Strategically located, multi ethnic, multi-faith Lebanon is frequently the focus for regional security problems. These are often maritime in nature.
There are sea border disputes with both Syria and Israel. Also, Israel has long held that Iranian-manufactured arms, including some very sophisticated weaponry, are shipped into Lebanon to supply the Israelis’ implacable foe, Tehran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah (LH).
LH has a substantial maritime arm, which operates coastal-based missiles and guns, as well as fast small boats, underwater attack swimmers and naval commandoes.
The 2006 Israel-Lebanon war had a significant maritime aspect, including surveillance, interdiction and shore bombardment. Of particular significance was the successful strike on the Israeli Navy corvette Hanit, by a shore-fired LH anti-shipping cruise missile, probably an Iranian derivative of the Chinese C-802.
Israel retaliated by bombing the Lebanese Navy shore radar stations which had allegedly facilitated the attack.
During and after the war, Israel conducted a naval blockade of Lebanon. In September 2006 this was supplanted by a multinational UN anti-arms smuggling operation, which evolved into the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) Maritime Task Force (MTF).
Since its inception, some 15 nations, namely Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Turkey have contributed warships to the operation. Command of the MTF initially rotated between a number of countries, but in recent years it has been under the continuous command of Brazilian Navy Admirals, embarked in Brazilian frigates.
It is widely believed that long term Brazilian command was decided upon because that country has the world’s largest expatriate Lebanese population.
The MTF is the first naval task force ever to form part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission. It supports the Lebanese Navy (LN) in monitoring its territorial waters, and in securing the Lebanese coastline. Its prime mission is the prevention of the smuggling of arms and military equipment by sea into Lebanon. MTF also provides training for the LN.
The MTF has so far intercepted more than 100,000 ships, and referred some 10,000 of them to the Lebanese authorities for further inspections.
Ships currently assigned to the MTF include:
- Bangladeshi OPV Bijoy
- Brazilian frigate Uniao
- German frigate Ludwigshafen am Rhein
- Indonesian frigate Sultan Hasanuddin
Both the Brazilian, and Indonesian, frigates operate embarked helicopters.
LN personnel are regularly assigned to MTF warships. These assignments are somewhat controversial, as there are suspicions that some LN personnel might be affiliated to LH.
The LN does not have sustainable offshore operational capability, as its order of battle consists of inshore, coastal and middle water craft. Israel, furthermore, has reportedly warned the Lebanese government that it must not acquire deep sea combat capability. Lebanese warships, though, often operate in company with MTF vessels
Flagship of the LN is the 43.5-metre, 40-knot, waterjet-propelled patrol vessel Trablous, built by River Hawk Fast Sea Frames in the USA.
Other LN assets include ex-German, and ex-French customs craft, and a former German military range safety vessel, as well as six Attacker-class patrol craft, acquired from the UK’s Royal Navy, and Customs and Excise Service. Most of these vessels are armed with 20mm cannon, and/or machine guns.
A pair of French-buiIt 59-metre landing ships facilitate amphibious operations by the Lebanese Army, and Marines.
Smaller vessels include fast interceptors, some built indigenously, and some in the UAE, US-built RHIBs, and ex-British Army support craft.
Seven coastal radar stations, mostly built to replace those destroyed in 2006, fitted with Pharos XLR3+ long range multi-sensor surveillance platforms, provide the LN command team with continuous situational awareness. LN personnel are rotated between duties at the radar stations, and on board warships.
LN personnel are well trained, with many attending professional courses in the US, and in a number of European countries. LN students are renowned for gaining very high examination marks while under training.
After some years of relative stability, tensions between Lebanon and Israel are on the rise again. Recent attacks on what are reportedly LH facilities were allegedly carried out by drones launched from Israeli warships offshore.
LH, meanwhile, has ramped up its propaganda effort, promulgating video footage of what is purported to be preparations for, and execution of, the missile attack upon Hanit.
Also being distributed is footage allegedly showing an Israeli Super Dvora fast attack craft being hit by a Kornet anti-tank missile fired from shore by an LH fighter. There is, so far at least, no irrefutable evidence that such an attack has actually taken place.
Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.