Procurement: Hellfire For Hezbollah

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January 14, 2018: At the end of 2017 the U.S. agreed to provide Lebanon with another $120 million in military aid. This includes six MD530G helicopters, six Scan Eagle UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle) and assorted special communications and related equipment for ground troops to call in air strikes effectively. 

Since 2006 the United States has provided over $1.5 billion in military aid (weapons, equipment, construction and training) to Lebanon. This was all in an attempt to restore peace in southern Lebanon and weaken the Iran backed Shia Hezbollah organization. The main goal of the U.S. aid was to revive the Lebanese army. This force of some 70,000 troops is actually quite large for a country of only four million people. It's about four times as many troops, per capita, as the United States has on duty. But since the 1970s the Lebanese army has been either non-existent (during 1975-90 civil war), or allowed to languish, lest it become mobilized by one faction or another for a new civil war. But in 2006 Lebanon had a chance to reassert control over the south, which has a fiefdom of the Shia Hezbollah militia since the 1980s. Israel controlled part of the south from 1982 until 2000. But it was Hezbollah who always claimed the south as their own. So the U.S. has been supplying equipment and training that gives the Lebanese Army capabilities that will match those of Hezbollah.

The MD-530G is the latest version of the MD-530F armed scout helicopter. The G model has better electronics. The MD-530 is the civilian version of the U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) MH-6. Used for scouting and commando operations the MH-6 (and the similar AH-6) were developed from the 1960s era OH-6 light reconnaissance helicopter. Entering service in the 1980s, the MH/AH-6, or "Little Bird" is a 1.6 ton helicopter with a crew of two and a top speed of 280 kilometers an hour. Sortie length can be as long as three hours but more often are one or two hours.

The MH/AH-6 was designed so it could be armed with two 7.62mm or 12.7mm machine-gun pods, or two 70mm rocket pods (seven or 12 rockets each) or four Hellfire missiles. The current MH-6 model is often equipped with a day/night targeting system, including a laser designator and laser guided missiles. Without weapons, the MH-6 can carry six troops (usually Special Forces operators) externally. Nearly 5,000 MD-500 type helicopters have been built and they are particularly popular with police and military users. Because of that the MD-530 model has been regularly “re-militarized.”

ScanEagle was originally designed as a ship based surveillance UAV for commercial and military use. Each ScanEagle “system” comes with several UAVs, ground control equipment and maintenance gear. The ScanEagle UAV weighs 22 kg (48.5 pounds). It has a 3.1 meter (10.2 foot) wingspan, and uses day and night video cameras. It uses a catapult for launch and can be landed via a wing hook that catches a rope hanging from a 16 meter (fifty foot) pole. There is also a smaller CLRE (Compact Launch and Recovery System) for ship use. On land ScanEagle can also land on any flat, solid surface. The ScanEagle can stay in the air for up to 24 hours per flight and fly as high as 6 kilometers (19,500 feet). ScanEagles cruising speed is 110 kilometers an hour (max is 148 kilometers) and it can operate at least a hundred kilometers from the ground controller. Scan Eagle carries an optical system that is stabilized to keep the cameras focused on an object while the UAV moves. Scan Eagle has been in military service since 2005 as an unarmed reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft. It is reliable, easy to use and gives ground troops their own aerial surveillance capability.

The 2006 ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon stipulated that Hezbollah would be disarmed. Hezbollah said they would not and it was up to the Lebanese army to try and make disarmament happen. To that end in 2006 the United States donated an initial $11 million in military aid, with a lot more to follow if it appeared that the U.S. effort was having a positive effect. U.S. trainers had been in Lebanon before the 1975-90 civil war. The Lebanese army is still equipped with a lot of 1970s vintage American helicopters, armored vehicles and trucks. The U.S. is willing to upgrade all that, and bring in new stuff. The key unknown is whether the Lebanese troops will accept some professional training, and guidance in how best to disarm Hezbollah.

The Lebanese accepted the initial American offer, but there was considerable political blowback, and military threats, from Hezbollah. The Lebanese Army did not roll over, but they did not move on Hezbollah either. A frustrated United States stopped the aid effort at times, but then resumed because many in the Lebanese Army wanted to confront Hezbollah but cautioned that they had to wait for the right moment. That moment may be approaching because since 2011 Hezbollah has been increasingly sucked into the Syrian civil war. This is at the behest of Iran, who has financed, armed and trained Hezbollah since the 1980s. The majority of Lebanese back the Syrian rebels and the Hezbollah aid for the Syrian government is unpopular even among many Lebanese Shia. The Hezbollah involvement in Syria is making Hezbollah more vulnerable in Lebanon, and the U.S. is providing a lot more aid for Lebanese Army to take advantage of that. For example in 2014 the United States agreed to send Lebanon some Cessna Caravan 208 aircraft equipped with laser designators and Hellfire missiles. The Cessna Caravan 208 is a single engine aircraft designed to carry nine passengers or about a ton of cargo. Hellfire equipped Cessna Caravan 208s have been used by the Iraqis since 2009 with great success. Lebanon wants to use them to deal with Sunni Islamic terrorists raiding across the border but these aircraft can just as easily be used against Hezbollah, as can the MD-530Gs and ScanEagles. In response Hezbollah has encouraged Shia Lebanese to join the Lebanese military and then report back to Hezbollah what is going on and stand ready to carry out daring and dangerous missions (like mutiny or sabotaging military equipment) for Hezbollah. The Americans advise the Lebanese (who are mostly Christian or non-Shia Moslems) on how to deal with that as well.

 


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