The Cable

Saudi National Guard Prepping for New Deployment to Yemen Border

Newly formed aviation brigade is being sent to target Houthi rebels.

U.S. Army AH-64 Apache helicopters operate in formation. (U.S. Army Photo)
U.S. Army AH-64 Apache helicopters operate in formation. (U.S. Army Photo)

Saudi Arabia is preparing to send a new, American-trained and supplied helicopter unit to battle along its southern border with Yemen, in what promises to be a new escalation in the kingdom’s two-year-old war with Houthi rebels.

The deployment, slated for later this year, also represents an expansion of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which for a century has been tasked primarily with protecting the royal family, guarding oil facilities, and providing security for the cities of Mecca and Medina.

Saudi Arabia has already made a $25 billion investment in American-made attack helicopters for the force, which comes with an intensive training program carried out by U.S. Army pilots. The guard is readying its first aviation brigade and will have two more ready to fly by 2023. Riyadh is also embarking on a $1.8 billion building spree, constructing three new bases to house the units, said Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, the U.S. Army’s program manager for the Saudi Arabian National Guard.

The move comes amid continued attacks on the Saudi border by Yemeni Houthi rebels. While the original deal for the new helicopters was made in 2010 before the Saudi-led war in Yemen began in 2015, U.S. officials say the Houthi border raids and rocket attacks have unnerved Riyadh.

A Saudi-led coalition has been fighting to dislodge the rebels from the capital of Sanaa for over two years after they seized control of the government.

The attacks have come in response to the continued airstrikes by Saudi jets — refueled in the air by American planes — pounding Houthi positions in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition has stoked international outrage by killing hundreds of civilians in errant airstrikes, and the rebels have responded by pushing the fight over the border, attacking Saudi border outposts and launching missiles into villages.

For the Saudis, the new deployment is intended to stop at the border. “It’s border security for them, and they don’t want to go too far beyond that,” said a U.S. defense official.

The Saudi Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.

The Saudi army has long had a large fleet of U.S.-made attack helicopters and aircraft, but the purchase of Apaches and AH-6is for the Guard is significant, given the separation between the two military forces.

The National Guard — also known as the White Army — reports directly to the king, as opposed to the Saudi armed forces, which fall under the Ministry of Defense. The ranks of the guard are drawn primarily from two tribes loyal to the House of Saud.

But the 2010 deal with Washington added significant teeth to the guard’s capabilities. The $25 billion package included 36 AH-64E Apaches, 36 AH-6i “Little Birds,” 72 Sikorsky UH-60M Blackhawks, and other helicopters and equipment. The announcement from the Pentagon said that the helicopters would be used by the guard for protecting the country’s “borders and oil infrastructure.”

The Saudis have long used the Apaches in Yemen, and the kingdom’s military is one of a handful in the world cleared to operate the advanced attack helicopter.

American military officials have long expressed concern over the ability of Saudi pilots to identify targets and avoid civilian casualties, however. In one recent example of mistaken identity, a Saudi Apache helicopter shot up a boat full of migrants in March, killing more than 40 people.

 

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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