Hey Iran! Millions of Dollars in Weapons Can’t Buy a Stable Yemen
Years of American aid wasn’t enough to keep a government afloat
On April 20, reports began to circulate that the U.S. Navy might be preparing to intercept an Iranian flotilla loaded with arms for Houthi fighters in Yemen.
But even if those ships make it through, Tehran might end up learning a lesson Washington has recently been forced to accept—millions of dollars in weapons won’t automatically buy a stable Yemen.
In February, the Shi’ite insurgents took over the capital Sana’a and quickly chased the internationally-recognized president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to the port city of Aden.
While a Saudi-led intervention aims to put Hadi back in power, the country appears to be fully embroiled in a civil war that now also includes Al Qaeda’s local affiliate as well as Islamic State.
“The devastating conflict in Yemen takes place against the backdrop of an existing humanitarian crisis that was already one of the largest and most complex in the world,” Johannes Van Der Klaauw, the Humanitarian Coordinator at the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said in an April 17 press release.
And yet, between 2006 and 2014, Washington had delivered more than $500 million in arms and other military gear to try and help authorities keep the country together.
But even with these generous supplies, in the end Yemeni forces couldn’t hold off the Houthis.
The Pentagon’s deliveries included drones, helicopters, trucks, small arms, ammunition, radios and more, according to more than 70 documents War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The aid packages also paid for contractors to install various equipment, keep it all running and train Yemeni troops how to use their new toys.
Perhaps most notably, in 2012 the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency signed off on the delivery of a dozen RQ-11B Raven drones — four full “systems,” which also included additional gear and repair kits — according to the documents. Soldiers launch these small, unmanned spies by throwing them into the air.
After getting the tiny pilotless plane in the air, an operator can fly the Raven around and snoop with the powerful cameras on board. Yemeni forces could also pump the live video feed straight from the drones to special laptops.
Two years earlier, the Pentagon had sent along four Huey II helicopters, too. To produce these essentially new transport choppers, Bell overhauls Vietnam-era UH-1H Hueys with new engines and other advanced gear.
At the same time, Washington paid to upgrade Sana’a’s 10 existing Russian-made Mi-171Sh helicopters. Contractors installed new engines, digital screens for the pilots and new intercoms, the official reports explain. Some of the choppers also got infrared cameras, GPS gear and new radios.
On the ground, Yemeni troops found themselves driving around in more than 100 American-supplied Humvees. These trucks came with the latest factory-made armor packages, just like vehicles the U.S. Army and Marine Corps were using, the documents note.
In addition, Sana’a received hundreds of Toyota Hilux pickup trucks. Security forces and insurgents around the world mount machine guns or other weapons on these lightweight commercial vehicles.
With their immense popularity in the region, in one letter the Pentagon referred to the trucks as “indigenous vehicles.”
Before the disintegration of the Hadi regime, U.S. officials had also planned to send along hundreds of American-made Jeep J8s—for Yemen’s coast guard, of all things—to complement the existing fleet of small trucks.
On top of the vehicles, Washington also delivered of hundreds of small arms, including M-4 carbines, M-240 machine guns and M-500 shotguns—the same weapons American soldiers and Marines use today.
Yemeni troops also got .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifles and Glock pistols.
The Pentagon also supplied heavier weapons such as mortars and rocket propelled grenades. Millions of rounds of ammunition, including 60-millimeter white phosphorus mortar shells, rounded out the arms packages.
Sana’a’s forces also got supplies of advanced radios, night vision goggles, body armor and other “organizational clothing and individual equipment.” The latter category includes everything from cots and blankets to flat screen televisions and computers.
The Pentagon also included copies of the Rosetta Stone language software covering English and basic office equipment.
Washington also paid tens of thousands of dollars to contractors to keep the equipment running and train Yemeni soldiers how to use it.
The funds didn’t just go to repairs and practice sessions, but also to the overhead costs of housing and feeding these private workers.
Though the Pentagon no doubt hoped Sana’a would eventually be able to take on more responsibilities itself, the small country’s troops clearly relied heavily on the American support. Yemeni forces even asked American commandos to fly the Yemeni transport choppers during complex nighttime missions, CNN reported in April 2014.
With the country’s military in disarray, the issue is now entirely moot.
The result of multiple requests, this trove of records only covers so-called “pseudo-foreign military sales” cases. Before effectively collapsing, the Yemeni Ministry of Defense demanded American officials block previous FOIAs regarding other types of military aid.
The nine-year-old pseudo-FMS process—an actual term of art—seems purpose-built for a country like Yemen. In the simplest terms, the obtuse arrangement, which the U.S. government sometimes simply describes as “building partner capacity,” gives both the Pentagon and the State Department greater leeway on how they spend the money Congress sets aside for Washington’s allies.
“Following five years of conflict, there was a realization that terrorist/insurgent/destabilizing groups could not be disrupted and defeated solely with U.S. forces under existing arrangements,” Pentagon spokesman Army lieutenant colonel Joe Sowers told War Is Boring in an e-mail.
Unlike in more traditional foreign military sales, Washington’s friends don’t have to put up the money themselves … or even sign the necessary documents to receive the goods in these “pseudo” arrangements. The letter that U.S. officials do write up for each case “serves simply to document the funding and transfer of articles and services,” Sowers explained.
“The reason for this is that … the USG is actually selling defense articles and services to another component of the USG rather than directly to a foreign purchaser,” Sowers added, using an acronym for “U.S. government.” Existing agreements with those governments govern the aid’s “end-uses” and any “re-transfer” restrictions.
In the end, the Pentagon’s top headquarters for the Middle East and its main weapons broker — along with the U.S. Army’s own central military aid office — all used this mechanism to quickly send military supplies to Yemen on nearly 30 separate occasions. That’s more than three shipments a year. Every single released document declares “No Purchaser Signature Required.”
Now, whatever weapons and gear are still in working order could easily be in the hands of Houthi rebels or any of Yemen’s other myriad armed groups. And there’s nothing to suggest Iran will have any better luck with their own military aid to the ascendent Shi’ite fighters.
Dumping weapons on a conflict doesn’t necessary resolve it.