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Eritrea for mobile viewing Air power misses the target in Yemen

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Date: Wednesday, 19 September 2018

A UN expert report into civilian casualties in the Yemen war underscores that avoiding civilian deaths takes far more than acquiring advanced combat aircraft.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have the two best-equipped air forces of the Arab states, and their combat-aircraft inventories would figure credibly in any global listing. But a report for the United Nations Human Rights Council on the war in Yemen is the latest to indicate failures in how they have applied their air power, failures that cannot be addressed simply by buying the latest and most advanced combat-aircraft types.

The report by a group of international experts covers a range of concerns about alleged human-rights violations and abuses during the conflict. But it will surely make salutary reading for those with an interest in air power, irrespective of the ultimate accuracy of all the claims and counter claims being made. It is accuracy in large part that lies at the heart of the concerns that emerge in the report, which states: ‘Coalition air strikes have caused most of the documented civilian casualties.’

The Military Balance+ database lists the Royal Saudi Air Force inventory as including the F-15 and Typhoon, whilst the UAE includes the F-16E/F and Mirage 2000-9. In both inventories, the variants are among the most advanced of these types.

It takes more than hardware

What the report makes clear is that, notwithstanding an inventory of advanced combat aircraft, air-to-surface weaponry and targeting pods, there is also the need for appropriate training, combat experience, and an integrated and rigorous target-identification, -selection and -verification process, if civilian casualties are to be kept to a minimum. It is in these areas that Saudi Arabia and its allies have been found wanting, the report suggests.

Further, the report argues:

Reliable information indicates the Saudi military is trained for conventional state-on-state conflict, and in particular, to attack military columns in austere environments, and has little if no training relevant to combatting insurgents in urban environments. The type of conventional warfare that the Saudi military is trained to fight would require a different approach to proportionality assessments and precautionary measures from that required when planning military operations in populated areas.

The Yemen war represents the largest independent use of air power by both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The latter supported operations in Afghanistan and Libya with a small number of F-16s, while Saudi Arabia has in the past carried out more limited air operations against Houthi forces. The sustained nature of the current air campaign probably meant that fatal errors were inevitable. Not even the most capable air force is immune from making mistakes. But it is the volume and the nature of the apparent targeting errors that troubles the report’s authors.

Implications for allies

The challenges faced by Saudi Arabia and its partners in Yemen, and their apparent approach with regard to air strikes, particularly in the urban environment, have caused angst also amongst their wider allies. Washington and London have during the course of the war provided advisers to try to improve the targeting process to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. Most recently, US Air Force Lt-Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the former US Air Forces Central Command chief, and now deputy commander USAF Europe, raised concern over an air strike on a bus that killed a large number of civilians, many of whom were children. Imagery of the aftermath of some of the alleged air strikes appear to show bomb craters that suggest the use of comparatively large warheads, ill-suited for use in built-up areas.

In response to earlier worries over the civilian casualty rate, Saudi Arabia set up the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) to investigate non-combatant deaths potentially caused by coalition bombing. The UN team, however, says it has been frustrated by JIAT’s lack of response to its queries, and raised questions as to its independence and the selectivity of some of its investigations. The report claims that during the latter half of 2016 ‘the targeting practises adopted by the coalition in this period were so flawed that some of the coalition’s international backers ceased cooperation, and eventually stopped selling weapons to coalition member states’.

At the beginning of September 2018, the JIAT was reported as saying the attack on the bus had been authorised based on intelligence that the vehicle was carrying Houthi commanders, but had been been delayed. The JIAT also called for a review of the rules of engagement.

Air power fallout from Yemen

The use of air power in an urban environment presents even the most capable of armed services with a range of difficulties. In the case of the Yemen conflict, this is compounded by the opposition, including a range of non-state actors, willing to use civilian infrastructure as a means of protection. This, however, does not negate the responsibility of an attacker, when considering an air strike, to avoid civilian deaths, if possible, or at the very least to minimise them. An action that could result in civil casualties needs also to have a commensurate military value. The UN specialists record that the cumulative effect of the alleged failings in attempting to ensure a minimum number of civilians killed or injured as the result of air strikes could be considered as war crimes.

Western society has become accustomed to the language of ‘precision strike’ and the comparative success in avoiding, generally, widespread civilian deaths from air attack in its involvement in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Air power in these wars, however, was for the most part not used for repeated attacks in urban environments. And even in these campaigns, there was controversy over the levels of civilian deaths. The coalition in the civil war in Yemen has chosen to pursue a campaign that continues to use air attacks in urban environments as a central element of its approach, using air forces that lack the level of training and experience of the United States and its allies, who it seeks to emulate.

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