Lebanese Army Caught in the Middle

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Melissa Block talks with Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies about the size and armament of the Lebanese Army. Analysts are now asking if the future might see a possible international peacekeeping force in Lebanon.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Lebanon's defense minister says the Lebanese army stands ready to defend the country if Israel invades by land. He said in an interview today, we know that we are not of the size of the Israeli army in order to defeat them, but we are standing on our land and in our trenches.

For more on the Lebanese military, we turn to Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington. He's been writing about Lebanese security forces. And first off, Mr. Cordesman, how big is the Lebanese army?

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): Well it has a nominal strength of around 70,000. In practice, its actual manning is significantly lower and an awful lot of that manning is relatively poorly trained, not regular conscript but young men who have almost no military experience. So the core strength of actual fighting capability probably comes closer to being around 35,000 to 40,000.

BLOCK: When the Lebanese defense minister says that the Lebanese military stands ready to defend the country, is that a plausible scenario? What kind of defenses could they mount?

Mr. CORDESMAN: To try to run a campaign against an oncoming force that's capable of joint warfare, of using fixed-wing attack aircraft, attack helicopters, the most advanced armor, when all you have is limited ground capability is, to put it mildly, dubious.

They don't have modern armored fighting vehicles. They have artillery weapons, but very few are self-propelled and they don't have anything like the Israeli ability to use unmanned aerial vehicles and other advanced targeting aids. So they could fight behind barriers but frankly, they are so overmatched technically and in terms of combined arms that it would be more a martyrdom than a war.

BLOCK: There's a lot of talk now about the presence of an international peacekeeping force being sent to southern Lebanon, presumably to work alongside the Lebanese army to stabilize the region, disarm Hezbollah. Do you have a vision of what that international force would look like, who would be part of it and how it would work?

Mr. CORDESMAN: Well, that's a very good question and people have rounded up the usual suspects. One, strangely enough, is not the United States so far, although we can't rule that out. But one thing we have to remember, this isn't a force going in to monitor a ceasefire. It would actually have to fight and that means killing and it means taking casualties.

Now that's not impossible, but when you really look at the history of these forces, it's anything but easy. Most such forces simply monitor and observe, as UNIFIL does. But that force has had no impact. And something similar would simply become, I suspect, a target for both the Hezbollah and Israeli political objections at its inability to act.

BLOCK: You mentioned UNIFIL. UNIFIL is the United Nations force that's been in southern Lebanon for decades now.

Mr. CORDESMAN: That's right. And time after time, it has simply had to sit by and been unable to act. It has taken casualties recently, but it's never had the strength to really challenge anyone.

BLOCK: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was asked about this international peacekeeping force today and was specifically asked whether the U.S. would be willing to contribute boots on the ground, troops on the ground, and she said, I do not think it is anticipated that U.S. ground forces are expected for that force.

Mr. CORDESMAN: Well, one question is when nobody can define the force, of course, nobody is expected for it, but one of the points that Secretary Rice can't make, but is very important, is the United States isn't seen as neutral here, it is seen as Israel's close ally. The Hezbollah has not actively attacked U.S. targets often in Lebanon or anywhere else, but ideologically it is very hostile to the United States because of its support for Israel.

BLOCK: Anthony Cordesman thanks very much.

Mr. CORDESMAN: Thank you.

BLOCK: Anthony Cordesman is senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington.

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