The Lebanese Air Force (LAF) (Arabic: Al Quwwat al-Jawwiya al-Lubnaniyya) was established in 1949, six years after gaining independence from France. Soon after its establishment, a number of aircraft were donated by the British, French, and Italian governments.
Having flown the Hawker Hunter and Mirage IIIEL fighter jets, the LAF was missing a fighter capability when the Hunters and Mirages were grounded and the Mirages were sold. The Hunters are still airworthy and maintained, but are no longer in active use. For a long time the air force had to rely solely on a helicopter force. But in recent years three Cessna AC 208s Combat Caravans were acquired for reconnaissance and attack, and in June of 2018 the country received six Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano’s.
The small, but potent air force has had its fair share of struggles but is now rising in numbers as well as professionalism.
We spoke to Brigadier General Ziad Haykal, who climbed the ladder all the way from helicopter pilot to Lebanese Air Force Commander. He starts by telling the recent history, in order to emphasize the growth of the LAF.
War at Nahr al-Bared
“In 2007 we were involved in a big battle with Fatah al-Islam, an Islamist militant organization in a Palestinian camp in the north of Lebanon which was called Nahr al-Bared.“ The Air Force was flying mostly medical and casualty evacuation as well as performing aerial photography missions. The need arose to design a platform able to deliver the 500 pound Mk82 and 1,000 pound Mk83 bombs with an acceptable accuracy. “The dimension of the camp was not that large but at the same time we were surrounding them with friendly forces. So the big challenge was not to hit any friendly forces by throwing these hundreds of pounds of bombs. Being resourceful, we modified the UH-1H’s in our inventory, which basically are made for transport, into bombers.” This step proved very important because it was the main reason for terminating the battle with the Fatah al-Islam terrorist group who were often hiding in fortified positions. Since then the Lebanese Armed Forces started to plan for air capability since they realized the importance of air power in these situations.
The LAF submitted a plan to the United States in order to obtain an aerial platform to be able to provide Close Air Support. In 2009 they received the first of three armed C-208 Combat Caravans, able to carry two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.
War with Daesh (So-called Islamic State)
Lebanon knew that the war in Syria would affect them somehow, and the armed forces started to get ready in case the conflict would come to the Lebanese side of the border. General Haykal: The war with Daesh (IS) and the Al-Nusra terrorists started in Lebanon in 2013 on the northern and northeastern border of Lebanon. The capability of the Combat Caravan came right on time, but we were also able to use the SA/IAR 330 Puma and the SA342 Gazelle to fill the need for aerial support.” With reconnaissance by newly acquired Raven UAV platforms the LAF knew exactly where ammunition storage was on each position, what kind of weapons it contained, how much personnel there was in each position, and the access routes the terrorists were using.
The general recalls how it went: “We did hit several targets accurately and we obliged them to change their techniques and positions. First, we were able to reinforce the army position and then we changed to an attack position. We started to bomb Daesh positions deep inside the area where they had control. In the final operation, called Dawn of the Outskirts (Arabic: Fajr Al Jouroud) we bombed all the defense targets for a week and we actually almost cleaned the entire ground for the army Lebanese special forces so they were able to enter the area. We finished the battle in a matter of one week.”
Super Tucano acquisition
During this battle, the request for a weapon platform was already sent to the United States. “The request process usually takes up some time.” the general explains. “A letter of request composed bij de Lebanese Ministry of Defence contains specifications that the Lebanese Air Force needs, like the type of tasks we want to perform, whether is it fixed wing or rotary wing, what kind of weapons we’d like to carry, the airspeed, the length of the runway we have. The US authorities will then study these specifications and will assign a platform accordingly.” For the Lebanese Air Force, it became the A-29 Super Tucano. They are part of a support package from the US government to aid the fight against the terrorists.
“These aircraft were manufactured for Lebanon in Brazil and were armed by the Sierra Nevada corporation in the United States. This is the first type of aircraft which was able to fire the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS). This APKWS is a design conversion of the Hydra 70 unguided rockets, but with a laser guidance kit to turn them into precision-guided munitions. The APKWS can also be launched on jet aircraft like the F-16 and from the Apache helicopters too nowadays.”
The turboprop platform is perfect to protect Lebanon. It fills the need for both reconnaissance and precision bombing capabilities. To the untrained eye, the A-29 can seem unimpressive compared to a fighter jet that is four times faster. But that is not the case. General Zaykal: “It is very convenient for anti-terrorist missions. They have the same weapons on board as the fast fighter jets, and have the same effectiveness and accuracy, but cost significantly less per flight hour.” To make a comparison, a Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle costs around $27,000 per flight hour, the A-29 Super Tucano costs between $4,000 and $5,000 per flight hour and does the same job.
The United States itself is looking to procure light-attack planes that can execute combat missions in the Middle East at a cheaper price. Right now it is a competition between the A-29 Super Tucano and the AT-6 Wolverine. One of these aircraft is going to replace the fourth- and fifth-generation fighters the US currently deploys in the Middle East in their mission against terrorists.The general adds: “These aircraft are not meant to have an air superiority role. The main mission for the Tucano’s is to provide Close Air Support (CAS) to the Army.”
The Lebanese Tucano pilots received flight training at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia in the United States. They are said to be outstanding pilots, and routinely finish at the top of their classes.
The first two Super Tucano’s arrived in October 2017 and the last four in May 2018. “Within the request that we sent, one of the items that we insisted on was to have a minimum capability to operate and maintain the aircraft once they arrived in Lebanon.” the general says. “The first day they arrived in Lebanon they had a minimum capability to perform missions against Daesh. Any new platform in the inventory will require a certain period of time to be well implemented in the system. To give you an example, the Super Tucano is not working by itself in any battle, they will be working in cooperation with other platforms like the Combat Caravan, the Puma or the Gazelle. So to implement the new platform you have to create certain procedures. There is no other air force that uses a Super Tucano and the Combat Caravan together, so background procedures did not exist. The Combat Caravan is able to laser designate targets for the Hellfire missiles and is also capable to support designating targets for the Super Tucano. Our pilots trained to have two Super Tucanos working together at all times one designating for another. A Combat Caravan is able to designate targets for two Super Tucano’s from a longer distance. You have to create certain procedures to operate all these platforms together. These standard operating procedure (SOP’s) have been executed and now we are in an evaluation period.”
Puma warfare capabilities
When the war started in Syria in 2013 the LAF initiated a study to install two ADEN 30mm cannons and two Matra SNEB 68mm rocket pods from the decommissioned Hawker Hunters on the SA/IAR 330 Puma.
General Haykal was working in Hamat as an intelligence officer when it was developed. He has an appropriate proverb: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” The testing process took 13 months and started with ground tests before moving on to air testing. “It is not only the testing, but you are also putting a Hunter weapon on a Puma, it is entirely different. Installing the 30mm gun, rockets, and bomb controls within the Puma electrical system with an Alouette III visor is not an easy challenge. The 30mm gun has its own data information and requirements The rockets at the same time have their own procedures and the bombing also has their own performance. These are three very different weapon systems to install. All the ballistics, trajectories and deviations had to be calculated correctly. Besides all this, you have to put procedures for the maintainers to safely perform their task. The system itself was meant to be removed from the aircraft and be fitted in another aircraft in a matter of just a few hours to be able to use another aircraft in case of a malfunction. We do have incredible teamwork.”
The arrival of the Super Tucano will not make the Puma obsolete. Its main role will change back to transport, but the capability to carry rockets will remain. The general clarifies: ”According to the threat, according to the mission, according to the type of target you are going to hit, you will be using whatever is a convenient platform or weapon you have. If we are going to bomb 1300 kilos of ordinance at the same time, we don’t have any platform that can carry this load except the Puma.”
This is not the only innovation by the LAF, the general informs about another groundbreaking example: “In 2015 we received the M712 Copperhead rounds, a 155 mm caliber cannon-launched guided projectile. These Copperhead rounds also work with laser designators, once the laser signal is detected, the onboard guidance system will maneuver the projectile to the target. We were limited in using these rounds from the ground because we have a long frontline and a deep area with rough terrain, and it was hard to send in personnel with laser designators in a threat area with a tactical disadvantage.
We had the laser designator capability of the Cessna and the issue was if they were compatible with the Copperhead rounds. After explaining the process, risks, and the percentage of success, the Lebanese Army Commander decided to start the trial. It was a big success. The amount of explosives on a Hellfire missile is limited when compared to a 155mm Copperhead shell. During an anti-terrorism mission against Daesh, a pilot was decorated for being able to hit 18 different targets withing one flying hour. This is a payload no existing fighter plane can carry”
Targets as far as ten kilometers away from the artillery were hit accurately. Although this technique was already invented in the early 80s, it was never used on the battlefield because of its requirements and limitations at the time.
This caught the attention of the US, and a US Air Force general from Central Command came over to Lebanon to witness this new invention. The United States is now reconsidering their procedures regarding the usage of the M172 Copperhead and the ability to designate them from the air. The general is visibly proud when talking about these inventions: “We forced ourselves to be an important player in the war against terrorism and in the important task of defending our country. We studied, tried and executed all these inventions locally”
The Lebanese Air Force is still on it’s way up. The general includes us in the plans for the future: “We will request an additional six Super Tucano aircraft. In 2021, we are expecting to receive six McDonnell Douglas MD-530G multi-role light helicopter. This version will also be able to fire laser-guided rockets. Five years from now we hope to have 12 Super Tucano’s and 12 MD-530G’s. Our priority is to increase the Close Air Support capability. The MD 530 basically is requested because they are going to replace the Gazelle at a certain time, maybe in 10 years. The Puma’s main role will change back to transport helicopter because we need the transport capability in the Air Force. We are planning to upgrade all the existing UH-1 Hueys to UH-1H-II Super Huey. We are already in the process of getting the AB-212 operational again after more than 25 years grounded. All the new platforms will be a support from the US government, we are trying to negotiate and convince the US authorities that this is the minimum that the Lebanese Air Force needs. We need to continue the border security and stand strong in our fight against terrorist groups.”
Article by Jeroen van Veenendaal.
Photos by Ralph Blok, Roelof-Jan Gort and Jeroen van Veenendaal
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