US to give Lebanon its first attack helicopters


Beirut (AFP)

The United States will provide the Lebanese army with its first attack helicopters in a bid to bolster border security and fight jihadist groups, US officials said Wednesday in Beirut.

The landmark announcement came during a visit to Lebanon by General Joseph Votel, the top commander for US military forces in the Middle East.

The US Department of Defense will give Lebanon six MD530G light attack helicopters as part of its security assistance programme, according to US Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard.

It will also provide six new Scan Eagle drones, night vision devices, other equipment and training, she added.

Richard said the assistance, worth more than $120 million, "will help the army build on its steady strong capability to conduct border security and counterterrorism operations".

Votel, who met on Wednesday with Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Defence Minister Yaacoub al-Sarraf, and army chief General Joseph Aoun, said the US was "proud" to partner with the army.

Lebanon shares a 330 kilometre (205 mile) border with war-torn Syria, and jihadist factions including the Islamic State group had entrenched themselves in the hilly territory along the frontier.

This year, assaults by Lebanese troops and Iran-backed armed movement Hezbollah have pushed them back, and the army has since increased its presence in the border area.

Aram Nerguizian, a senior associate at the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Wednesday's announcement marked the first time the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) would receive attack helicopters.

He said the LAF had needed aircraft for close air support, precision targeting, and intelligence gathering and surveillance.

"It was also looking for a system that could operate at altitude -- such as Lebanon's frontier with Syria, which is well above sea level -- and that is reasonably easy to maintain and sustain," Nerguizian told AFP.

"The MD530G is intended to meet those requirements."

The US has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance to Lebanon over the past decade.

In 2017 alone, Lebanon received the first batch of six A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft from the US, which also announced it would deliver 32 infantry fighting vehicles known as M2A2 Bradleys to the LAF.

"Each provides a degree of sophistication and capability that far exceeds the LAF's mix of capabilities in the post-War period, and all of them are far more lethal than appearance alone suggests," Nerguizian said.