Going on a mission to set right a wrong in Yemen
At a sprawling air base in southern Saudi Arabia, another warplane roars off into the harsh sun carrying a payload of laser- and GPS-guided bombs to drop over Yemen.
Roughly 100 km from the Yemeni border, the King Khalid Air Base near Khamis Mushayt is at the forefront of the Saudi-led effort to restore the legitimate government in Yemen.
Launched in March, the campaign aims to support Yemen’s internationally recognized government in its fight against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who seized much of the country, including the capital Sanaa.
A coalition of mainly Gulf Arab nations led by Riyadh has for months been pounding the rebels almost daily with airstrikes, many of them launched from this base in the mountainous southwestern Asir province.
Pilots, like Capt. Khalid of the Royal Saudi Air Force, collect helmets, green vests and pistols from a locker room before walking through a wooden door to the tarmac, where warplanes from coalition countries stand by for missions.
Saudi Arabia’s US-made F-15 fighters sit next to a desert-shaded Sukhoi from Sudan and a French-made Mirage from Qatar.
Standing beside his F-15, Khalid says his mission is to protect Yemeni civilians from the Houthis and their allies.
“We protect our country as well,” the 32-year-old adds, speaking during the first visit by Western journalists to the base since the launch of the campaign in Yemen.
Khalid spoke under rules that forbid him from giving his family name. Khalid has spent nearly a decade in the Royal Saudi Air Force. He took part in the country’s last war against the Houthis, when Saudi troops were in action for several weeks in 2009 after a rebel incursion over the southern frontier.
He says he has flown countless sorties in this latest conflict — between 150 and 200 hours of flight time.
The coalition has sent ground troops to Yemen to support President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s forces, but the main focus has been on airstrikes. It has not released recent figures on how many strikes have been carried out but the air campaign has been intense.
The coalition vehemently denies reports of indiscriminate bombing and at the King Khalid base pilots say they take every precaution.
“We always use guided bombs to make the weapon more precise,” Khalid says, his words difficult to hear as another fighter takes off, shaking the insides of those standing near the runway. “We target the military buildings and troops.”
Khalid says the crew never release their weapons “unless we are 100 percent sure” of the target.
Khalid says he has felt no danger during his missions and, so far, coalition air forces have only reported a single loss. A Moroccan pilot died in May when his F-16 fighter crashed in the Houthi stronghold of Saada. Rebels said they shot it down but the coalition blamed human error or a technical fault.
Khamis Mushayt, the city near the Saudi air base, came under attack in June from a Scud missile launched from Yemen but a Patriot missile shot it down, the coalition said.
The air base resembles a small city with its own post office, bank, mosques, convenience store and laundry,with streets decorated with large model warplanes.