New Soldiers: A group of former rebels who have joined the ranks of the Libyan Army board a plane Jan. 9 heading to Italy to receive training under a plan to rebuild the Army. (Agence France-Presse)
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ROME — More than 300 Libyan Army recruits have arrived in Italy for basic training, part of a program that seeks to provide the struggling Libyan government with a viable military force, but may also kick-start Tripoli’s stalled defense procurement program.
After arriving in Italy on Jan. 10, the 340 Libyans started a 14-week training course at an Army base at Cassino, south of Rome, which will be followed by another 10 weeks of training at a base in Persano in southern Italy.
A second group of 450 will follow with other batches of recruits due; the aim is to train 2,000 Libyans within two years, said Italian Army Gen. Cesare Marinelli, who is running the program.
“The sense of urgency is very clear; Libya has asked us to start the job as soon as possible,” he said.
Similar groups are due to receive training from the UK, the US and Turkey at other locations as part of a program paid for by Libya. Italy will receive €50 million (US $67.8 million) for its contribution, Marinelli said.
The training comes as the Libyan government seeks to impose stability on the country following the overthrow in 2011 of Col. Moammar Gadhafi during a NATO-supported campaign by rebel forces.
The selection of recruits for training in Italy, including the choice of officers, was made by Libya, Marinelli added.
“The intention of the Libyans was to mix up people from different areas, and that is represented in the group,” Marinelli said.
The group will form an Army battalion. It features recruits with some military experience and with no experience, and it will receive leadership training as well as combat training.
Marinelli, who worked as an instructor in Afghanistan, said understanding the culture of the recruits is important. Space for Muslim prayers and for washing before prayers has been set up at Cassino, he said, and the Islamic weekend will be observed.
One difference in dealing with Afghan recruits is that the Libyans understand the concept of a state.
“In Afghanistan, we needed to teach it, while the Libyans have it already, and every morning we hoist both the Libyan and the Italian flags,” Marinelli said.
Training will focus on tasks such as urban operations and patrols, with about one instructor for every three recruits.
Recruits will use the Beretta ARX 160 rifle, which the Italian Army has used since 2010. “In Libya, they have the AK-47, but want to change fast,” the general said.
An Italian defense source said the ARX 160 could be a candidate for purchase by the Libyans.
According to one Libya-based American official, the training could spur Libyan defense procurement.
“If there is no significant follow-up on the equipment they use, when these soldiers return to Libya, they risk just becoming security guards,” said Richard Griffiths, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Libya.
“They have the cash, and what Libya needs is a starter kit to protect itself from roving militias,” he said. “They will need bases all over the country, aircraft, ISR capabilities, ground vehicles and weapons.
“The training, which will provide 5,000 troops [including all countries involved], could be a catalyst, and this is when the real sales will happen,” Griffiths said. “Right now, the Libyans will be getting comfortable with the kit they are using in training, and we may see deals as a result.”
That would mark a change after little procurement activity in postwar Libya, one analyst said.
“I have not seen many major procurements in the last two years — Libya has not been able to make a start,” said Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher on arms transfer programs at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Griffiths said the biggest deal he knew of was the sale of two C-130J cargo planes by Lockheed Martin, approved by the US Congress for $400 million, including training and logistics.
“There are lots of opportunities for repairing [Russian-built] MiG aircraft and Mi helicopters, and they have a serious number of Ilyushins and Antonovs,” he said. “The AAL group is maintaining helicopters, and the Dutch have sold small [rigid-hull inflatable boats], but while Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are all active here and Textron has a strong presence, we are not even close to the sales expected.”
Wezeman said information coming out of the country is confusing, citing deals on military vehicles. “Last summer, there were reports of a deal with the Czech Republic for vehicles, but it was unconfirmed.”
In the meantime, Italy has donated Puma vehicles, and the US has handed over secondhand Humvees, with an eye on future sales.
“Libyans are also confused by loyalties; they are still wondering which countries they should partner with,” Griffiths said. “You see them at trade shows like IDEX overwhelmed by choice, like kids in a toy store. Many companies thought Libya would be like the [United Arab Emirates] or Algeria and they get great access to ministers, but there have been major obstacles.”
For a number of small companies that have invested in Libya, he said, the delay in deal-making could drive them out of business. The biggest deal on the horizon, he added, involves border control work, which could include radar and imaging systems, vehicles and forward operating bases.
In November, Italy’s Finmeccanica group signed a deal with the Libyan Defense Ministry to reactivate work on border control that had been approved with the Gadhafi government before the 2011 war. ■