By: RIAD KAHWAJI
Beirut- Faced with an urgent need for air-strike weaponry, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) has taken a do-it-yourself approach.
LAF technical teams have converted UH-1H utility helicopters into bombers, updated decades-old bombs and are planning to resurrect out-of-service warplanes, Lebanese officials said.
“We have a serious situation in Nahr Al-Bared refugee camp and the international community has not responded fast enough to our military requirements to deal with the threat,” one senior Lebanese military official said.
“Hence we have decided to take things in our own hands. We brought out 30-year-old bombs — originally acquired to be used on board the Hawker Hunter attack aircraft — and now we are dropping them from our helicopters with a good degree of precision and effectiveness.”
The LAF has been fighting an al-Qaida-allied Islamic terrorist group known as Fatah Al-Islam in the Nahr Al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon since late May. Most of the camp’s 35,000 inhabitants left in the early days of the fighting. More recently, LAF Special Forces and armored units have been making slow but steady progress in the camp’s narrow alleyways. LAF officials said some 400 to 500 terrorists have been killed in the fighting, with at least 100 captured and an estimated 65 still holding out. To date, 146 LAF troops have been killed.
The current phase of the conflict in Nahr Al-Bared has been regarded by experts as the toughest because the terrorists are using bomb shelters and fortifications built years ago by the Palestine Liberation Organization to be used by its late leader Yassir Arafat.
“These are very well-built defenses with bomb shelters and bunkers linked up with underground tunnels,” said Ahmad Temsah, a retired Lebanese Air Force brigadier general. “Regular artillery and tank shells have no serious effect on such defenses, and the only way to deal with them is through heavy air-dropped bombs.”
Temsah called the move to convert helicopters into bombers a “genius idea.”
LAF technicians and engineers modified the UH-1H helicopters, raising the height of the landing skids and belly mounting bomb-release gear and pylons from retired Mirage-3 jets.
“Then we got out of the depots old bombs and fitted them with new detonators and loaded them on the helicopters and tested the system and it was a success,” the official said.
So far, the helicopters have dropped 250-kilogram and 400-kilogram bombs from altitudes between 3,000 and 4,000 feet. The pilots use GPS devices to help guide them from point of departure to the bomb-release point.
“The precision has been remarkable, with most bombs landing within a 10-meter radius,” Temsah said.
The strikes have demolished many of the camp’s two- and three-floor buildings and many of the fortifications of the Fatah Al-Islam, according to LAF officials.
The LAF engineers have set up a bomb production line to ensure there will be enough bombs to complete the fight in Nahr Al-Bared and to prepare for possible future confrontations, the senior military official said.
Fawzi Abu-Farhat, a retired LAF brigadier general and editor of the monthly Arab Defense Journal, said, “This is the first time in the history of warfare that a helicopter is used as a bomber ... in an effective manner.”
But Temsah said helicopter bombs can only be used in special cases when the enemy does not have air defenses and the weather conditions are good.
The LAF official said commanders have also decided to bring five Hawker Hunter jets back into service after a decade’s retirement — if needed parts can be found. Sources said the main need is for ejector-seat parts.
Abu-Farhat noted that the LAF is one of the few Arab militaries that rely on local technicians to maintain and repair equipment and airplanes, and said the country’s acute economic conditions compel the troops to be innovative.
“These technical skills have enabled the LAF to keep many of its helicopters flying even when the West was not providing Lebanon with spare parts and military aid,” Abu Farhat said. “Now these same technicians and engineers, who are educated and trained in Europe and the U.S., have developed the helicopter bombers.”
LAF Command officials have complained in recent months that long-promised international military aid has arrived too slowly and in quantities too small to meet its modernization needs.
Temsah called for the international community to step up its airpower aid.
“Lebanon is a mountainous country, and hence the LAF must have an airpower capability, even at a minimum level of one squadron of attack warplanes for close ground support,” Temsah said.
Top picture: LAF helicopter. The Lebanese developed this helicopter as a bomber . “This is the first time in the history of warfare that a helicopter is used as a bomber ... in an effective manner.” according to Fawzi Abu-Farhat, a retired LAF brigadier general and editor of the monthly Arab Defense Journal. Ahmad Temsah, a retired Lebanese Air Force brigadier general called the move to convert helicopters into bombers a “genius idea.”
Smoke rises from the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp during shelling of the camp by a Lebanese army helicopter in north Lebanon