Beirut, Lebanon (UPI) Nov 20, 2009
A Russian military delegation is inspecting airfields before Moscow sends 10 MiG-29 fighter jets to bolster Lebanon's almost non-existent air force, a challenge to U.S. efforts to build up the Mediterranean country's state institutions to counter Hezbollah.
Under a deal announced in December by Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr during a visit to Moscow, Russia will provide the MiG-29s from its air force inventory free of charge, including upgrades, under a military assistance program.
The Americans have supplied second- and third-hand military equipment including M-60A3 main battle tanks (ex-Jordanian) and M-198 155mm artillery guns, worth $400 million to Lebanon since 2006.
But they refuse to provide advanced weapons systems on the grounds these could be used against Israel.
Their rationale is that building up Lebanon's armed forces will help stabilize the country and provide a legitimate alternative to Hezbollah that would undercut the Iranian-backed movement's justification for maintaining its own military forces.
By providing MiG-29s, even in such modest numbers, Moscow is seeking to outmaneuver the United States in Lebanon, as it is across the Middle East through political means as well as large-scale military sales.
But is it difficult to see how the Lebanese MiGs, a product of the 1990s and intended as a counter to the early model U.S. F-16, will alter the balance of power in any practical way in the region despite its speed, maneuverability and advanced weaponry.
Israel has objected to the deployment of MiG-29s on its northern border, claiming these could be used against the Jewish state.
It has been such Israeli opposition that has blocked the delivery of advanced U.S. weapons systems to Lebanon under the current military assistance program.
In theory, the MiG-29s would allow the Lebanese to contest suspected intrusions of their air space by Israeli jetfighters, reconnaissance aircraft and surveillance drones, as well as occasional strike missions.
However, that if the Lebanese MiGs tried to challenge the Israelis that would undoubtedly lead to confrontations with the Israeli air force, the most powerful in the Middle East, and possibly ignite wider hostilities.
As it is the MiG-29 pilots, to be trained in Russia, will be no match for the seasoned Israeli veterans flying their U.S.-built Boeing F-15Is and Lockheed Martin F-16s.
Ground attack missions against Israeli forces would also verge on the suicidal and are therefore unlikely short of all-out war.
Indeed, in such an event, the MiG-29s would be lucky to get off the ground since they would be a key target of the first Israeli airstrikes.
At present, Lebanon is helpless to counter Israeli air incursions. Its air force's combat capability consists of four patched-up British-built Hawker Hunter jets, 1950s vintage subsonic fighters that last saw action in the mid-1980s.
There is also one OV-10 Bronco, a turboprop observation/light attack aircraft, a type used in the Vietnam War, and a Cessna 2908B Caravan, a close air support/border surveillance aircraft provided by the United States in early 2009.
It can carry Hellfire air-to-ground missiles. Two more are to be delivered under the U.S. military program.
There are also around 40 helicopters, including 23 Vietnam-era Bell UH-1H Huey utility helicopters that can be fitted to carry bombs and rockets.
The Lebanese army only has aging Soviet-era anti-aircraft guns that are not radar-controlled and are thus completely useless against Israeli combat aircraft.
Hezbollah also has anti-aircraft guns but these are equally impotent against supersonic Israeli jets.
So, while the Russian military men inspect the suitability of the Lebanese air force's three bases -- at Beirut's international airport, Rayaq in the east near the Syrian border and at the civil airport at Kleiat in the north - the military value of the handful of MiG-29s remains an enigma.
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