In late March Saudi Arabia destroyed the Yemeni Air Force. How that came to be is a strange tale indeed. Saudi Arabia began airstrikes against Yemen on 25 March 2015 in response to requests for assistance from the internationally recognized Yemeni government. The call for help was triggered by a rebellion by northern Shia tribes, seeking more power for themselves and less corruption overall. Over the last year the Shia rebels have gradually taken control of over a third of the country. The elected government was preoccupied fighting Islamic terrorists and separatist Sunni tribes in the south and east and suddenly, at the end of 2014, the Shia rebels were close to taking control of the government. The elected government fled to the southern port of Aden in January, leaving the Shia rebels in control of the traditional capital of Sanaa in the north. On 26 March 2015, president Hadi fled Yemen and arrived at Riyadh Air Base in Saudi Arabia. Shortly after meeting with Saudi Defense Minister Saudi Arabia and its allies launched airstrikes in Yemen against the Shia rebels and their allies (including army units still loyal to the previous president Saleh, who was Shia and very corrupt but still able to get things done).
Since late 2014 the Shia rebels managed to gain control of many army and air bases. The rebels have fought an off-and-on conflict with the Yemeni government since 2004. Iran was long accused of supporting the Shia rebels but always denied any involvement. But in the last month Iran has signed several cooperation deals with the Shia rebels who now consider themselves the actual government of Yemen.
In response to this Saudi Arabia made preparations for military intervention. The recent air attacks included the Yemeni Air Force, which has recently lost most of its major air bases, and their aircraft, to the Shia rebels. At the beginning of the year the air force was, on paper, a formidable force. Aircraft included 12 L-39 trainers, 52 Mig-21 fighters, 25 MiG-29 fighters, 33 Su-22 ground attack, eleven F-5 fighter-bombers and 22 helicopter gunships (8 Mi-35 and 14 Mi-24). Transport helicopters included 10 Mi-8, two Mi-14, 25 Mi-17 helicopters and a few UH-1s. In addition there were over a dozen American, European, and Russian transport aircraft. These combat aircraft were very effective in dealing with Islamic terrorists and the Shia rebels. For years, Yemen depended on its largely obsolete air force to carry out strikes against rebels in areas where its ground forces did not operate. That’s one reason why the Shia rebels went after major air bases.
Now it appears that much of Yemen’s combat air power is either destroyed or in rebel hands. The destruction of the Yemeni Air Force was the key rationale for Saudi Arabian intervening in the conflict. During the opening hours of the Saudi offensive on March 26, Saudi warplanes bombed Sana’a International Airport and Al Anad Air Base. Part of the Sana’a Airport includes a Yemeni Air Force operational military runway and aircraft shelters.
Shia rebels captured both bases in recent months shortly after the U.S. had removed 100 U.S. troops and Special Forces from Al Anad, which has served as a base for largely-clandestine UAV war against AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). The rebels also recently seized Taiz Ganed Airfield in the city of Taiz
and the Aden International airport further south. Pro-government forces managed to recapture Aden International Airport after heavy fighting. But the rebels kept advancing.
The Saudi-led strikes are focusing on anti-aircraft weapons, radars and aircraft on the ground. Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Sudan were part of the coalition led by Saudi Arabia. The initial strike by the Saudi Arabian Air Force included ten F-15 and twelve Tornado fighter-bombers hitting targets in Sanaa. These included the headquarters of the Air Intelligence Command and four Russian-made Su-22 ground attack aircraft, a SAM-6 anti-aircraft battery, and multiple ZSU-23 and ZU-23 anti-aircraft guns. Rebels admitted that the airstrikes destroyed several SU-22s and a Mi-8 helicopter but deny that the airstrikes destroyed any anti-aircraft missile systems.
The results of the first Saudi raids show that the Saudis are lacking accurate intelligence data, notably about the locations of the Shia political leaders or the security and military commanders. The Shia military command has already hidden many of their major weapons so they could be used against Saudis ground forces that were very obviously assembling on the Yemeni border.
The Shia rebels do not seem to have much use for their captured fighter aircraft. But the rebels have used them in a ground-attack role before. However after the initial Saudi air attacks the Yemeni Air Force is in bad shape. Out of Yemen’s more than 50 Cold War-vintage MiG-21 fighters, few are likely serviceable. Satellite photos of Al Anad Air Base in South Yemen shows MiG-21 fighters jets lying at odd angles or in fragments with some missing their tails. This is usually a sign that aircraft are being cannibalized to keep other aircraft operational. Yemen’s American-built F-5s are so old, their ejection seats don’t work. Counterfeit parts have also made their way into the supply chain because the Yemeni Air Force Commander used family-owned companies to buy parts off the black market at cut-rate prices.
At the time, the air force was in disarray because of over catastrophic mismanagement by former Air Force Chief Mohammed Saleh Al Ahmar, ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s half-brother. Air force officers alleged Al Ahmar used the Yemeni Air Force as a way to generate personal funds and that commanders ordered pilots to train in planes far too dangerous to fly. Al Ahmar was forced to resign in 2012.
During years of fighting with Shia rebels and an Islamic terrorists, the Yemeni government primarily relied on its 20 or so operational MiG-29 fighters and small fleet of Mi-8 helicopters. Almost all Yemeni warplanes lack any type of precision-guided weaponry and cannot operate at night. The Yemeni military also didn’t deploy tactical air controllers to guide pilots toward their targets.
A general principle about air power is that its best as part of a combined arms strategy. This applies to any military force. Air, ground and sea power work well together, in some combination
depending on the situation. The Yemeni government never seemed to learn that lesson as they focused on offensive air operations that are not coordinated with ground movements, nor do they appear to consist of more than a single aircraft attacking individual static targets and then returning to base. And this was when the bases were in under government control.
Poorly planned Yemeni and Saudi Air Force strikes have also killed civilians. The attacks have claimed the lives of over 114 civilians (including women and children) as of 31 March 2015. That simply created more opposition. Lacking a precision fire capability and pursuing standoff offensive operations, the Yemeni Air Force has caused casualties among both Shia rebel sympathizers and others unrelated to the conflict. Now those same Yemeni Air Force aircraft and helicopters are sitting on Shia-controlled runways, with the Saudi Air Force using them for target practice. – Ryan Schinault