Yemen Is Getting New Spy Planes
Modified crop-dusters are the latest U.S. military aid
Last month, the U.S. Air Force approved a contract to supply four new spy planes to the Yemeni air force. The aircraft are the just the latest American military aid to the restive country.
The Pentagon will supply four modified AT-802 aircraft, along with training support and spare parts, according to a Justification and Approval document. Any time the U.S. government agency wants to hand business to a single company without having to look at any other offers, it must submit a “J&A” for approval.
The AT-802 was originally a crop-duster. The Yemeni planes will get full-motion video cameras and communications gear, officials at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base say.
Wright-Patterson’s 645th Aeronautical Systems Group—better known by its nickname Big Safari—is coordinating the project. L-3 Communication’s Mission Integration Division will actually modify the aircraft and provide the additional support.
The 645th AESG is well known for the work it does on intelligence-gathering planes for the flying branch, as well as for Special Operations Command, the National Guard and Homeland Security.
The secretive office wants these new aircraft in Yemen no later than September 2015. If the aerial spies do not arrive on time, “there will be an unacceptable operational impact on [U.S. Central Command counter-terrorism] efforts in Yemen, and our warfighters lives will be put in danger,” the J&A explains.
Washington has supported Yemeni security forces for more than a decade now. The Pentagon included the small country on the list of designated combat zones for the War on Terror in 2002.
Al Qaeda’s branch on the Arabian Peninsula is alive and well in Yemen. AQAP militants attacked government offices just last week. The country’s government has also had to contend with tribal separatists.
The four AT-802s will expand the Yemeni air force’s list of American-supplied aircraft. The Pentagon has already handed over at least a half a dozen other small planes and helicopters.
In total, Washington provided almost $300 million in military aid to Yemen between 2006 and 2012, according to annual reports from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. The Air Force expects the militarized agricultural aircraft—along with the training to fly them and keep them working—will cost approximately $42 million.
In December 2013, the Pentagon also alerted Congress that it wanted to spend another $64 million on “precision strike aircraft” and drones for Yemen. Other reports suggested a variant of the AT-802 armed with missiles and guided bombs—similar to the prototype seen in the picture above—could be in the running for that project.
How effective these aircraft might be is a matter for debate. Back in April, CNN reported that American commandos had been called upon to fly Yemeni Mi-17 helos. Apparently Yemeni pilots were not able to fly at night, despite of Pentagon-funded training efforts.
Washington will have to work hard to make sure Yemeni forces are ready and able to take on these new flying spies.