Security

US-Lebanon naval partnership event builds on strong alliance

By Nohad Topalian

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Lebanese Army Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun September 27 visited the USNS Choctaw County anchored at the Beirut Naval Base, and toured it accompanied by US Naval Forces Central Command commander Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea and a number of officers. [Lebanese Armed Forces]

BEIRUT -- The United States' military recently concluded its first Central Partnership Station mission to Lebanon.

The mission, conducted between September 20 and 29, aimed to build the Lebanese Navy's capacity to maintain regional security and stability and to enhance disaster response capabilities, Lebanese and US military officials said.

US and Lebanese naval forces took part in the event, which included an international partnership-building conference held aboard the USNS Choctaw County, docked at the Beirut Naval Base, that drew participants from 28 countries.

Conference participants discussed ways to advance the Lebanese Navy's capacity and inter-operability with foreign navies.

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The USNS Choctaw County, an expeditionary fast transport ship, made a historic trip to Lebanon in September, the first visit by a US naval ship to a Lebanese naval base. [US Embassy in Lebanon]

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A Lebanese naval vessel patrols near a border-marking buoy in the Mediterranean waters off Lebanon's southern coast on May 4. [Jack Guez/AFP]

During the partnership event, US Navy technicians and divers conducted workshops on explosive ordnance disposal and naval mine countermeasures.

Meanwhile, US Naval Construction Battalions (Navy Seabees) and Lebanese Armed Forces engineers together constructed a maritime security support facility at the Jounieh Naval Base.

The facility will provide operational space for visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) missions, building the Lebanese Navy's capacity to secure its maritime border, US military officials said.

US and Lebanese forces also engaged in an exchange of expertise.

The US Navy's health team provided information on preventive medicine, disaster preparedness and response, drinking water testing and treatment, communicable disease contact tracing and response to epidemics.

Community relations projects distributed aid to Lebanese civilians during the event, including $1.5 million in medicines, with baby formula and other humanitarian aid delivered via non-governmental organisations.

Maintaining maritime security

The Central Partnership Station mission presents "a new opportunity for the US Navy to work with our Lebanese counterparts", said US Naval Forces Central Command commander Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, whose duties include commanding the US Navy's 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces (CMF).

The drill is being conducted "because we recognise that there's an opportunity to build partner capacity as well as do some humanitarian work that is needed", 5th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Tim Hawkins told Defense News magazine.

Building the capacities and capabilities of the Lebanese Army "is critical to maintaining regional maritime security and stability", he said.

Military-to-military engagements like these "enhance interoperability, they build partner capacity, and that results in improved regional security and stability", he told the US military magazine, noting that this drill may become a regular event.

"The presence of a US 5th Fleet ship in Lebanon and its docking at the Port of Beirut are very important and reaffirm that the United States is committed to supporting the Lebanese Army and helping it develop its capabilities," a military source with the Lebanese Army Command told Al-Mashareq.

He said the training included lessons in dealing with naval mines, and field technical training on repairing basic mechanical breakdowns and troubleshooting communications systems and radar on warships.

"The aim of the conference was to highlight the importance of our military institution and the reasons for continued support and the enhancement of its capabilities by the international community," he said.

It succeeded in underscoring the United States' commitment to its partnership with the Lebanese military, he added.

Staunch support for Lebanon

The United States "did not for one moment stop providing the [Lebanese] army with assistance in the form of training and equipment", said strategic analyst Maroun Hitti, a retired Lebanese military officer.

He said the docking of the ship in Lebanon's waters sends a message that "the United States does not intend to abandon its influence on the Lebanese arena".

The Lebanese welcomed the ship's arrival at the port of Beirut, he noted.

And the event underscored that despite any difference in views between the United States and its European allies, their stance on Lebanon is largely aligned in terms of supporting its government and the army, he added.

Two years ago, Hitti said, US Central Command prepared three programmes to provide reconnaissance ships to conduct maritime patrols in the Lebanese exclusive economic zone.

"USNS Choctaw County's visit comes within the context of enabling the Lebanese Navy to take over the tasks currently being carried out by the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) when they are ready for the mission," he said.

This is in line with US interests and the UN's goal of transferring the responsibilities of the Maritime Task Force (MTF), the naval component of UNIFIL, to the Lebanese Navy.

Strategic affairs researcher Riad Kahwaji said the Central Partnership Station exercise "reflects the growing interest in the security of the Lebanese regional and economic waters".

In addition to the task of protecting maritime borders, he said, "there is considerable interest in strengthening the capabilities of the Lebanese Navy to carry out its duties of combating smuggling and human trafficking".

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