The first French weapons from a $3bn Saudi-funded programme will arrive in Lebanon as allies seek to bolster the country’s defences against armed groups pressing along its Syrian border.
Anti-tank guided missiles were set to arrive at an air force base in Beirut on Monday, overseen by Jean-Yves Le Drian, French defence minister, and his Lebanese counterpart, Samir Mokbel.
France is expected to deliver 250 combat and transport vehicles, seven Cougar helicopters, three small corvette warships and a range of surveillance and communications equipment over four years as part of the $3bn modernisation programme.
It is being entirely funded by Saudi Arabia, which is keen to see Lebanon’s army defend its borders against armed groups, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, instead of leaving the job to Hezbollah fighters, who are backed by its regional rival, Iran.
The contract also promises seven years of training for the 70,000-strong Lebanese army and 10 years of equipment maintenance.
“This project is to help us re-establish a Lebanese army capable of responding to new security realities,”said a French defence official.
Since the conflict in neighbouring Syria broke out in 2011, Lebanon has faced mounting spillover threats, first from the millions of refugees pouring across the border and increasingly from fighters.
France is actually a late-comer to the conflict, with almost all Lebanon’s international support coming from the US and Britain in recent years.
The challenge has been to find French military equipment that Lebanon actually needs, he said, and to ensure it can be integrated with their existing weapon systems.
Nerguizian said Lebanon had turned down France’s Gazelle attack helicopter, Leclerc tank and larger warships, either because they were too expensive to maintain or not suited to the combat environment.
Instead, the focus is likely to be on radar capabilities, and command-and-control systems, which the Lebanese army currently lack, as well as transport aircraft.
The Cougar helicopters and corvette warships must first be built, and the first are not expected for at least 30 months.