If you had a chauffeur driven car with free petrol, bodyguards at your side 24 hours a day, seven days a week, free babysitting and rides to school for the kids, as well as school fees for your children and health care for the family thrown in, you could be a Hollywood starlet; or, you could be a high-ranking officer in the Lebanese military cashing in on the regular package of benefits offered to you.
Addressing the costs associated with this type of spending is but one of the tasks facing the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) on its path to reform. “The waste in the Army is not the [number of people in the] Army — the waste is in the five or six cars following a Brigade Commander and in soldiers driving kids to school,” complains former General Elias Hanna.
The LAF is overseen by the Ministry of Defense, which enjoys the largest allocation of funds of any ministry, receiving $1.2 billion in the 2012 Draft Budget. The Lebanese defense budget ranks ninth globally in terms of military expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product, with Lebanon spending 4.2 percent of its GDP on the military in 2010, according to the World Bank. Regionally, Lebanon was outspent in 2010 by Jordan, with 5.2 percent of GDP dedicated to military spending, the United Arab Emirates (5.4 percent) and Israel (6.5 percent), but surpassed Syria (which spent 3.9 percent that same year).
Even so, “the budget [the LAF] gets for an army in the 50,000s [of personnel] is nothing, it’s sad,” says Riad Kahwaji, chief executive officer at the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) think tank.
According to internal army documents, it is estimated that the LAF need at least $1.3 billion for essential force development, including communication equipment, training and weapons.
There are two causes for the lack in funding, says former Brigadier General Amine Hotait. “The first is the poverty of the state; we have a public debt approaching $60 billion.” The second, he says, is politicians don’t see the point of adequately funding the army as they know it is impossible to compete militarily with Israel, with whom Lebanon is still officially at war.
“Why give money without use?” asks Hotait.
Paying the troops
The LAF, including the navy and the air force, comprise 59,000 personnel, 57,000 of whom serve in the Army. At least 85 percent of the Lebanese defense budget is allocated for the salaries, amenities and allowances for these men, according to the 2010 military budget — the latest approved by the cabinet. This has left the LAF largely reliant on foreign donors for their equipment, as the breakdown of the budget shows.
Israel, the region’s top military spender relative to GDP, spent 60 percent of its military budget on personnel in 2010, while arms acquisition comprised 30 percent. Neighboring Jordan, which also allocates 85 percent of its military spending to salaries, still managed to spend $1.6 billion on equipment orders between 2005 and 2008, according to a study by the Center for Strategic International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. Over the same period, Lebanon spent $90 million, mostly on spare parts and logistics.
According to the latest available information published by the Beirut-based research firm Information International in 2010, a regular soldier receives $437 per month in his first year, which increases on average $20 a month for each year of active service. A starting salary for a junior officer, such as second lieutenant, is $683, with average yearly increases of just more than $25 per month.
In 2011, parliament approved a pay increase of $76 million for the military and security forces, while in the same year military salaries, indemnities and allowances amounted to $1.64 billion, according to the Ministry of Finance. This number includes wages for the Internal Security Forces (ISF), General Security Forces and State Security Forces, though the Army received the bulk (almost 70 percent) of this money: $1.1 billion. The actual expenditure on salaries thus exceeded the budgeted salaries significantly. The 2010 budget allocated $838 million for salaries, indemnities and allowances, while in practice such costs were $1.18 billion over the period from January to November 2010 alone, according to Ministry of Finance’s wage and salary statistics.
A significant percentage of last year’s wages, $191 million (17 percent), were paid in indemnities and allowances, which also provide a social security network for soldiers’ dependents through a variety of allowances for their schooling and healthcare. These include hospital treatment expenses ($65 million), school benefits ($63 million) and illness and maternity benefits (almost $14 million).
This system has led to a ‘militarization of welfare’, say both Aram Nerguizian, an expert on the LAF and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, and Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
“When you can’t give welfare to everybody, you have to distinguish between population groups to justify providing only for one group,” says Sayigh. “Here they distinguish through institutions; through the military.”
Some 500,000 people, roughly 10 percent of the Lebanese population, rely on the military hospitals, and coffers, for their healthcare, according to a general responsible for a military hospital [As Executive lacked military clearance for this article, despite numerous requests, he asked to remain anonymous]. Less than 10 percent of patients treated in military hospitals are active service members, the general explained.
The Army and the Ministry of Defense did not respond to repeated requests for comment over a three-month period.
The highlife of the officer corps
For Lebanon’s 3,400 commissioned officers, amenities include chauffeur driven cars, unlimited free fuel, free cell phones, bodyguards and follow cars for the officers and their family, according to Information International’s salary breakdown and former General Hanna. Hanna is concerned that this is not only a waste of financial capital, but also human capital, as soldiers are tasked with running errands for their superiors. “Why should soldiers be driving officers’ kids to school? How is that soldier protecting the nation?” asks general Hanna.
A Brigadier General will initially earn $1,560 monthly in wages. He also receives a housing allowance, a personal budget for military equipment such as uniforms, a rank allowance, field service indemnities and a chauffeur allowance worth $1039. In addition to this, he will receive free health care and education for his family. “The benefits are why people join, not the salary,” says Brigadier General Amine Hotait, adding that this is true for all ranks. “If they cut the benefits nobody can stay in the army.”
Benefits for officers are especially costly due to the high number of top brass (see diagram). According to the 1981 New Defense Law Lebanon is supposed to have 80 generals, yet the LAF currently has 420. In comparison, Britain has 46 for a force of 109,500, almost twice the size of Lebanon’s.
“The number has accumulated due to the need to reward combat during war time,” says another former Brigadier-General who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Hotait confirmed that the situation is illegal, but says efforts are being made to reduce the size of the officer corps by offering lucrative retirement packages.
Due to the promotional structure of the LAF, which does not have an exit policy for its employees, personnel costs are unlikely to decrease in the future. “There hasn’t been a policy of stop-gaps in promotion,” says CSIS’ Nerguizian. “There are no mechanisms to weed out the incapable officers; everybody gets a B even if they are an F student.” A European diplomat who has intensive contact with the LAF, but cannot be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter, was more explicit: “Anybody who does not commit criminal errors will be promoted; you will become a general someday.”
The New Defense Law of 1978 stipulated that the Military Council, consisting of the heads of all the departments within the Defense Ministry, should advise on all promotions. However, top appointments require political backing and approval by the Council of Ministers.
“The last five years [the Military Council] have been trying to get the number of generals down to 150, but it has been politically very divisive,” says Nerguizian. “The officers are there as clients [of political figures], and as long as they are there, you have access.”
The appointment of Jean Kahwaji as Commander of Forces (COF) in 2008, at the relatively young age of 54, was supposed to be a step in the right direction, according to the European diplomat, as it is customary for generals who are more senior than the COF to retire as they no longer stand a chance of occupying the top spot; in this case however, none of the senior generals chose to retire, added the diplomat.
Lacking arms, and aim, for the army
The high personnel costs have taken their toll on arms procurement. Since 1990, the Lebanese government has not allocated more than 1 percent of the Lebanese Defense Budget for arms procurement. As a result of this lack of funds, the LAF has been mostly reliant on equipment it acquired from militias after the civil war, as well as donations.
The United States has been the largest military aid provider since Syria withdrew in 2005; until recently it provided up to $100 million annually. France, Britain, Belgium, the United Arab Emirates and the Netherlands have also donated trucks, anti-tank missiles, helicopters and border patrol equipment.
More recently Russia and Iran have offered their own military supplies to Lebanon. Such donations are not done entirely selflessly, as the maintenance of equipment is very costly, and requires reliance on donors, especially concerning specialized equipment whose spare parts are not freely available.
“The LAF isn’t hooked,” says Sayigh from the Carnegie center, “rather it has been obliged for many years to rely on donations and perhaps this is a good thing, since it partly means that the LAF has not sought to buy high-tech, high-cost prestige items that it doesn’t really need, can’t really use, and can’t afford to maintain.
Even if the LAF had the money to spend, Lebanon still lacks a national defense strategy that stipulates what mission it should be procuring weapons for. Although the Taif accord, signed in 1989 near the end of the Lebanese Civil War, stipulates the LAF’s primary responsibility is to protect the country against Israel, this role has been usurped.
“The external threat [Israel] is taken care of by Hezbollah, they are the reason Israel fears Lebanon now,” said the former Brigadier General who asked not to be named. “However, it is a partnership with the army; they are the ‘hand’ of the army. It is a partnership of the citizens, the army and the Resistance.”
Thus the LAF has effectively been pushed into the role of guaranteeing internal security, he says, which was originally the primacy of the Internal Security Forces (ISF).
A new target?
The ambiguity of the LAF’s actual task further complicates the consolidation of the military’s weapons arsenal, as taking out armed groups in a civilian area requires different gear and training than defending borders to protect the country’s sovereignty. A national defense strategy, and a clearly defined role for the LAF, may yet materialize, however, given that it was among the matters up for discussion last month at the National Dialogue sessions.
“The Army executes the policy of the government, it is not the role of the army to set its own policy,” says Kahwaji of INEGMA. “The politicians have to set a national defense policy which defines the role for the LAF, when that is done, the LAF has to fulfill its mission.”
Such a policy will also allow for a clearer assessment of personnel needs and a more streamlined policy of arms acquisition. But this is only possible if the politicians will choose to fund the institution beyond providing salaries, or enforce oversight to ensure these funds are well spent.