CentCom faces questions about Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen

But it remains unknown how many aircraft or airmen from MacDill Air Force took part in the bombings, which have resulted in civilian casualties.
A KC-135 Stratotanker is seen from another KC-135 as the planes sit on the tarmac at MacDill Air Force Base in 2014. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
A KC-135 Stratotanker is seen from another KC-135 as the planes sit on the tarmac at MacDill Air Force Base in 2014. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published February 5

During a U.S. Senate hearing on Central Command’s military operations, Sen. Elizabeth Warren pressed its top leader for details about American support for the controversial Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen.

Air Force tanker jets and crews — some from MacDill Air Force Base — have taken part in those missions by refueling Saudi coalition aerial attacks against Houthi rebels.

Warren was questioning Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who leads CentCom from its MacDill headquarters.

But the question that CentCom and Air Force officials at MacDill and in Qatar say they cannot answer is how many aircraft or airmen from the Tampa base have taken part in the Saudi campaign in Yemen — a campaign whose civilian casualties have brought international appropriation to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners.

Since 2016, the Tampa Bay Times has repeatedly asked officials from CentCom, the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill and U.S. Air Forces Central Command, which oversees CentCom’s air operations, about what role the Tampa refueling wings have played in the bombing campaign.

Officials have repeatedly answered that they do not track that level of detail.

Warren did not specifically address MacDill’s role in Tuesday’s hearing. But she did ask questions about the overall U.S. role in the ongoing bombing campaign.

“The New York Times reported that personnel assigned to the coalition’s headquarters in Saudi Arabia readily had access to a database that detailed every airstrike or target, and a brief description of the attack,” said Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat and 2020 presidential candidate.

Then she asked Votel: “So does this database exist?”

“Today, we do have a database that does have that information,” Votel said. “We have the ability to see that.” Air Force refueling missions were scrubbed by the Pentagon in November at the request of the Saudis in the wake of humanitarian concerns about civilian casualties. But the U.S. still provides limited intelligence and sells weapons and munitions to coalition nations.

More than 6,600 civilians have been killed and more than 10,000 wounded since the start of the Saudi campaign in Yemen in 2015, according to a recent U.N. report, which suggests the campaign may be violating the rules of war and thus resulting in higher casualties than have been reported.

The report, conducted by the U.N.’s Group of Regional and International Eminent Experts on Yemen, “strongly suggests that parties to the armed conflict have perpetrated, and continue to perpetrate, violations and crimes under international law,” according to a statement released in August.

A coalition of Sunni nations including the United Arab Emirates and others have been fighting to support Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, ousted from the capital Sanaa by the Iran-aligned Houthis in 2015. But during that campaign, Saudi-led airstrikes on residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings and other civilian concentrations have sparked global outrage and increased pressure on the Pentagon to reduce — and even curtail — support for the Saudi-led campaign.

MacDill has several links to that conflict because it contains several headquarters, including CentCom and Special Operations Command Central, which oversees commando operations in the region. It is also home to the crews and aircraft of the 6th Air Mobility Wing and the 927th Air Refueling Wing. Both are deployed to the Al Udeid Airbase in Qatar to take part in missions in the CentCom region, which includes the Yemen conflict.

They are also intermingled with other wings from across the Air Force, so tracking how often MacDill crews have taken part in the Saudi effort is difficult. In addition, the United States is conducting a separate counterterrorism campaign against al-Qaida and an element of the Islamic State in Yemen.

Warren’s questions Tuesday followed her letter sent the day before to Votel asking for details about the level of Air Force participation in the coalition attacks in Yemen. Warren asked Votel to tell her, among other things, whether CentCom logged tail numbers of the Air Force tankers and whether each country was invoiced correctly.

Votel said he would provide a response to those questions.

Last month, the Pentagon’s Inspector General began an audit to examine how the Pentagon is repaid by partner nations for refueling efforts. That audit will include a visit to CentCom headquarters at MacDill. It comes after the Pentagon announced in December that because of accounting errors, it failed to bill Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates $331 million between April 2015 to Nov. 11, 2018, for fuel and refueling services.

Votel was also asked by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., about the status of that repayment.

“They have given us every indication that they will meet the requirements for reimbursement we have asked for,” the general said.

In his opening statement, Votel said he still supports American support of the Saudi effort.

“Certainly it is a very significant humanitarian disaster in Yemen,” the general said. “But I do believe departing from our partners there removes the leverage that we have to continue to influence them, which I think we have used in a positive manner, and I think it further endangers Americans in the region.”

Even though those refueling missions have stopped, a Florida Congressman is among those who recently re-introduced legislation to make sure they do not re-start.

“The war in Yemen has ravaged that country,” U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville,” said in a statement. “This bill will change the dynamic of that war to help minimize civilian casualties.”

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112 . Follow @haltman.

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