BEIRUT — Amid Lebanon’s efforts to find oil in the Mediterranean Sea, the country’s Army is working to expand its search-and-rescue and air-defense capabilities. And the Air Force is trying to bolster its air dominance by procuring six additional A-29 Super Tucanos equipped with an advanced precision kill weapon system, and MD 530G helicopters armed for the first time with the APKWS.
The commander of the Air Force, Brig. Gen. Ziad Haykal, answered questions from Defense News about how those efforts are related to oil exploration as well as materiel procurement plans.
What does the Air Force have to do with efforts secure future oil and gas installations?
We have now helicopters able to perform limited search and rescue missions within Lebanese regional waters, but they are not enough, we need more systems. Now we are in the process of finalizing a study about acquiring the needed systems, to increase the present choppers’ ability of search and rescue.
Adding to that, we may increase those capabilities by procuring new choppers from a French loan that was endorsed by the Rome 2 conference held in March 2018 to support the Lebanese Army. The equipment we are hoping to get to strengthen Air Force capabilities include radars on choppers for maritime targets detection and air defense systems to counter asymmetric threats.
Lebanon received six A-29 Super Tucano light-attack aircraft as part of a military aid package to Lebanon. What distinguishes these close-air support planes from other A-29s around the world? What avionics and command-and-control systems are Lebanon’s versions equipped with?
The A-29 program is one of a kind, since for the first time this light-attack aircraft was equipped with laser-guided missiles and APKWS. It is able to perform close-air support and counterinsurgency missions, [and] this aircraft is able to hold different types of weapons according to the mission it handles anywhere on the Lebanese grounds and regional waters in less than 20 minutes.
Note that our Air Force’s Super Tucano cockpit is equipped with weapon systems similar to those on fourth- and fifth-generation fighters. The Lebanese A-29 is provided with a thermal camera with a laser designator for reconnaissance and ammunition directing, and navigation and communication systems, and a heads-up display that receives flight information from a special computer and other weapon-related information from another ballistic computer.
Adding to that, this aircraft is equipped with two automatic, 12.7mm guns. Also, the Lebanese A-29 can be equipped with MK82 and MK81 bombs; Hydra 70mm unguided missiles; APKWS laser-guided 70mm ammunition; and smart, laser-guided bombs: GBU-12 and GBU-58.
Noting its low operational cost — including fuel, spare parts and maintenance — and high operational efficiency — especially that A-29 has a longer flight duration than jets and a takeoff ability without the need of real runaway — Lebanon is in the process of procuring six more A-29 Super Tucano aircraft from the U.S. government to be equipped with the same laser-guided missiles.
What methods did the Air Force use to integrate the A-29 within its operational fleet? How was the APKWS integrated on the light-attack planes?
We have followed [standard operating procedures] to integrate Cessna Caravan and A-29 capabilities, to locate and illuminate targets. Cessna can fly more than four continuous hours and it can ensure mission completion. More than one Super Tucano aircraft can complete the firing missions, while one Cessna above the operation area surveys and points at targets, which enhances operational capabilities for the A-29.
With respect to APKWS, it is worth noting that this is the first time the Lebanese Air Force has the laser-guided capability. Now we will be able to attack our target precisely instead of fire abundance that was used throughout fighting against terrorism during Dawn of Jurds in 2017.
The Lebanese Air Force faced difficulties in using this system on an average-speed aircraft like the A-29 Super Tucano because APKWS is only used on fighters and helicopters that have higher speeds than the Super Tucano.
We performed risk-management analysis for the APKWS on the A-29, [and] the aircraft was accepted to integrate APKWS. And we have carried out our first live-firing test in April 2019, and it was successful.
Why was the Super Tucano chosen over other light-attack aircraft like the Archangel?
Fourteen air forces worldwide depend on the Super Tucano, in addition to its technical capabilities, weapon systems and low-cost flight hours, [which costs] less than the Archangel operational cost per hour. This is one of the major reasons the Lebanese Air Force chose the A-29.
What’s the latest on the MD 530 helicopter program for the Lebanese Army?
The program is right on track, and we are coordinating with the U.S. government to receive the six choppers, which are under production, during 2021.
Also, we are expecting to procure six more MD 530 helicopters as a second batch to get a total of 12. These choppers will be equipped with a 12.7mm automatic gun, Hydra 70 missiles and APKWS laser-guided missiles, similar to those on the Super Tucano. The aircraft will also include advanced weapon control systems and a day-and-night camera to locate targets.
What obstacles are you facing, and how will you overcome them?
There are many obstacles facing Air Force reinforcement, on top of which are economic challenges that prevent buying advanced weapons and systems. We are overcoming this impediment by developing the human staff and by coordinating with governments of allied nations to provide military and security aids, like the Super Tucano and MD 530 project.
Can the Lebanese Air Force operate aircraft of Russian or Chinese origin?
There are no conditions that prevent LAF from getting military systems and aircraft from any country in the world, including Russia and China.
But here, the economic factor plays a major role. The USA supports the Lebanese Armed Forces, including the Air Force, through military aid programs, unlike Russia and China, which don’t provide any aid to the LAF.
Are there any signs of reviving the Saudi military aid to Lebanon that was halted in 2016?
This is a political issue. The Air Force prepared during 2015 a list of needed equipment within this aid. This issue is always a matter of discussion on the military side, [particularly] when the Lebanese Armed Forces commander, Gen. Joseph Aoun, visited the kingdom of Saudi Arabia last month.
How does the Air Force keep up with technological advancements in the aerospace domain? How will you integrate artificial intelligence into systems?
The Lebanese Air Force tries to follow up with advancements in aerospace technology by equipping aircraft and helicopters with modern weapon systems, within the available economic margin and to perform the needed tasks with the least operational cost.
We used advanced technologies during the Dawn of Jurds in the summer of 2017 by directing artillery ammunition from the Cessna Caravan aircraft, and this was a one-of-a-kind mission done by the Air Force. Now there is training to guide close-air support systems from the ground and to illuminate targets from land forces.
Adding to that, we are operating UAVs, the ScanEagle in particular, to survey, collect, analyze and process target information.
After the Super Tucano, what systems is the Air Force looking to buy?
Other than the MD 530G helicopters, our next step will be to procure air defense systems and a radar network able to control Lebanese airspace completely and prevent any breaches.
What has been implemented from the Rome 2 conference to support the Lebanese Army? Talk about the €400 million (U.S. $453 million) French military aid to Lebanon.
The Air Force is expected to have its share from this French aid, where we expect to receive medium-sized helicopters. We are now negotiating with the French side about the type and integrated systems within these choppers. Note that these helicopters will perform search and rescue missions above the sea and will [secure] the oil and gas facilities operations as well as support the naval forces.
Agnes Helou was a Middle East correspondent for Defense News. Her interests include missile defense, cybersecurity, the interoperability of weapons systems and strategic issues in the Middle East and Gulf region.