Yemen’s ‘barely functional’ air force points to US involvement in strikes
March 29th, 2012 | by
> Jack Serle |
Published in <http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/category/all-stories/
> Covert War
Yemen is a key battleground in America’s war on terror, and the government
of Yemen an important ally. Precision attacks on al Qaeda and its associates
are often attributed to the Yemen Air Force. But on closer inspection the
country’s air force appears to be barely functional.
Extensive data collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveals
at least eight airstrikes launched against alleged al Qaeda militant targets
in southern Yemen, reportedly killing a minimum of 102 people. But local
sources and Western experts describe the Yemeni air force as decrepit and
inadequate, in part due to corruption.
According to the
now/?entryid9=62076> International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) the
Yemeni Air Force has insufficient equipment and training to defend its own
Yemeni analyst Abdul Ghani Iryani says endemic corruption means the air
force ‘has not been functioning in ages’.
‘The stories of corruption are phenomenal,’ he says. Pilots cannot fly at
night because corruption in military procurement means ‘they don’t have the
navigation instruments’. In 2011, Yemeni officials supported this assertion
when they confirmed a July 14 strike was carried out by US drones, telling
Associated Press Yemeni planes are not equipped for night strikes.
Recent events have shown that morale and discipline in the Yemeni Air Force
have collapsed almost entirely. On January 22, pilots and ground crew went
on strike. For two months around 2,000 of the air force’s 3,000 men took to
the streets, protesting against corruption and nepotism.
Such widespread dysfunction strongly suggests that the Yemenis have been
unable to fight an air campaign against al Qaeda. And that the US has been
behind the majority of recent air strikes.
Yet the Yemeni Air Force carries on claiming US airstrikes as its own. A
diplomatic cable released by
WikiLeaks exposes this deception. While discussing the US-Yemeni
counterterrorism campaign with General David Petraeus, former President Ali
Abdullah Saleh is quoted as saying: ‘We’ll continue saying the bombs are
ours, not yours.’
Journalist Sharon Weinberger found the air force was barely functioning
while reporting for
orce%20Is%20In%20Disarray&prev=10> Aviation Week on the protesting airmen in
the capital, Sanaa. ‘My impression was that the air force as a whole is on
the verge of breaking down,’ she later told the Bureau.
According to the IISS, Yemen has 79 combat-capable aircraft, but some of
these are described as ‘unreliable’, particularly 19 ‘aged’ MiG-21 strike
The air force is a ‘hodge-podge mix of former Soviet equipment with some
from the US,’ Weinberger told the Bureau: keeping the planes in the air is a
challenge, she added. And spare parts for some aircraft are hard to come by
– a number are so old the manufacturers may no longer exist.
A handful of its 15 Cold War-era F-5 fighters are capable of flying,
according to Weinberger; yet she reports as many as five are completely
inoperable, their engines cannibalised for parts.
This is despite the US giving Yemen $326m (£205m) in security assistance
between 2007 and 2011. The majority of this was directed at maintaining
transport planes and helicopters, says Katherine Zimmerman of the American
Enterprise Institute. But the US <http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-432R
Government Accountability Office reports some of the aid to Yemen’s armed
forces goes towards sustaining ‘a handfull of its serviceable F-5 fighter
The US has provided training and equipment across Yemen’s armed services.
Much of the air force’s portion goes towards providing spare and replacement
parts, says Zimmerman. But Yemeni personnel travel to the US for
and Weinberger understands American personnel have been in and out of Sanaa
to evaluate the Yemen Air Force’s C-130 Hercules transport plane.
US special forces are active in Yemen, and last year amid reports of a new
drone base being built on the Arabian Peninsula, there was
ne-base-nearby-061411/> speculation that the Obama administration was
building it in Yemen. But Weinberger does not believe American jets or
drones are flying out of bases in Yemen.
Alan Warnes, chief correspondent for AirForces Monthly, cites Camp
Lemonnier, in Djibouti, as a possible source of US airstrikes. He says the
base in the nearby East African state is home to six American F-15 strike
In 2004 and 2005 Yemen bought 20 Russian MiG-29s. As they were purchased as
upgrades rather than new aircraft it is hard to say how much Yemen paid,
says Scott Johnson of defence analysts
> Jane’s. But he estimates
each plane could cost around $40m. Yemen’s most advanced aircraft are its 16
MiG-29s. The Russian jets can carry the guided weapons – so-called ‘smart’
bombs – necessary for precision strikes.
But Iryani believes the air force arsenal does not include smart bombs. He
cites as evidence an instance of government aircraft missing rebels and
bombing an oil pipeline instead.
In 2010 Human Rights Watch (HRW) <http://www.hrw.org/node/89290
it was not known if Yemen had bought guided weapons; but the same report
says the government of Yemen used unguided ‘dumb’ bombs while fighting
Houthi rebels in the north of the country.
Waging a protracted war for secession in north eastern Yemen, Houthi rebels
have been battling government forces for the last eight years. In a
comprehensive report on the conflict, American defence think tank the
> Rand Corporation describes
the government’s tactics as ‘uncoordinated’.
The Yemen government used planes ‘as flying artillery’, the report said.
Individual aircraft flew sorties against static targets. In several
instances, the report says, civilian casualties were caused by aircraft
bombing mountainous areas and villages ‘suspected of supporting Houthis’.
Beyond its ability
Yemen’s air force does not have much capacity for precision strikes against
al Qaeda, Warnes believes. Flying night missions would probably be beyond
its ability as well. ‘The only aircraft they have capable of night flying
would be quite antiquated fighters,’ he says. ‘I think it’s the Americans
who are doing it rather than the Yemenis.’
‘The bulk of the attacks on militants are carried out by somebody else,’
agrees Iryani. But according to Jane’s, Yemen does possess two kinds of
guided missiles, carried by helicopters. The Soviet-era AT-2 Swatter, which
came into service in the 1960s, and the AT-6 Spiral, first deployed in the
early 1970s. It is not known how many the Yemenis have or how old their
These missiles could be deployed on the Yemeni’s eight Russian Mi-35 Hind
attack helicopters. But there is no indication these are in better shape
than the fixed wing aircraft. Furthermore, there are no reports of
helicopter strikes in the Bureau’s data.
When fighting the Houthi rebellion the Yemeni government was unwilling to
use its helicopters for anything other than logistics according to the Rand
Corporation report. This was out of fear of losing an aircraft to small-arms
fire. And that would be a loss the already depleted Yemeni Air Force would
find hard to bear.
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Received on Thu Mar 29 2012 - 07:38:30 EDT