U.S.-Made Helicopters Playing Combat Role in Yemen War, Army Confirms

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President Donald Trump with then-Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman at the White House on March 14, 2017. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

By Michael Tracey

An Army spokesperson confirmed to TYT that a new combat brigade in the Saudi Arabian National Guard—a division of the kingdom’s armed forces which has come to play a direct offensive role in the devastating Yemen conflict—is composed of military equipment produced by Sikorsky, the American helicopter manufacturer.

Adriane Elliot, a representative for the United States Army Security Assistance Command (USASAC), told TYT that the brigade “is made up of a Black Hawk unit, a maintenance battalion, and an Apache and light reconnaissance unit.” Black Hawk helicopters are the signature product manufactured by Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin subsidiary based in Connecticut whose job cuts amid its pursuit of tax breaks TYT has previously reported on.

Elliot said she could not comment on how many Black Hawks or other U.S.-made craft are being deployed by the brigade. She said that “two remaining [combat brigades] are scheduled for fielding through 2021.” The number of craft in any given brigade can vary considerably.

An estimated 50,000 children will have died in Yemen from starvation and disease by the end of the year as a result of the ongoing offensive, which began in 2015 with a Saudi-led coalition campaign to oust Houthi rebels who had seized control of swaths of the country. More than 5,500 civilians have reportedly died from conflict-related violence since the beginning of the war.

The Saudis’ blockade has severely hindered delivery of humanitarian assistance; at least eight million people are currently on the brink of famine. President Trump earlier this month urged the Saudis to ease their blockade to allow for aid to enter the country, but subsequent reports indicate that key Yemeni ports remain besieged, preventing crucial aid from arriving.

Elliot said that the new brigade gives the Saudi National Guard “tremendous capability, increasing their speed and agility, boosting the nation’s internal security and providing their ground forces a close air support capability they’ve never known.” Kelly Francois, a spokesperson for OPM-SANG, stationed in Riyadh, declined to comment on specific operations that the US-advised unit is engaged in, but said it is presently equipped for unspecified “activity.”

One of the few vocal critics in Congress of U.S. policy abetting the Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen is Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). Last month, he declared on the floor of the Senate that the U.S. is directly complicit in the devastation by virtue of furnishing arms to the Saudis. “There’s an American imprint on every civilian life lost in Yemen,” Murphy said on CNN in August 2016.

But Murphy has also been a staunch supporter of Sikorsky. In August 2016, Murphy applauded on Twitter that the company was delivering its latest order for the U.S. military “on cost and ahead of schedule.” One month later, Sikorsky received a huge tax incentive package from the Connecticut state government—with the blessing of Murphy and other federal officials—to keep its operations in-state, on the grounds that Connecticut workers would reap the economic benefits for years to come. “We can all celebrate that the next generation of world-class helicopters will remain Connecticut-made,” a group of Connecticut lawmakers, including Murphy, announced after the package was approved.

When asked whether Murphy had reservations about the use of Sikorsky equipment in Saudi military operations, spokesperson Chris Harris said, “The problems don’t stem from which company made the helicopters. Connecticut workers make the best helicopters in the world, so of course Senator Murphy believes that when the military buys helicopters, they should be made in Connecticut.”

(Aside from direct commercial sales, foreign countries obtain Sikorsky and other U.S.-made military equipment through the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency.)

Human rights groups monitoring the Yemen conflict have insisted on the cessation of all military assistance which could be used by the Saudis to wage war in Yemen. That demand includes ending sales of Sikorsky utility helicopters, multipurpose craft that can facilitate combat by transporting personnel and weaponry, or serve other logistical purposes. “Our call is for a total arms embargo, so that includes . . . any military materiel,” said Kristine Beckerle, a Yemen researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Oxfam America Humanitarian Policy Lead Scott Paul added: “What I would say about members [of Congress] who represent districts where these arms manufacturers are located, is that their responsibility isn’t only to their constituent businesses, it’s to the entire country—its national security interests and its foreign policy values. And to this point we haven’t seen them exercise their responsibilities that way.”

Independently ascertaining the precise role of Sikorsky aircraft in Yemen is notoriously difficult, said Eric Eikenberry, Advocacy Officer at the Yemen Peace Project in Washington, D.C. “The coalition doesn’t prosecute the war with a lot of transparency, unsurprisingly. And because the airstrikes occur under the aegis of a coalition, rather than a particular government—both governments who are the main actors in the coalition [Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates] have high-powered air forces with pretty impressive arsenals and advance weaponry—it can be difficult to attribute an airstrike to any given country, let alone the aircraft that they’re using.”

Prior to the Army’s disclosure to TYT, there had been indications that Sikorsky equipment had been used to facilitate combat in Yemen. The Saudi Press Agency reported in April 2017 that a Black Hawk had crashed in eastern Yemen, killing 12 Saudi military personnel—which suggested that the craft were being used to support varying elements of the offensive. In August 2017, a United Arab Emirates-owned Black Hawk reportedly crashed in the Shabwah Governorate of Yemen, during a mission said to be targeting Shiite rebels there.

Sikorsky receives contracts on a rolling basis from the Defense Logistics Agency—the Defense Department’s logistical support entity—but the DLA does not release what exact role Sikorsky craft have in the Yemen conflict. One recent contract was awarded on November 15 for unspecified “airframe structural components.” A DLA spokesperson did not reply to a request for additional information about the contract.

In July of this year, the Department of Defense awarded Sikorsky a $3.8 billion multiyear procurement contract for Black Hawk helicopters, 40 of which were allocated for the Saudi Arabian National Guard. The size of the SANG’s new helicopter fleet has not been made public, and U.S. officials did not clarify what proportion of it consists of Black Hawks.

The Saudi-led coalition maintains an investigatory mechanism called the Joint Incidents Assessment Team, tasked with collecting information related to attacks carried out in Yemen. But its reports typically do not identify which state carried out an attack, making it difficult to identify the precise operational role of Sikorsky-produced equipment in any given incident.

“While we are unable to comment on specific quantities and operational status, I can tell you that we are very proud to support the military modernization of our longtime partner, Saudi Arabia,” Elliot, the USASAC spokesperson, said. “Not only does it mutually support national interests by allowing the [Saudi National Guard] to be more self-sufficient, but it also boosts interoperability between both nations. This means that when, and if, it’s time to conduct coalition operations against a common enemy, we are able to fight alongside one another on today’s strategically complex battlefield.”

In May, after the Trump Administration announced it had brokered a massive arms deal with the Saudis—which included another 63 Sikorsky helicopters for the kingdom’s armed forces—Murphy objected only to the portions of the sale which included explicitly offensive weaponry that could be used against civilians. A resolution Murphy introduced in April 2017 calls for conditions to be placed on the provision of “air-to-ground munitions” to Saudi Arabia, which relates to missiles, rockets, torpedos, bombs, and mines, and would not necessarily include equipment such as Sikorsky-produced utility helicopters.

Notwithstanding Murphy’s promotion of Sikorsky as an economic boon to Connecticut workers, Lockheed Martin says it plans to “explore” the prospect of bringing Sikorsky helicopter production to Saudi Arabia itself, through a partnership with the Saudi-owned Taqnia Aeronautics, a “technology and investment” entity controlled by the kingdom. A Lockheed Martin press release in February 2016 announced that the partnership “could lead to direct involvement in the assembly of Sikorsky S-70 Black Hawk helicopters in the kingdom,” thereby establishing “production jobs for Saudi citizens.”

As TYT has reported, one of Lockheed Martin’s selling points in advocating for tax reform is that a lower corporate rate will allow them to keep jobs in the U.S. TYT also reported that Lockheed has made similar arguments to win lucrative tax incentives on the state and local level.

Lockheed’s attempts—counter to its ostensible U.S. job-creation goals—to bring military manufacturing jobs to a country waging a war with devastating effects on an impoverished populace come just as Saudi Arabia is embarking on a new public-relations push. The new ruling Saudi crown prince, 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, last month ordered the mass arrest of royal family rivals and other political elites, on the grounds of combating “corruption.”

Prominent U.S. journalists such as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman have treated the ascendance of bin Salman with great fanfare, touting it as a historic opportunity for the kingdom to finally “reform.” Locating Sikorsky production in Saudi Arabia itself would further cement the Saudis’ status as a central U.S. client in the region.

You can find more reporting on Lockheed Martin here: TYT Investigates Series: Tax Cuts & Job Creation – Lockheed Martin.

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