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Small force with a wealth of history

Posted 31 October 2010 · Add Comment

Jon Lake reviews the Lebanese Air Force and looks at the challenges it faces in today's environment.


A Lebanon that was once inevitably described as ‘war-torn’, occupied variously by Israel (1982-2000) and Syria (1975-2005), and riven by conflict between different factions has become a more stable nation.

It is still troubled but is striving (with some success) for normality, having regained its status as an independent, unified, sovereign, and democratic country, free of Syrian hegemony and illegal Israeli occupation.

The Lebanese Air Force (Al Quwwat al-Jawwiya al-Lubnania) is playing a key role in achieving that much-needed stability, and in protecting the nation against enemies  – external and internal.

The Lebanese Air Force is small but professional, with just 1,100 personnel – though this is almost double the number serving in 2000. It has three main bases, and some nine or ten front-line squadrons, but the front-line fixed-wing element is limited to a handful of ageing Hawker Hunters. These do not fly a lot because of the lack of new, young pilots. Those rated for them now tend to be the most senior officers with top positions in high command and consequently don’t have the time to get to Raayak regularly enough to fly them. The Hunters will remain active until a replacement is found … or they run out of spares.

The five former provinces of the Ottoman Empire that constitute modern Lebanon were administered by France, under a League of Nations mandate, until independence in 1943. The Lebanese Air Force was established with French assistance and guidance, using the airfield built by the Germans during World War One at Rayak, though its initial aircraft came from the UK and Italy.

The British provided Percival Prentices and Proctors, used for training and liaison, while Italy donated five Savoia Marchetti SM.79 bombers, though these were later used mainly for transport duties in the Lebanon. Britain subsequently supplied a de Havilland Dove and a number of North American T-6 Harvards, and de Havilland DHC-1 Chipmunks, before delivering 16 de Havilland Vampire jet fighters from 1953. Rayak was felt to be unsuitable for the Vampire, and Khalde Secondary Air Base was established as a military enclave at Beirut International Airport.

The success of the Vampire in Lebanese service led to a decision to acquire the Hawker Hunter as its replacement. From 1959 the Lebanese Air Force acquired 19 Hunters, six ex-RAF single-seaters initially, followed by seven additional ex-Belgian Air Force aircraft (three converted to two-seat trainer configuration) in 1964-66, and a final batch of six ex-RAF aircraft in 1975-77. The Hunters equipped two squadrons at Khalde.

The year 1959 also saw the delivery of four Alouette II helicopters, opening the air arm’s rotary wing era, and larger numbers of Alouette IIIs (eventually totalling 12) followed. This also marked a growing shift towards France for the supply of new equipment, with 10 Fouga CM-170 Magister trainers (five of them ex-Luftwaffe) arriving from 1966 to equip the Aviation School at Rayak.

A new base was established at the former civil airport of Kleyate in the north, and this became home to the 10 Dassault Mirage IIIEL fighters and two twin-seat Mirage IIIDL trainers ordered in 1968, which brought the Lebanese Air Force into the supersonic era. The Mirages saw little service, and two were lost in accidents. In 1978, during the Civil War, they were withdrawn and stored, and though there were plans to return them to service, these came to nothing, and they were eventually sold to Pakistan in 2000.

Other acquisitions during the 1970s proved more successful. An initial batch of six Agusta Bell AB212 helicopters (of an eventual 12) were delivered from 1973. This licence-built version of the twin-engined Bell UH-1N provided a real support helicopter capability, and gave a meaningful over-water SAR capability, too.

The last of the T-6 Harvards and DH Chipmunks were finally replaced by six Scottish Aviation Bulldogs in 1975. 

Even during Civil War the Lebanese Air Force continued to get a trickle of funding for the procurement of new equipment and received six Aerospatiale SA-330 Puma medium transport helicopters in 1980, with six more following in 1983-84. It also took on charge eight armed Aerospatiale SA.342K Gazelle helicopters. These mostly operated from the satellite bases of Jounieh and Adma, north of Beirut.

During 1983, the Bulldogs, Fouga Magisters and the Hunters were moved to Beirut Airport, which lay outside the territory controlled by Syria (Kleyate was under Syrian control between 1976 and 2005, as was Rayak), but the airport soon came under fire, forcing a move to the Halate base, actually a converted 1600 metre section of the Beirut-Tripoli highway 40-km north of the capital. Despite the short runway and challenging terrain surrounding the strip, this served as the base for the Lebanese Air Force’s fixed-wing aircraft between 1983 and 1990.

Though the Civil War was brought to an end in 1989, with the signing of the Taef accord, the 1990s saw a period of consolidation, with most of the air force’s aircraft being grounded or withdrawn soon after moving from Halat to Kleyate and Rayak. Three surviving Bulldogs (two had been lost in training accidents and one shot down over enemy territory) were placed into storage, along with the surviving Magisters, and, after a minor landing accident involving one of the T.Mk 66 trainers, the eight surviving Hunters were also placed into storage at Rayak in 1994. Many of the Pumas, Gazelles, and AB212s were also stored.

However, at the same time, the air force did receive 24 ex-US army UH-1H helicopters from 1995, equipping No.s 10 and 11 Squadrons. These became the backbone of the force, which rapidly became an all-rotary air arm. But while the Huey is a versatile workhorse, adept at VIP, utility and transport missions as well as search and rescue, fire-fighting (using under-slung Bambi buckets and a foam tank in the cabin), and agricultural crop spraying, it is not well suited to all roles, and the air force soon looked to expand its fleet.

Four Robinson R44 Raven II Helicopters were acquired in 2005 for rotary-wing training, and these were assigned to a new 15 Squadron at Rayak, which formed part of the otherwise moribund Aviation school.

Nine surplus ex-UAE air force SA.342 Gazelles were taken on charge in March 2007, equipping No.8 Squadron at Beirut and again provided the air arm with a modest offensive capability. 

These were pressed into use in May 2007, when trouble erupted in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp near Tripoli. Lebanese forces moved in to arrest a group of Fatah al-Islam militants accused of taking part in a bank robbery earlier that day, provoking a day-long battle. An Army checkpoint was attacked in response, and the army responded by shelling the camp.

War then broke out between militant forces and the Lebanese Army. The Army was faced with unexpected difficulties since the militants had constructed heavily fortified bunkers, and the Air Force was called in to try to deal with these. In the absence of fixed-wing aircraft, Gazelles and Hueys operating from nearby Kleyate attacked the camp, the Gazelles using rockets, while the hastily armed UH-1Hs carried 68mm Matra SNEB rocket pods and heavy machine guns, before being modified to carry out bombing missions dropping 250kg Mk 82 bombs from outrigger pylons and single heavy 400-kg bombs from under the belly.

Operations continued for more than three months, dramatically underlining the need for fixed-wing aircraft. Preparations were made to put the long-retired Hunters back into service, though these plans were frustrated by the lack of ejection seat cartridges. After the battles at Nahr el-Bared, efforts to re-equip the air force were stepped up.

The attack helicopter force was boosted by putting three of the original batch of Gazelles back into service, bringing the fleet to 12, and standardizing the aircraft to all be capable of firing HOT anti-tank missiles. There have been suggestions that France may provide 6-10 further Gazelles.

In 2008, Lebanon formally requested AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters from the US, and agreement was reported to have been reached later that year, though nothing further has been reported, and Mil Mi-35 ‘Hinds’ have now been ordered from Russia.

The utility helicopter fleet has not been ignored, either. Efforts are under way to overhaul as many as five of the Air Force’s stored AB-212s (with Italy providing needed spares and parts) and three surviving SA-330 Puma helicopters. These will augment the ten former UAE air force IAR-330 Puma helicopters delivered from April 2010, which may eventually be based at a new Air Force base at the defunct air strip in Hamat. 

In 2008 Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa (who is believed to be funding the AB212 and Puma fleets) presented Lebanon with a single Agusta Westland 139 helicopter for use as a VIP and presidential transport.

The Air Force has also finally acquired its own dedicated fire-fighting helicopters. Having leased a variety of helicopters over the years (including a Kamov Ka-32A in 2008), the first of three Sikorsky S-61Ns was delivered in May 2009.

Following the battles at Nahr el-Bared, the Air Force has made reintroducing fixed-wing combat aircraft a major priority. Though there were confused reports about the possible acquisition of TA-3 Skywarriors or TA-4J Skyhawks, and about the transfer of F-5Es from Saudi Arabia and/or Jordan, initial efforts focused on getting some of the stored Hunters back into service, and this was achieved on November 12 2008, when one aircraft flew the first training mission. The return to service was announced on November 17 and, on November 22, two Hunters took part in a fly-past commemorating Lebanon’s national day. Four Hunters are now operational at Rayak.

The Hunters (which have been on the strength of the Lebanese Air Force for 51 years!) are now being augmented by three Cessna 208B Grand Caravans. The latter are equipped with an advanced MX-15 EO/IR turret, and armed with Hellfire missiles. The first example was delivered in April 2009.

There have been persistent reports of a planned transfer of ten BAE Hawk T.Mk 63 armed trainers from the UAE (and/or of Hawk Mk 65s from Saudi Arabia), and of discussions between the US and Lebanon for the supply of 11 OV-10 Broncos and/or six to ten Beechcraft AT-6B or Embraer Super Tucano light attack aircraft.

Lebanon is also believed to be committed to acquiring a front-line fast jet capability, and there have been reports of interest in the Sino-Pakistani JF-17, the Russian MiG-29, ex-Belgian F-16s, ex-Saudi Tornados and ex-Omani Jaguars. A preliminary agreement for the delivery of 10 MiG-29s was reportedly reached on December 16 2008, and both Kleyate and Rayak were surveyed to assess their suitability for the ‘Fulcrum’. Lebanese interest in the MiG waned, however, and Mi-35 attack helicopters were eventually purchased instead.

But more pressing is the need to restore fixed-wing flying training capability. With this in mind, the Lebanese Air Force returned its three surviving Scottish Aviation Bulldog elementary/basic trainers to active service on July 15 2010, and hopes to restore a handful of Magisters to airworthiness for advanced training until a suitable replacement can be acquired. In the interim, this may take the form of the Aermacchi MB-339, with negotiations for three of these advanced trainers reported in July 2010.



Beirut - Khalde

8 Sqn                             SA342L Gazelle (12)

9 Sqn                             SA-330/IAR-330 Puma (13)

10 Sqn                           UH-1H (6)

11 Sqn                           UH-1H (5)

16 Sqn                           Sikorsky S-61N MkII (3)

Presidential Flt              AW139 (1)


Kleyate (‘President Rene Mouawad’)

14 Sqn                           UH-1H (6)



 2 Sqn.                           Hunter F.Mk 70A (3), Hunter T.Mk 66C (1),

                                        AC-208B Combat Caravan/Grand Caravan (3)

12 Sqn                           UH-1H (6)

15 Sqn                           R44 Raven II (4)      

Aviation School            Bulldog (3)


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