Yemen: Arab Air Power And Commandos Make A Difference


April 10, 2015: Fighting continues in Aden. The Shia rebels have seized some of the oil fields (in Shabwa province) and threaten the rest in Marib province. The Shia rebels are taking losses from the air strikes, but have been reinforced by army and police units led by officers who remained loyal to former president Saleh. This gives the Shia rebels access to heavy weapons (armored vehicles and artillery) and people who know how to use them. The Arab coalition supporting president Hadi (the last elected president) has imposed an air and sea blockade, mainly to keep Iranian aid out. Meanwhile Iran has sent two small warships to the Yemeni coast (the Gulf of Aden) to “protect Iranian shipping”. Despite the Arab blockade the Arab warplanes have not attacked any of the Iranian transports that still enter Yemeni airspace. Yemeni airspace is now closed to commercial traffic, meaning some flights that used to pass over Yemen have to detour adding up to another hour in flight time.

The Arabs are (so far) reluctant to fire on Iranian transports because that would be an escalation that could trigger an air war with Iran. The Arabs don’t want to risk that, even though Arab air forces have much better aircraft and, in some cases, better pilots. Some Gulf Arabs have paid more attention to pilot selection and training in the last decade, largely because of the growing threat from Iran. But Arab pilots are still a mixed bag, with inept but well-connected ones serving next to very competent fellows who got the job strictly on merit.  One thing about pilots and ship crews is that if you put the aircraft into the air and the warships out to sea often enough you will attain a higher degree of crew competence simply because these are dangerous environments and the most incompetent soon die or are discouraged from further service and quit. The Arab countries have been spending more money on keep the ships at sea and the aircraft in the air. Now, with a war going on, squadron commanders can determine which of his pilots are very good and which should be kept on the ground most of the time. This lesson has already been learned by the Arab participation in the anti-ISIL operations in Syria and Iraq. The Americans did most of the strikes there but Yemen is all Arab and has more Arab pilots spending more time flying in a combat zone than has been experienced since the 1990-91 campaign to liberate Kuwait. So the Arab air strikes will continue to improve.

Since the Arabs intervened in late March the casualties in Yemen have been much higher and appear to have come to over 2,000 dead, wounded and missing. Most of the dead and wounded have been fighters. The Arab coalition has used their control of the air and the sea to bring in military and humanitarian supplies. Arab air transports are parachuting aid to civilians and pro-government fighters. Coalition air transports are landing at airports held by pro-government forces. The coalition warplanes are seeking to cut Shia rebel supplies but that is difficult to do since the rebel forces eat the same food and use the same medical supplies as civilians. It is also easy to smuggle ammo and some weapons past Arab bombers and reconnaissance aircraft by hiding this stuff inside shipments of civilian aid. Control of the coastal waters has made it more difficult, and often impossible, for Shia rebels to hold many coastal towns when there are nearby pro-government tribal militias.

The Arabs and Iran are both reluctant to push their military participation too far, but for different reasons. The Arabs have far better equipment, and a lot more of it, but the Arab culture of corruption has created a lot of military power that is an illusion because of poor training and inept officers. The Iranians have always (as in for thousands of years) had better commanders and troops but decades of embargoes have left Iran with ancient weapons and poor military equipment in general. Iranian propaganda, mainly for domestic consumption, has long claimed otherwise. Thus the Arabs don’t want to push things too far lest it become obvious how unprepared many of their military personnel are for combat. The Iranians don’t want to expose the poor quality of their air force and navy equipment. This situation is hurting the Arabs worse than the Iran backed Shia rebels. The Yemeni pro-government forces are largely tribal militias which vary enormously in quality depending on their leadership. The Shia rebels have better leadership and more faith in their cause (less corruption in Yemen). The corruption is known by all Yemenis to be the main cause of the country’s problems but only the Shias put it first on their list of priorities. The Shia rebels also take advantage of the corruption and will buy cooperation from Sunni tribes if they can. The Shia tribes have so far proved largely incorruptible. Thus despite the losses from air strikes the Shia rebels are still advancing, although more slowly. The Arab coalition is reluctant to commit ground forces and risk embarrassing defeats. Any situations where the relatively less well armed and equipped Shia rebels defeated Arab coalition troops would be a major morale crises for the coalition. Moreover, sending in ground troops means getting more involved in putting Yemen back together than most Arab neighbors are comfortable with. Yemen has always been a mess politically and a morass for any neighbors who get too involved.

Because of the Arab personnel problems the U.S. is heavily, but quietly, involved. Americans, mainly military and former military, have been training and advising Arab forces for decades. Thus there is a reservoir of experience with the problems the Arab forces have and how best to work around these difficulties in an emergency. Americans are not getting directly involved, other than operating American aerial refueling aircraft and advising officers and troops, mainly about maintenance and support issues like intelligence, planning and logistics. Senior Arab leaders feel more confident because of this assistance but not confident enough, yet, to order ground forces into Yemen. Meanwhile there is the criticism of civilian casualties. The Arab warplanes are using smart bombs and missiles and civilian casualties, compared to similar campaigns a generation ago, are much lower. But the media know that even a single dead civilian can be turned into an eyeball (and ad revenue) attracting story. Iran and the Islamic terrorists are making what they can of the civilian losses (at least fifty a week so far) and this is putting some Arab leaders on the defensive at home.

There are some Arab ground forces that are exceptional (by Arab and Western standards) and these are being sent to Yemen in small numbers. These are the several thousand special operations (commando) troops that are available in the coalition forces. For these units Arab rulers let their Western advisors and trainers fully enforce Western standards in recruitment and training. Arab rulers don’t like having too many of these units around since they are one of the few forces that could quickly overthrow the current rulers. So when it comes to screening leaders for these units, the Western advisors understand the need for a loyalty check. Thus some good officer and NCO candidates don’t get in because they come from the wrong tribe, family or political preferences. The Arab special operations troops are needed on the ground not just to help the pro-government fighters but also to help call in air strikes. This is a skill that most special operations troops learn because if they get into trouble while deep in enemy territory, a few accurately delivered air strikes can be, literally, a lifesaver. The Arab air strikes became noticeably more effective after about a week and this was probably due to the presence of Arab air controllers on the ground. These men were either special operations troops or being escorted by them.

AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) Islamic terrorists have taken advantage of the civil war to rebuild their strength. As long as AQAP men do not attack the Shia rebels or pro-government forces they are usually left alone. But eventually AQAP will go to war with the Shia rebels and resist government efforts to shut down Islamic terrorist operations, especially those directed at foreign targets. In the meantime the chaos of the civil war is something AQAP is taking advantage of. Because of all this AQAP strength is now back over a thousand men. That’s three times what it was a year ago, after a long series of defeats. The increase in strength comes mainly from new recruits, but also from experienced members who were freed from prison and some who had gone into hiding but were now back in action. AQAP was formed in 2009 when al Qaeda was effectively driven out of Saudi Arabia after losing a war with the government triggered by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. AQAP initially consisted of remnants of the Saudi al Qaeda organization (several thousand full and part time members) who fled to Yemen and merged with the smaller Yemeni al Qaeda branch. AQAP also benefitted from hundreds of Iraqi al Qaeda members who arrived after the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-8. Growing unrest in Yemen (against the long-time Saleh dictatorship) enabled AQAP to recruit locally and take over several towns in the south by 2011. Then the government launched a series of offensives in 2012 and AQAP got hurt very badly. Only recently did the civil war interrupt those offensive operations. AQAP has sometimes become an ally of the Sunni tribes in southern Yemen who are trying to defeat the Shia rebels.

One of the major casualties of the current civil war in Yemen is the American effort to find and kill key al Qaeda personnel. This effort lost a lot because many Yemeni intelligence units were shut down. Looters grabbed some of the secret files (or intelligence personnel took and sold data to the Islamic terrorists). Not only was much of the Yemeni informant network shut down but the Islamic terrorists found out who some key informants were and shut them down (via killing them or chasing them away). Some of the Yemeni intelligence units sided with the Shia rebels who have a close relationship with Iran. The damage here was not as bad as it could be. Iran also wants these Sunni Islamic terrorists dead, but the Americans had the missile armed UAVs to do the job while the Iranians don’t. Now that the Sunni Arab neighbors of Yemen have intervened there is guaranteed to be months of chaos, the kind of environment Islamic terrorists thrive in. There have been no American UAV missile attacks in Yemen since February.

One of the first targets of the Arab coalition air offensive was the Yemeni Air Force. In early 2015 Yemen had a formidable air fleet which 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. There were also over a dozen American, European, and Russian transport aircraft. The 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. 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.

One of the few things improving in Yemen are where Yemen stands in a recent survey of the security situation worldwide. This produced a list of the most dangerous countries as of early 2015. These were (starting with the most dangerous); Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Ukraine and Egypt. Studies like this are done mainly to find the least violent nations. This provides investors and tourists with useful information. For a long time Yemen has been regarded as an unpromising place to invest, mainly because of the corruption. The Shia rebels and Islamic terrorist violence simply provides more reasons to say away.

April 9, 2015: In the south (Shabwa province) Shia rebels captured the provincial capital (Ataq), despite heavy Arab air support for the defenders. There is some oil in Shabwa but nearby Marib province is where most of the oil and natural gas is.

April 8, 2015: Iran and Pakistan announced they would cooperate to achieve a peaceful end to the violence in Yemen. The Sunni Arabs in Arabia (especially Saudi Arabia) are furious at the Pakistanis (who are mostly Sunni and consider themselves major defenders of Islam) for siding with Shia Iran. Pakistan believes it is being neutral but the Sunni Arabs don’t see it that way.

April 5, 2015: The Shia rebels said they would be willing to negotiate, but only if the air strikes stop. Since the air support is the main thing keeping the pro-government forces effective against the rebels that is not likely to happen.

Pakistan told Iran that it would not, despite pleas from Saudi Arabia, join the Saudi led coalition (Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt) fighting Shia rebels in Yemen. At the same time Pakistan assured Saudi Arabia that Pakistan would provide military assistance if the territory of Saudi Arabia were invaded. That would only happen if Iran attacked as the Yemeni Shia rebels know that, for them, such a move would be counterproductive. In early March Saudi Arabia had asked Pakistan to join a Sunni Arab coalition against Iranian aggression and send warplanes, warships and a brigade of troops to help deal with the Shia rebellion in Yemen. Pakistan declined apparently because it was not willing to antagonize Iran. The Saudis were dismayed by this refusal because they have been a generous provider of financial aid to Pakistan for decades. In the past the Pakistani response has been different. Pakistan got a similar request in 1979 when Shia clergy led a revolution against the Iranian monarchy and talked of attacking the Sunni Arab states. For most of the 1980s Pakistan had an armor brigade stationed in Saudi Araba and Pakistan served as a threat to eastern Iran, which borders Pakistan. Since then Pakistan and the Shia religious dictatorship in Iran have learned to get along. About 20 percent of Pakistanis are Shia and Pakistan has its hands full trying to halt Sunni Islamic terrorists from attacking those Shia and anyone else who opposes them. Those attacks on Shia anger Iran and Pakistan does not want to make that worse. With Iran on the verge of getting nuclear weapons, Pakistan apparently feels the Saudis will need Pakistani nukes and that will keep the Arab money flowing into Pakistan.

April 4, 2015: Algeria sent an airliner to the capital of Yemen and evacuated 160 Algerians as well as 40 Tunisians, 15 Mauritians, eight Libyans, three Moroccans and a Palestinian. There is no functioning government in war-torn Yemen and most foreign nations are closing their embassies and getting their citizens out. Algeria has refused to join the Saudi led coalition fighting the Iran-backed rebels.

April 3, 2015:  AQAP gunmen fired on a small Saudi border post (440 kilometers northeast of Sanaa), killing two Saudi border guards. Other border security personnel returned fire and it appears that none of the attackers made it across the border into Saudi Arabia.

April 2, 2015: In the south (the port city of Mukalla) several hundred AQAP men arrived in a convoy and briefly took control of government buildings, including a prison. This led to the release of 300 prisoners including several AQAP members, some of them key people.

A Chinese ship left Yemen after taking on 225 foreigners from Pakistan (mostly), Ethiopia, Singapore, Italy, Germany, Poland, Ireland, Britain and Canada. Yemen has asked China to do this as airports were being shut down by the fighting and getting foreigners out by sea was the only option. China had sent a ship to evacuate its own people and 571 Chinese had already boarded when it was decided to take on foreigners as well. This was the first time China had ever helped evacuate non-Chinese from a trouble spot. Major powers often do this because no one else is available to do so. In this case the foreigners were taken across the Gulf of Aden and disembarked in Djibouti which is at peace and has an international airport. Pakistan has gotten over 500 of its people out by airplane by March 29th but after that date the airports were no longer available.

April 1, 2015: The United States agreed to provide aerial refueling aircraft for the Arab coalition air strikes and aerial resupply operations.

In Yemen the Russian consulate was looted by Shia rebels who have entered some parts of the port city of Aden. Arab bombing attacks on the Shia rebels in Aden blew out most of the windows in the Russian consulate. Meanwhile a Russian transport sent to the capital (Sanaa) to evacuate embassy staff was turned away because of the Arab air attacks. The Russian transport landed in Egypt and plans to try again in a day or so.

March 31, 2015:  There were heavy exchanges of machine-gun and artillery fire along the Saudi border. This caused over a hundred casualties but no Shia or Saudi forces crossed the border.

March 29, 2015: A Chinese warship arrived in Aden, the largest port in Yemen, to evacuate Chinese citizens, especially diplomats. South Korea has flown most of its citizens (including diplomatic personnel) out of Yemen, where a civil war has gotten more intense and there is no government control in most of the country.

March 28, 2015: Outside Aden a military weapons and ammo depot was left open to looters when the guards fled because of the fighting downtown. The looting soon led to a fire and then large explosions which killed at least nine people.

March 27, 2015:  Arab leaders agreed to form a more permanent military alliance so that they can more quickly mobilize forces for joint operations like the one that just began against the Shia rebels in Yemen.

March 26, 2015: President Hadi fled Aden because Shia rebels were getting too close. Hadi flew to Saudi Arabia, to await a rebel retreat that will enable him to return to Aden or Sanaa. At the same time the Arab coalition began air strikes on rebel targets in Yemen. Over a hundred warplanes from Saudi Arabia the UAE and Bahrain were involved.  

Egypt announced it had joined a coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, to crush the pro-Iran Shia tribal rebels in Yemen. Most of the hundred or so warplanes that launched attacks on Yemen today were Saudi. The coalition currently consists of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Morocco, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. Israel is quietly providing intelligence and other forms of assistance. Egypt is contributing some warplanes and warships as well as several thousand troops. Saudi Arabia already has over 150,000 troops on the Yemen border, many of them very near the areas where the Shia tribes live. There are similar Shia tribes on the Saudi side of the border, but these Shia have been quiet throughout the years of Shia unrest in northern Yemen. Israel has a keen interest in the success of the Yemeni intervention because of the threat to Israeli access to the Red Sea. If the Shia rebels took Aden (the largest port in Yemen) they would have the ability to block the entry to the Red Sea (via Mandab Strait), through which passes over three million barrels of oil a day and lots of trade for Saudis Arabia, Israel and other nations that border the Red Sea. Shia rebels entered a smaller port near these straits a few days before the Saudi intervention but so far the Red Sea access threat has been theoretical.

March 25, 2015: Despite the presence of pro-government tribal militias in Aden the Shia rebels continued to advance to and into the port city.





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