Political Analysis

Anatomy of an Arms Deal

The UH-1H "Huey" Helicopter
Written by Fakhri Al-Arashi

Sana’a Inks $27 million Contract with ‘Bell Helicopter’

A National Yemen Exclusive Report

Private American defense contractor Bell Helicopter signed a deal with the Yemeni government this week to purchase and maintain four helicopters, according to a company press release.  The contract provides for the Vietnam War-era UH-1H “Huey” aircraft, as well as maintenance teams, spare parts, and training of Yemeni pilots and repair personnel.  Clues as to Yemen’s international and regional alliances, as well as its domestic military priorities are evident in the plan.

Mounting international pressure on Yemen to more robustly combat “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” as well as the presence of armed groups opposing the government based in Saada and neighboring northern areas, or in Southern governorates of Abyan and Shabwa, constitute its complex security environment.  Foreign governments have privately and publicly expressed their frustration with apparent official inability to decisively face down the al-Qaeda presence in the country.

Accordingly, the United States, in a sentiment reiterated during last week’s regional security conference in Bahrain, expressed its commitment to equip Yemen with the military means of fighting terrorism.  US military aid to Yemen increased to $150 million in 2010, up $67 million from the previous year.

But the US assistance to Yemen, not to mention the current deal, is dwarfed by an advancing $60 billion arms deal – the largest in American history – with neighboring Saudi Arabia.  The ambitious package, to include dozens of advanced jets, missiles, and attack helicopters, is seen by many analysts as a move on the American geopolitical chessboard against its arch-nemesis, Iran.

Still, those same commentators have suggested that the inclusion of attack helicopters might have in mind Yemen’s Northern Houthi rebels, with which Saudi forces did several months of inconclusive battle, ending early last year.

It may be speculated, then, that the helicopters provided by the Bell deal may be intended for the very same enemy.  However, certain crucial differences exist between the two details.

The first is of scale; the introduction of four “Huey” helicopters to Yemen’s aging fleet of Soviet “Hind” craft will not upset the regional balance of power, nor even greatly increase the government’s capabilities vis-à-vis its many in-country adversaries.  Second, the deal is with a private company, still American to be sure, and not directly with the US government.

This fact hints at the motives behind the deal, and its limitations in providing Yemen with a decisive military upgrade.  Unlike the Saudi agreement, the Bell purchase was not subject to US congressional approval or direct State Department oversight.  However, its provision would have needed to be in accordance with the “International Trade in Arms Regulations,” which govern US dealings in arms abroad.  Therefore, the deal indeed proceeded according to a time-tested, legal process of US-based private military sales to foreign countries.

While this may have allowed the agreement to be inked without the delay and supervision of US bureaucratic oversight, it also likely means that certain crucial elements of air combat, which cannot legally be included in private arms deals, may not be part of the package.

These include night-vision capabilities, essential for the stealth aspect of air operations, and coating for the helicopters’ blades which allow them to land in arid, desert environments.  It is important to note that the UH-1H is the cheapest military grade US helicopter, and is equipped to transport only around eight men, while more advanced American craft used in Afghanistan and Iraq tend to carry around forty.

“There were unfortunate events which occurred in battles in Saada,” opposition Islah party MP Ali al-Anisi said, referring to the crashes of several military helicopters in the recent fifth and sixth wars against Houthi rebels.  “This shows that Yemen has bad training and poor maintenance.  We should all stand seriously against this matter, both in the executive and the parliament.”

These factors, along with the “commercially-designated,” i.e. used, retired, and retrofitted for private use, status of the craft further contribute to an inability to seriously transform the local and regional security situation.

Funds for the deal could have come from the tens of millions of dollars allotted for Yemeni military assistance, approved by the US congress in January.  Khaled al-Anisi, a lawyer knowledgeable in Yemen international relations, opined that the funds for the helicopters are likely tied to the US military aid package allocated to fight terrorism.

“Of course Yemen would not be able to buy them directly, due to the economic situation here. This could be part of the mandate that the helicopters fight al-Qaeda, not the Houthis,” he added, referring to the US government’s perhaps violated injunction forbidding the use of its arms against the Houthi insurgency.

Conditions for the aid money may have stipulated a purchase in American materiel only, and as recently divulged US diplomatic cables show, US authorities have been concerned with arms negotiations between Yemen and other countries, namely Serbia and Bulgaria.

More likely though, as a Washington DC-based defense consultant said to National Yemen, is an official desire to “buy American” while remaining on a tight budget, in order to bolster general political and military ties with the US.

The same diplomatic communications, in a cable with the headline “helicopters, helicopters, helicopters,” disclosed official Yemeni opinion that a shipment of a dozen US helicopters, or rather US aircraft acquired with less red tape from the neighboring UAE and Saudi Arabia, would be a decisive boon to Yemeni military efforts.

“Possessing such helicopters,” the cable quoted official Yemeni opinion, “would allow the ROYG [Yemeni government] to take the lead in future CT [counter-terrorism] operations, ‘ease’ the use of fighter jets and cruise missiles against terrorist targets, and allow Yemeni Special Operations Forces to capture terrorist suspects and identify victims following strikes.”

MP al-Anisi described government policies of military trade and budgeting as generally ambiguous and non-transparent, and have been investigated extensively by his opposition colleagues to no effect.  “But the Americans know our market and the serial numbers of each machine they sell and where it goes. Whenever we open this file we face the answer that it’s a military secret.”

Reflecting on the addition of the Hueys to the Yemeni fleet, and the decision not to update existing Russian aircraft or acquire more of them, the Washington-based expert claimed it “definitely does not reflect a doctrinal change in the Yemeni military.”  That is, the approach to fighting insurgent or al-Qaeda elements from the air will probably not change, given the preexistence of fighter helicopters in Yemen’s arsenal, and the paucity and relative age of the new craft.

Rather, the purchase is a reflection of the more personal aspects of the US-Yemeni defense relationship. Noting that Bell Helicopter likely acquired the deal as a result of extended know-how and official relationships in both governments, the source noted, “Maybe it’s a US Army rotor-head who’s working as defense attaché at the embassy. Maybe some Yemeni VIPS like the Huey for their personal transport. Maybe the Yemeni contracting officer liked Apocalypse Now. There’s a story there – it’s just a very human one.”

While more helicopters, and ones of a more advanced and equipped variety is the recorded goal of the Yemeni government, their acquisition is subject to lengthy and probing US official scrutiny.  Whether intended to battle suspected terrorists and insurgents, or for transport and taxi, the Huey helicopters represent an interim attempt to address Yemeni military desires.