FocusKSA | Intervention in Yemen: A Conversation with David Des Roches

Published: March 28, 2015

Editor’s Note:

In the early morning hours of March 26, 2015 (local time) air forces from a Saudi Arabian led coalition launched air strikes against Houthi rebel targets in the Republic of Yemen. In an announcement timed to coincide with the initiation of the campaign the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Adel Al-Jubeir, said:

“Saudi Arabia has launched military operations in Yemen, as part of a coalition of over ten countries in response to a direct request from the legitimate government of Yemen. The operation will be limited in nature, and designed to protect the people of Yemen and its legitimate government from a takeover by the Houthis, a violent extremist militia.”

As part of SUSRIS’ extensive reporting since the opening of the intervention in Yemen, dubbed Operation “Decisive Storm,” we hosted FocusKSA webcast interviews  yesterday with three Gulf specialists to give you their insights and perspectives on the conflict.

  • Dr. Joseph Kechichian, Senior Fellow, King Faisal Center, Riyadh and Senior Writer, Gulf News, Dubai
  • Dr. Theodore Karasik, Gulf-based regional specialist
  • Prof. David Des Roches, Senior Military Fellow at the Near East South Asia Center, NDU

Here for your consideration is our conversation with David Des Roches on the military dynamics of Operation “Decisive Storm.” Professor Des Roches is an Associate Professor and Senior Military Fellow, Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies, National Defense University in Washington, DC. [Link for Bio] At the most recent Arab-US Policymakers Conference [you can find his panel appearances’ transcripts here] he commented on Arab-US Defense Cooperation, saying in part:

“[T]he unprecedented Arab participation in operations against Da’esh in Syria – not unprecedented in that they did it, but unprecedented in that they wanted it to be known publicly that they did it. Arabs do many things more than they want publicized. Our partners are generally more muscular in private than they are in public, suggests that the Gulf-U.S. freeze in relations since the ill-named Arab Spring have thawed out considerably. Nothing overcomes a difference of opinion more effectively than a shared enemy.”

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Transcribed from the FocusKSA video interview with Professor Des Roches conducted via Skype on March 27, 2015.

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FocusKSA | Intervention in Yemen: A Conversation with David Des Roches

[SUSRIS] Good day, this is Patrick Ryan from the Saudi-U.S. Relations Information Service, and we’re bringing you a special edition of Focus KSA.

We’re pleased to be joined by Professor David Des Roches from the Near-East South Asia Center at the National Defense University. He is providing his personal remarks, not those reflecting the position of the U.S. Government.

Professor Des Roches, as SUSRIS subscribers know, has been a frequent panelist at Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conferences and if you go to SUSRIS.com and look at our experts page you’ll find a long list of his bona fides and interviews and other panel appearances and so forth that he’s made at SUSRIS.com. [SUSRIS Experts – David Des Roches]

Today we’re talking with Professor Des Roches who comes to us from suburban Washington, D.C. about the military intervention in Yemen, Operation Decisive Storm, which was launched this week when Saudi Arabia led coalition airstrikes against targets in Yemen against the Houthi rebels that have brought Yemen into another phase of crisis.

Professor Des Roches, thanks so much for joining us, and why don’t you lead us off with some context and background about the military dynamics of what’s been happening in Yemen and Saudi Arabia this week?

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des-roches-1[David Des Roches] My pleasure, Pat. As you know Saudi Arabia has been involved in Yemen for a long time. They played a pretty important role in supporting the loyalist forces during the civil war. But most notably, in recent times, it was a short and relatively unsuccessful war by the Saudis, military action directed against the Houthis in 2009.

The Saudis have learned from the events of 2009. [Operation Scorched Earth] Instead of taking unilateral action they’ve built a multilateral coalition with GCC partners and some other regional stakeholders to include, surprisingly, Sudan. But most critically the Saudis have secured the active support of the United States, which according to the National Security Council spokesperson has agreed to coordinate on intelligence and logistics. These are two key areas.

The importance of this support – you can’t really overestimate it. In 2009, the Kingdom reportedly expended a lot of their stocks of precision-guided munitions, particularly the JDAM, which is a guidance system on a “dumb bomb” that allows it to target things accurately.

Photo: Takahara Osaka

Saudi troops in Jizan, November 2009 (Photo: Takahara Osaka)

What we’ve seen in coalition operations even with the European allies fighting in Libya in 2011 is that coalition air forces tend to blow through their stocks of precision-guided munitions much more quickly than anticipated.

With active American support first in intelligence, which helps determine that the proper things are targeted, and secondly in replenishment both of spares for their F-15s. Of course the British have said that they will be supportive as well, which I imagine would indicate they’ll support logistics on Tornado fighters, if they’re involved, then replenishing that stock of precision-guided munitions as well as spares. That will help ensure that the Saudi air action is far, far more effective than it was in 2009.

yemen_shaded-relief-map

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Now, initial press reports are that Saudi strikes were directed against the Houthi-controlled installations of the Yemeni Air Force and surface-to-air missile batteries, targets that would basically have the ability to retaliate on Saudi soil and also that would be able to affect the Saudi and indeed the Arab coalition ability to patrol over Yemen.

This is in keeping with standard practice, standard NATO practice and standard western practice, and of course the Saudi F-15 pilots are trained by the United States, most of them in the United States. They’re far better – what this campaign shows so far is that the Saudi Air Force has learned from the lessons of 2009 and gotten better.

So you want to destroy the enemy’s ability to retaliate against your own bases and then you want to impede his ability to keep you from flying over the country.

If operations continue, however, the effectiveness of an air-only operation decreases drastically over time because the enemy is adaptive. The Houthis will disperse their assets, the high-value assets will have already been destroyed, and they’ll locate, co-locate assets in keeping with standard practices that we’ve seen with Hezbollah next to civilian targets that the coalition, I think, will be hesitant or just loathe to destroy.

So the coalition is going to find that unambiguous victories will become harder to achieve as an air campaign stretches out. My hope is that the coalition will having made its point, offer up a brokered settlement along the lines of the proposed GCC settlement and that these airstrikes will be coordinated with the political solution, which is the inevitable outcome.

[SUSRIS] There’s a lot of moving pieces in all of this and it’s not just the airstrikes against the Houthis but there’s talk about ground forces, Saudi forces being mobilized. There are nations that have stepped up and promised to provide ground forces. The Egyptians, Pakistanis, some of those coalition partners you mentioned are interested in contributing forces.

The Yemeni order of battle includes ballistic missiles and I can recall that during a border skirmish with Eritrea some of those were actually launched across the Red Sea. I’m not up to date on what their order of battle is, but they also could pose a maritime interdiction threat being astride the Bab-el-Mandeb, the chokepoint from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. The border with Saudi Arabia is one area. There’s the border with Oman. There’s al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. There’s now as we’ve seen in the mosque bombings the threat of Daesh or ISIL, ISIS.

Can you put into context – this is a very complicated battleground that the Saudis are having to look at and their coalition partners including the United States if we’re actively providing logistic support, we could be – the Houthis have vowed to strike back at their advisories. So give us some sense of the dynamics of what’s happening in this new theatre in just the last 48 hours.

[Des Roches] Okay, well the only thing you’ve said that I might have to disagree with is that the threat of the Sunni terrorist group comes from Daesh or ISIS. It’s actually al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is of great concern to us in the United States because they are the al Qaeda affiliate that’s shown the greatest ability and affinity to attack the American homeland; they’ve launched a number of attacks. So that is of great concern to everybody in the west and in particular in the United States.

As for the Yemeni order of battle it’s unclear to me – and I just know what I read from the press, its unclear to me how much of the apparatus of the Yemeni state has fallen into the hands of the Houthis, and it’s unclear exactly what the role of Ali Abdullah Saleh and his placement and loyalists in supporting the Houthis. I suspect it’s more than is acknowledged but probably less than is feared.

Ali Abdullah Saleh

Ali Abdullah Saleh, former President of Yemen

So this surface-to-surface missile capability, which actually was exposed to the world when a Spanish maritime force intercepted a North Korean ship carrying missiles that were originally going to be impounded. Then it became apparent that they were destined for Yemen which at the time was a member of the global coalition against terrorism so the missiles were allowed to continue on to Yemen. Those require a lot of technical know-how, and so unless entire units or significant portions of units of the Yemeni Armed Forces have agreed to cooperate and subordinate themselves to the Houthis that capability probably isn’t ready to go, that capability is probably not deployable.

But the Saudis I think are clever and smart and they’re concerned about their homeland. Even as far back as the 60s during the civil war there were attacks by Egyptian forces, Yemeni forces aligned with Egyptian forces, possibly even Soviet forces serving as surrogates for the Egyptians and the Yemenis on towns along the southern periphery of the Saudi coast. So I think that the Saudis – they operate in an American style doctrine that they modify for their own circumstances, and I think that with the reported large number of force deployments – I’ve heard a number as high as one hundred fifty thousand – they probably will deploy some surface-to-air assets. They have Patriot PAC-3, which is pretty much state of the art for terminal missile interception and that capability is mobile.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if it were reported in the open source, which is all I read, that Patriot batteries for example have moved. Patriots are the gold standard for point defense and you’d expect that places like the Saudi base at Khamis Mushait would be considered a high-value target that Saudis would deploy their assets.

saudi_arabia_pol_2003

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As for the other coalition partners it remains unclear to me what level of involvement and how much risk they’re willing to take. So it’s quite possible that some of these coalition partners would be willing to employ ground forces to protect the Saudi border from incursion. It was reported in 2009 that both Moroccans and Jordanians were operating in the mountains in Saudi Arabia against Houthis who had crossed the border.

But that’s a very different thing from ground operations from within Yemen itself, and even then you have to differentiate between forces that might be willing to say establish a perimeter around the hinterland around Aden, where the rump Yemeni government seems to have relocated itself under Hadi. That’s a different thing than say recapturing Sana’a or capturing Sa’dah. Those areas are mountainous, difficult terrain, convoluted lines of supply, easily subject to being ambushed.

The Egyptians lost probably in excess 25,000 soldiers fighting in that part of the world in the 60s, and I can’t imagine that there’s a great desire to go into terrain that’s that difficult. It seems far more likely to me that the Houthis will find that their lines of supply are overextended, particular if they’re under aerial attack, and they’ll retreat from areas where they’re probably not very welcome such as Taiz and possibly Sana’a back to their homeland where they’re supported by the population in the province of Sa’dah.

[SUSRIS] Can you talk a little bit about the implications of this activity for the Saudi Arabian defense establishment? They’re already engaged with the coalition to fight ISIS. They’ve got border concerns in the north. It’s a big country, the size of the United States east of the Mississippi. What does this, in effect being “all in” in Yemen do to the overall picture, the defense and security picture for the Saudis?

[Des Roches] Well I think if this goes well it has the potential to be a defining moment, sort of a crucible forging the professionalism of the Saudi Armed Forces. There’s a new, young, very energetic, very forward-looking Minister of Defense in the Saudi Armed Forces. He’s quite a departure from the Minister in 2009, and I think that this campaign could serve as the impetus for true modernization of the Saudi Armed Forces.

Hafr Al-Baten Military Exercise Troops Army Missiles SAMs Rockets

A Saudi Military parade and the “Sword of Abdullah” exercise in April 2014 near Hafr Al-Baten showcased its military power. (SPA)

In the past unfortunately a lot of people who come to do business with the Saudis are just there to sell them equipment, and acquiring equipment of course is sort of the easy way, it’s attractive to the Saudis, but really equipment doesn’t mean anything unless its employed with proper doctrine, with trained forces, with forces who have a personnel system that insures the best people get to the top.

History is rife with examples. The French had more tanks than the Germans in 1940 but they didn’t employ them properly.

What I hope we’ll see here is a proper employment of Saudi forces in a truly effective way that shows a capacity. I think the American willingness to be involved in intelligence, which I would presume would mean in the targeting cycle, will enhance that and that hopefully out of this operation what we’ll see is a more professional Saudi Armed Forces that are capable of conducting sustained operations in support of – and again this is only good if it’s in support of a political goal.

They’re not going to be able to bomb the Houthis into submission. There has to be some sort of a conciliatory process and the GCC framework I think is a pretty good one for that.

[SUSRIS] Last question, and not last because of least importance, but the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia – you know we have ups and downs in the overall relationship but we’ve always had strong mil-to-mil connections. We do face a period where many question American resolve in the Gulf – this so called grand bargain with Iran, the American footprint in the region is questionable. What does this portend for the military relationship and for the overall relationship, especially since the United States is very upfront in what it’s providing, and presumably there’s more than is being discussed in the press releases?

[Des Roches] Yeah, it’s interesting. The phrase intelligence and logistics, which is what the National Security Council spokeswoman said – that covers a range of things. For example one of the things that I always look for is air-to-air refueling, which theoretically is logistics, I suppose.

Usually allies come to us, they want help with intelligence, acquisition targeting, battle surveillance, resupply precision-guided munitions, air-to-air refueling, and lift. They don’t need lift because they’re operating out of Saudi Arabia, but the other ones are quite likely.

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U.S. Central Command chief General Lloyd Austin met with Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman in February 2015. (SPA)

But look, this is a good thing. I know the Saudi and the concern in other Gulf States is well a grand bargain has to come at the expense of the American relationship with the Gulf Arabs. They feel that the United States is at best just amazingly naive, and at worst is treacherous – the United States is going to swap Arab chess pieces for Persian chess pieces – but that’s not really the case. The United States has global interests and I think that our relationship with the Arab states of the Gulf will remain strong regardless of what happens with Iran.

It’s not a zero-sum game. We can get better on both of them and stay strong. This current support of the United States is in keeping with the defense goals the United States has outlined globally, not just for the region, going back to the 2006 quadrennial defense review where the United States said that it wanted to focus on building partner capacity.

So the idea is that the Saudi capacity, which includes American provided and built aircraft, but also crews that are trained in American procedures. The Saudis do that. They do their heavy lifting there in their neighborhood to support their national security objectives.

The United States provides the key enabling capabilities that the Saudis don’t have for themselves.

If this goes well, if this doesn’t go off the rail, if it’s not an extended campaign where we’re just bombing things for the sake of bombing it, if the military objectives can be harnessed to a finite, obtainable political objective, which again I feel has to be a brokered settlement, then this could be a very shining example for the future indeed, and a very good moment for the Saudi Armed Forces.

[SUSRIS] Terrific. Dave, any last thoughts on the situation in Yemen, what we should expect to see in coming days, your take on the overall conduct of the intervention and where it’s going?

[Des Roches] The reports I get are so sketchy. My fear is whenever you do aerial stuff eventually there are going to be unpleasant photographs of things happening to people that you don’t want to kill. Even in the Kosovo campaign with excellent targeting, total command of the skies, precision-guided munitions, the United States took out a corner of the Chinese embassy that happened to house their intelligence offices — reporters, Chinese reporters. These things are going to happen.

An aerial operation is an act of war, and war is unpleasant, and targets, people who you don’t want killed are going to be killed in war. So my hope is that we do not rely – the members of the coalition do not rely exclusively on the military aspects of power but are simultaneously working a diplomatic initiative.

If this is short it will be successful, and as the campaign draws out the utility of military force will not only become less effective, it could become counterproductive.

[SUSRIS] Terrific. Professor Dave Des Roches, coming to us at a crucial time in understanding what’s happening in Yemen, the military intervention by Saudi Arabia.

This has been Focus KSA. You can find these transcripts and more at SUSRIS.com/FocusKSA.

Professor Des Roches, thank you so much for your time, and we look forward to talking with you again as this whole campaign plays itself out.

[Des Roches] Hopefully we’ll talk when the peace has broken out. My pleasure, Pat.

[SUSRIS] Okay, thanks. Again this is Focus KSA. Thank you all for joining us.

Transcribed from the FocusKSA video interview with Professor Des Roches conducted via Skype on March 27, 2015.

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About Professor David Des Roches

Associate Professor and Senior Military Fellow, National Defense University

des-roches-1David Des Roches is the Senior Military Fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies. Prior to this, he was the director responsible for defense policy concerning Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Prior to this assignment, he has served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as the DoD Liaison to the Department of Homeland Security, as the senior country director for Pakistan, as the NATO operations director, and as the deputy director for peacekeeping. His first job in government was as a special assistant for strategy and later as the international law enforcement analyst in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

A British Marshall Scholar, he has also attended the Federal Executive Institute, the German Staff College’s Higher Officer Seminar, the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School and the US Army Command and General Staff College.

An Airborne Ranger in the Army Reserve, he was awarded the Bronze Star for service in Afghanistan. He has commanded conventional and special operations parachute units and has served on the US Special Operations Command staff as well as on the Joint Staff.

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