post outside this camp.9 The Lebanese Army was obliged to use armor and artillery in order to subdue the Palestinian combatants in this refugee camp who took advantage of the deep underground shelters that had been constructed in the camp by the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s.

Without the possession of operational fighter aircraft at the time and access to precision guided munitions (PGMs), the Lebanese Air Force used U.S–made UH-1D Huey transport helicopters to drop bombs on the Palestinian militants with the aid of global positioning system (GPS) devices.10 The fighting lasted for a period of fifteen weeks and resulted in the death of 169 Lebanese Armed Forces personnel, approximately 222 militants, and at least 42 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians.

This armed conflict resulted in the destruction of many buildings within the camp and dislocated their Palestinian civilian occupants. The Lebanese Army successfully evacuated 30,000-40,000 Palestinian civilians from this refugee camp during the military operations against Fatah al Islam.

Join the mailing list