Around the globe national militaries are often venerated pillars of stability, serving a number of critical functions, such as providing employment and security. That is perhaps especially true in Lebanon, where the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are called on for everything from countering the regions terrorism threats to uniting the country’s ethno-religiously divided communities. However, the economic crisis in the country is straining the military’s ability to pay for basic necessities and even retain personnel.
In recent years, Lebanon’s economy has been ravaged by hyperinflation, with the Lebanese pound losing over 90 percent of its value and prices quadrupling, eating away salaries and savings. In March 2020, the country defaulted on payments on its massive debt as its foreign reserves dried up. The government has since reduced crucial subsidies on food, fuel, and medicine.
The effects of inflation, dwindling foreign currency reserves, and budget cuts have created severe challenges for the military and forced it to implement austerity measures. These include providing vegetarian-only meals since the summer of 2020 and, since early July, offering US$150 helicopter rides to tourists.
With a force of over 80,000, the LAF also functions as a socio-economic steppingstone for many of the country’s poor. Yet, despite a soaring poverty rate of 55 percent, Lebanon’s economic crisis has constrained the LAF’s ability to recruit, with no new hires since 2017 and a moratorium on early retirement, as retirees could be entitled to certain benefits that may end up being too costly.
Lebanon’s economic crisis has constrained the Lebanese Armed Forces’ ability to recruit, with no new hires since 2017.
Aram Nerguizian, Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Inside Arabia that the period between 2019 and 2021 were the first years since 2007 that attrition rates within the LAF exceeded recruitment.
In addition to the hiring freeze, the shrinking of the enlisted corps is also a result of personnel reportedly requesting early discharge to pursue more lucrative careers. “If a young officer has hypothetically a three million per month salary in Lebanese pounds, two million of that is going to go to the generator and keeping the lights on, and he’s supposed to somehow live on the rest. And I would highlight the fact that separate to all of this, LAF benefits and entitlements have been consistently stepped back from 2018 to 2022,” said Nerguizian. He added that demographic pressures have also made it more difficult for the military to ensure representation of the country’s sectarian groups in the LAF.
Speaking to Inside Arabia, Chris Abi-Nassif, Director of the Lebanon program at the Middle East Institute, worries that the military’s shrinking salaries could lead to more widespread defection in the future: “I don’t think we’re there yet, but it plants the seeds – at some point – of people starting to wonder, ‘Is this even worth it, is it worth it for me to put my life on the line, for me to serve?’”
Lebanon’s economic malaise could also affect the military’s ability to carry out its missions, as declining funds erode its operational readiness. Nerguizian said that from 2018 to 2021 the procurement budget was cut by 94 percent, while the operations and maintenance budget was slashed by 88.6 percent, over the same period. The accounts play a crucial role in helping the LAF operate affordably, enabling it to purchase a range of supplies on international markets where they can be acquired more cheaply than from the United States, the world’s largest defense exporter.
Another large portion of the LAF’s budget is provided through the United States government, in the form of Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and similar aid mechanisms. The revenue stream allows for the purchasing of military equipment and services primarily from US corporations. This year, the US government increased FMF to Lebanon by US$15 million, bringing the total annual allocation to US$120 million. A further US$59 million was transferred in May, to primarily “strengthen the army’s border security capabilities along the eastern border,” according to a US Embassy press release.
This year, the US government increased Foreign Military Financing to Lebanon by US$15 million.
Other countries around the region and world have sent assistance to the LAF this year as well. Jordan has provided heavy equipment, while Saudi Arabia pledged US$3 billion for the acquisition of weaponry. Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, the UAE, Spain, Iraq, and Qatar contributed supplies to the Lebanese military, often including food aid.
Meanwhile, the government of Lebanon has been virtually missing in action. Nerguizian told Inside Arabia that the military is not seen as a vehicle for the graft that Lebanese politicians use to source support, which results in state neglect. “The thing that is most frustrating for the LAF is it’s pretty clear that there’s no political interest by any of the major factions to look at this as something that requires some kind of critical remedial action,” Nerguizian explained. “If you’re the political class in this country and the LAF says, ‘Hey, I got this real problem’ they’re like, ‘Well, take a number because I have my own patronage networks to sustain and guess what, you’re not part of that patronage system.’”
In the absence of a concerted political effort to support the military, Army Chief General Joseph Aoun has taken to campaigning for more international aid for the LAF. Speaking to French officials, he warned that the army could implode without additional foreign funding. At a donor conference for the LAF on June 17, the US, EU, Arabian Gulf countries, Russia, and China pledged tens of millions of dollars’ worth of aid to the LAF.
While military aid provision serves a number of strategic goals for donor countries, a key interest of the United States, which contributes the most to the LAF – over US$2.5 billion since 2006 – remains maintaining a counterbalance to the powerful Iranian ally, Hezbollah.
Lebanon’s economic crisis could exacerbate the imbalance of power that skews in Hezbollah’s favor.
Indeed, Lebanon’s economic crisis could exacerbate the imbalance of power that skews in Hezbollah’s favor. “This is a situation where every single player is losing ground, losing influence, losing money—but it’s not a zero-sum game,” explained Abi-Nassif. “Hezbollah is the party that is effectively losing the least in this collapse because they have people in Hezbollah that still get paid in dollars, the other parties don’t have the luxury of doing it.”
Despite increased international aid, the future of the LAF remains uncertain.
“I think there are some new assumptions that haven’t really set in yet, like the fact that it’ll be very difficult to be able to sustain an 80,000 strong military in the future, [and] that there have to be some very real soul-searching exercises about just what kind of force is sustainable and what that means for the [military] model,” Nerguizian lamented. “All those things are happening in a vacuum, without any political engagement by a political class that couldn’t care less.”