By Piet Luijken
Lebanon is situated at the east coast of the Mediterranean with 255 km of coastline. It has borders with Syria in the North and East and Israël in the South. The Lebanese Mountains are situated in the middle, a ridge from north to south with the highest peak being Mount Qurnas as Sawda ( 3088 m/10131 ft ). The mountains are covered with cedar woods and due to the meteorological conditions also water is available in plenty. In the winter, the tops are covered in snow. The name Lebanon has its origins in this geographical situation. The country was named after Mount Lebanon; the word "lebanon" (also "Loubnan" or "Lebnan") comes from the Aramaic word laban which means "white" and refers to snow-capped mountains.
Lebanon is one of the fifteen present-day countries that comprise what is considered to be the Cradle of Humanity. It is the historic home of the Phoenicians, Semitic traders whose maritime culture flourished there for more than 2,000 years. The region was a territory of the Roman Empire and during the Middle Ages was involved in the Crusades. It was then taken by the Ottoman Empire. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the League of Nations mandated the five provinces that make up the present-day Lebanon to France. Modern Lebanon's constitution, drawn up in 1926, specified a balance of political power among the major religious groups. The country gained independence in 1943, and French troops withdrew in 1946. Lebanon's history of independence has been marked by alternating periods of political stability and turmoil interspersed with prosperity built on Beirut's position as a regional center for finance and trade. Syrian forces occupied large areas of the country until April 2005. The assassination on the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a car-bomb explosion on February 14, 2005 resulted in huge anti-Syrian protests by Lebanese citizens in Beirut demanding the resignation of the pro-Syrian government. This was called the Intifada of Independence. The march of 800.000 people on the March 14th, 2005 reiterated the will of the Lebanese for a sovereign, democratic, and unified country, free of Syria's hegemony. Under immense political pressure, the pro-Syrian government was replaced and free elections were held. The new government replaced all pro-Syrian generals and the Syrian troops were recalled. Israël on the other hand still occupies the so called "Shebaa Farms", a piece of land located in the Golan Heights Nevertheless, areas of Lebanon and Beirut in particular are moving toward a sense of normality and stability. The country is recovering from the effects of the civil war, with foreign investment and tourism on the rise. Lebanese civil society enjoys significantly more freedoms than elsewhere in the Arab world.
After its independence and with the neighboring countries all possessing national Air Forces, it was decided to construct and establish an Air Force. The neglected Rayak Military Airport used by the Germans in World War I, was reinstated and reconstructed, with help of the French. The first aircraft were acquired; two Percival Prentice T1 trainers and a Percival Proctor IV trainer, both types were included in the Air School Squadron. The Independence Day Parade was the first public appearance of the new Air Force. Later that year, the Italian Government donated a SIAI S79L trainer while also four SM79 bombers were acquired for the First Bombers Squadron. A DH104 Dove twin-engine transporter was acquired in 1951 for air navigation training. A year later, training was expanded with the arrival of 16 NAA Harvards, six Harvard T2B's were former RAF aircraft and six AT-16 aircraft were donated by the IraqiAF. The Air Force was well established at Rayak Air Base and many pilots were properly trained for duty. Their first combat mission was to assist a military operation against a group of outlaws hidden in the Hermel Barren Heights. The LAF eliminated the use of the mountains as a safe haven and the outlaws decided to surrender and enter negotiations with the government.
The next step in its modernization program was the acquiring of some jets. Due to the good contacts with deHavilland, the DH.100 Vampire jet was naturally chosen as a replacement for the obsolete SM.79 bombers. However, the Rayak Air Base, situated in the Bekaa Valley at an elevation of 920m, was seen unfit for jet operations at night. Therefore, Khalde Secondary Air Base was constructed at the Beirut Airport and was home base of the First Bombing Squadron equipped with different versions of the Vampire jet, starting with six FB52's and 4 T55's. In 1955, being the Year of the Tourist, a large Airshow was organized at Beirut AB, and the Air Force had their show-of-force with all aircraft performing aerobatics and live-firing exercises in front of the public. The airshow also had a positive influence on the government as it was decided to further enhance the LAF by acquiring six Hawker Hunter F6 fighters. First, fourteen DHC-1 Chipmunks were bought in 1954 to act as trainers. In 1959, the Hunters arrived, together with four Alouette II helicopters, another first for the LAF. Two squadrons, First and Second Squadron, were equipped with the Hunter at Khalde SAB.
In 1960, new facilities were added to Beirut Air base to accommodate the Second and Third Helicopter squadrons, equipped with the Alouette 2 and Alouette 3. They were actually stationed in Rayak for training of the helicopter pilots at the Aviation School. As the Air Force started to grow in personnel and equipment, its squadrons and facilities had to be improved to cope with its objectives. The Aviation School was established in 1960 at the Rayak Air Base to qualify pilots while the Technical school at the same base was established to qualify Technicians. For advanced training, twenty CM170 Fouga Magister jet trainers were procured from France, equipping the Sixth Squadron. A new airport was needed and the civil airport of Kleyate in the north was immediately renewed and its facilities were expanded, considered being one of the most advanced air bases in the region at that time. Quite convenient as in 1968 a contract was concluded between Lebanon and France for the purchase of sixteen Dassault Mirage IIIEL/BL aircraft and for training of Lebanese pilots and personnel, equipping the Fourth Squadron at Kleyate AB. Also some more Hawker Hunters were obtained to replace the older fighters. During acts of aggression by Israel during border disturbances, a Hunter was shot down by a Mirage IIICJ on the 6th of june 1967.
The seventies was a time of consolidation for the LAF. In 1973, twelve Agusta-Bell AB212 twin engine helicopters were acquired to equip the Fifth squadron at Beirut and were used for duties over sea, like SAR. Also some more Hunters were acquired.
In 1980, the Ninth Squadron was established at Beirut AB and was equipped with ten SA330 Puma heavy helicopters while in 1981, the Eight Squadron was established at Beirut AB and was equipped with the SA342L Gazelle helicopters, in the anti-tank task with the HOT anti-tank missiles and in the utility role. More helicopters were acquired in the nineties. In 1995, the Tenth and Eleventh squadrons were formed with the arrival of 16 former US Army Bell UH-1H helicopters. The helicopter were sent to Jordan by air freight and then flown to Lebanon by Lebanese air force pilots to be based at Beirut AB. Later on eight more were flown in. The Mirage III's were sold to Pakistan and were delivered to the Pakistan Air Force in 2000. In 2005, the Fifteenth Squadron was established at Rayak AB, as a training squadron connected to the Aviation school and was equipped with four brand-new Robinson R44 Raven II Helicopters.
Nowadays the Lebanese Air Force consists of five squadrons, being the 10th and the 11th at Beirut AB operating the UH-1H, the 12th at Rayak AB, operating some UH-1Hs on loan from Beirut AB, the 14th at Kleyate AB, also operating the UH-1H on loan from Beirut AB, and the 15th at Rayak AB, operating the R44 Raven. Its Headquarter is based in Beirut and it controls the Aviation School at Rayak AB, the Airbases, the Radar Batallion next to a Equipment Service. The Airbases itself have an independent Commander which controls the Technical Wing and the Air Wing. The respective squadrons are supervised by the Air Wing. The Aviation School at Rayak AB has a equivalent structure, with a Technical Wing and a Air Wing, which controls the training squadron. At this moment the Hueys and Ravens are the only aircraft in operational service. All other aircraft, including the Hunters and Magisters, are kept in storage awaiting their overhaul to active duty. As the Ravens are only used for training and the occasionally transport task, the Hueys are the workhorses of the LAF. For their VIP role, they can be equipped with specially designed VIP seats, while for their fire-fighting role a BAMBI bucket can be connected to the hook and to a foam tank in the cabin. The UH-1's also have specially designed 'snowboots' which can be connected to the skids, to ensure continuous operations in the snow-covered mountains in the winter. Furthermore, an agricultural spraying installation can be connected to the Huey, and as the LAF is the only asset in the country for this kind of work, it is much appreciated and much requested. Also this method can be used for illegal plantations destruction missions. Another important task is Search and Rescue, a difficult task to perform over sea as the Huey has only one engine. Also the UH-1 is used for policing tasks, including surveillance of the borders and for pursuit of criminals. At last, the Huey is also used to transport units of the Lebanese Army, including the Special Forces. With the arrival of the R44s, the students of the Aviation School are no longer trained ab-initio at the Huey, but the Huey is used later in the course during the advanced Helicopter Training.
During 2007 the LAF was equipped with nine ex United Arab Emirates Air Force SA342L Gazelle helicopters that formed 8th squadron at Beirut AB. The helicopters are equipped with rocket launchers and were soon after their arrival in Lebanon used to fight insurgents (so soon in fact that some of the aircraft did not wear LAF serials nor a LAF color scheme during the raids).
The LAF, helped by the UAE, is now preparing to add a total of three of the original batch of seven delivered in 1980 to the operational fleet. With the nine ex UAEAF&AD Gazelles fully operational, this will make a total of twelve. The Gazelles are operated as light attack and anti-tank gunships armed with a combination of 12.7mm MGs, 20mm guns and HOT ATGWs.
What everybody thought to be impossible has actually materialised: the Hawker Hunter is back in operational service within the Lebanese Air Force! On 17 November the LAF officially announced the return of the Hunters operational service. On 22 November, two Hunters took part in the areal display to commemorate the Lebanese National Day. Four Hunters are currently operational again and operating out of Rayak Air Base.
Besides the Gazelles and Hunters, the LAF is also preparing to add five of the original twelve delivered AB212 helicopters to its operational fleet of helicopters. Also two of the six originally supplied SA330L Puma's will be refurbished, all with the financial backing of Qatar.
The Lebanese Defence Minister Elias Murr announced recently that he and a delegation of seven high-ranking officers visited Moscow during mid-December. The delegation left with a shopping list which included helicopters and multirole fighter aircraft. The Russians have offered the Lebanese government ten MiG-29 fighter jets. The United States government promised to bolster the Lebanese armed forces capabilities since the ousting of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005 but has so far failed to do so. The Russian offer surprised the US government and is very likely to stir up political and military rivalry in the area as both Syria and Israel will not be happy with such a well equipped neighbouring air force. Whether the offer will be accepted is as of yet unclear for the payment details are still ambiguous.