Houthi Rebels Trounce Saudi Force Amid Concerns Over The Kingdom's Military Competence
A top U.S. Army advisor to the Saudis had previously described high casualty rates and a worrying lack of capacity in the country's National Guard.
Yemen's Houthi rebels have released video footage that they say is from a recent major battle with Saudi Arabian forces that resulted in hundreds of Saudi casualties and the capture of many more, along with the seizure of vast array of vehicles and other weapons and equipment. The Houthi's specific claims cannot be independently verified and follow questionable assertions from the group about its involvement in recent unprecedented attacks on key pieces of Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure. However, the disclosure does come nearly two years after a senior U.S. military advisor publicly highlighted worryingly high casualty rates and poor training and sustainment practices within the Saudi Arabian National Guard, specifically, which appears to have been involved in this particular incident.
On Sept. 29 and 30, 2019, the Houthi-aligned Al Masirah television channel broadcast footage from the reported battle, showing the Yemeni rebels firing anti-tank guided missiles and other weapons at a convoy consisting of LAV-25 light armored vehicles, M163 Vulcan Air Defense System (VADS) vehicles, as well as various types of mine-protected or otherwise armored trucks and unarmored Toyota pickup trucks. Additional footage shows allegedly Saudi personnel, as well as possible foreign mercenaries under Saudi direction, surrendering.
At an earlier press conference, with foreign journalists in attendance, Houthi spokesman Yahya Saree would not say where or when the fighting occurred, specifically, claiming operational security concerns. He did claim that it had taken place within Saudi Arabia's southern Najran province, which borders Yemen. Al Jazeera reported that the battle had taken place sometime in August 2019.
It has been, so far, impossible to verify the Houthis claims that they killed or wounded 500 Saudi-aligned troops and captured 2,000 more. At the time of writing, Saudi Arabia has declined to respond in any way to the Houthi's claims.
The credibility of Houthi claims, in general, has seen significant challenges recently after the group claimed responsibility for a series of unprecedented suicide drone and missile strikes on Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq oil processing facility and Khurais oil field earlier in September. There has been a growing body of evidence that suggests that these attacks did not originate in Yemen. That the Iranian-backed Yemeni rebels have released their own clearly fabricated "evidence" to support their claims has only further called them into question.
At the same time, however, there are many details available already that lend weight to their claims with regards to fighting in or around Najran, even if the Houthi's assertions about the total number of Saudi casualties, and personnel and equipment they captured, remain dubious. The presence of LAV-25s, for example, strongly indicates that members of the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) were among those in the convoy that the Houthis attacked.
The Saudis have the largest force of LAV-25s, and other associated variants of that 8x8 wheeled design, in the world, with more than 1,900 examples in total, Major General Frank Muth, then-head of the Office of the Program Manager-Saudi Arabian National Guard (OPM-SANG), the top U.S. advisory body to this Saudi force, said during a presentation at the Association of the U.S. Army's main annual convention in October 2017. With the exception of Qatar, which dropped out the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in 2017 over a still-ongoing political spat, no other country that has been part of this bloc operates these vehicles.
Since at least 2016, SANG has been rotating its mechanized brigades, one at a time, through deployments to the border region with Yemen, according to Muth. "They [the SANG] are on the border with Yemen right now, fighting the Houthis, fighting the Houthis crossing the border," he said in his 2017 presentation. There is also evidence that the SANG has deployed with these vehicles into Yemen proper.
Unlike the U.S. National Guard, the SANG is a sort of praetorian guard that is publicly charged with protecting the ruling monarchy in Saudi Arabia, as well as key religious sites and other important infrastructure, including oil-related sites. This Saudi force also has a large irregular component that recruits heavily from various tribal groups within Saudi Arabia, which would help explain the general appearance of a large portion of the individuals the Houthis reportedly captured.
Many of the supposedly captured fighters were wearing flip flops and traditional clothing found in this region has led experts to question whether or not these individuals were Saudi Arabians or foreign mercenaries, including pro-Saudi Yemeni militiamen. At least some of the troops that the Houthis captured were wearing Saudi uniforms or claimed to be Saudi Arabian nationals, which could have been the SANG officers leading the force.
If the Houthis claims are at all true, the battle will be a particularly embarrassing episode for the Saudis, who have been fighting a brutal war with the Yemeni rebels since March 2015. Unfortunately, the SANG's apparent performance, as well as that of the irregular forces that appear to have been under their immediate command, is not necessarily surprising to anyone who might have caught Major General Muth's discussion nearly two years ago.
Though Muth, who had taken over the post as head of OPM-SANG in July 2016, was upbeat in his talk about the progress that the Saudis had made, he highlighted a number of extremely severe deficiencies that had he and his team of advisors had been working to rectify. His descriptions of SANG experiences in fighting with the Houthis along the border align well with the Houthis latest claims.
“They were having problems with people not getting off the point of injury and not surviving," he said in 2017. "We had to show them, it only takes like four basic things for you to learn and understand at the soldier level, be able to bring that – I’m not going to use an exact number, but let’s say its very high, 70 to 80 percent died of wounds, just an example, that may not be the case – down to a much lower number.”
Muth pointed out that, on average, only two percent of U.S. Army soldiers typically died at the point of injury in recent American conflicts. The general officer said that, as of October 2017, the SANG, with great effort, had been able to get their rate down to 16 percent.
It is “night and day how much better they’re fighting now. Why, because they know somebody’s there to care of them," Muth said, a comment that further highlights how dire things must have been initially. Still, the "improved" casualty rate meant that nearly two out of every 10 SANG casualties were still dying right on the battlefield and it is unclear how much better their prospects may have been at the next level of care, if they even got there. We don't know if these figures have improved or regressed since then.
Training, in general, was also a problem. Muth said that he had initiated plans in 2016 to establish officer and non-commissioned officer academies to improve the performance of SANG's leadership, but that it was unlikely they would produce results for at least five years. Bear in mind that OPM-SANG has been working in Saudi Arabia since 1973. In the interim, American advisors had helped craft a six-week "Warrior Leaders Course" to try and improve the force's overall quality.
“We’re going to pull staff sergeants and sergeant first classes out of the LAV formations, put them through an intensive six-week training cycle, and we’re focusing on some basic stuff," Muth explained. "I’m talking patrolling, weapons fire, communication, land nav [sic; navigation], P.T. [physical training] – let me say that again, P.T., a lot of P.T. – and just basic skill sets."
The state of the SANG's LAVs was also dismal, according to Muth. "When they came off of the border for the first time, they did not have a battle damage and repair [BDAR] facility. So, we had 19 LAVs from the first brigade that were shot up pretty bad, from RPGs to you name it. We had no way to repair them," he explained.
The U.S. military, through the Foreign Military Sales program, only hired General Dynamics Land Systems (GLDS), the LAV's original manufacturer, to set up a BDAR facility in 2016. Saudi Arabia had first bought its fleet of these armored vehicles in the early 1990s. After those contractors set up this repair depot, they found that there had been, at best, minimal maintenance on the vehicles since then.
Muth said a contractor had, at one point, shown him an oil filter taken from one of the LAVs that had a specific 1992 date code that indicated it had never been replaced. "I’m not kidding," he declared during his talk.
The video below purportedly shows Houthis destroying a captured Saudi LAV in 2018.
It's not clear how many similar issues may plague the regular Saudi armed forces, but other reports strongly suggest that Muth's experiences were not out of the ordinary for U.S. advisors working in the Kingdom. In 2017, the general officer had noted that there could be difficulties in convincing senior SANG and other Saudi military leadership to adopt reforms and ensure those directives got carried out at lower echelons. He also said he had laid out a number of goals to try to make sure the SANG, at least, would have self-sustaining mechanisms for handling attrition in regards to both manpower and materiel.
The Saudis have "to anticipate many years out, knowing that this [the fight against the Houthis] is not gonna end any time soon," he said. "And if you're rotating people in and out, brigades every year, you've gotta anticipate those requirements, anticipate the training needs, and get that on the calendar, and then force everyone to do that."
Major General Muth left OPM-SANG to become head of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command in July 2018. It's unclear how much progress the Saudis had made on implementing the goals he had laid out by then. If the Houthi's latest operation in or around Najran is any indication, the SANG, specifically, looks to be having serious challenges in finding replacement personnel and training them into a capable fighting force. There have been multiple allegations that Saudi Arabia has been heavily relying on local fighters tied to terrorist groups, foreign mercenaries, and the forced conscription of Sudanese child soldiers to bolster its forces in Yemen proper.
This latest battle, coupled with Muth's past comments about the quality of the SANG, only underscores the concerns about the general capabilities of the Saudi armed forces, more broadly. These have been front and center since the attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais. Saudi air defenses proved ineffectual in defending at all against the suicide drones and missiles. It's fair to say that the dated point defense systems available to the Saudis may not have been able to repel the attacks, at all, something The War Zone has analyzed in-depth since those attacks, but it remains unclear how well prepared those personnel were for any threats, to begin with.
All this also raises doubts about how capable the Saudi armed forces might be in a protracted regional conflict against a more capable adversary that the Houthis, such as Iran. The United States has blamed Iran directly for the Abqaiq and Khurais attacks and the Saudis say that they were at least Iranian-sponsored.
"If the world does not take a strong and firm action to deter Iran, we will see further escalations that will threaten world interests," Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS and widely seen as the man actually ruling Saudi Arabia and the chief architect of the war in Yemen, warned in an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" this past weekend. "Oil supplies will be disrupted and oil prices will jump to unimaginably high numbers that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes."
Further attacks on Saudi Arabia's oil and other energy-producing infrastructure, as well as threats that could limit its ability to export those resources around the world could potentially lead to a "total collapse of the global economy, and not just Saudi Arabia or the Middle East countries," the crown prince continued. MBS also said he agreed with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's past comments that the suicide drone and missile attacks on his country earlier in September constituted an "act of war" by Iran.
All of this comes as the United States says it is preparing to send an additional battery of U.S. Army Patriot surface-to-air missile systems to Saudi Arabia, on top of existing ones already there. The U.S. Navy has already moved an Arleigh Burke class destroyer into a position where it can also provide additional air defense coverage for Saudi Arabia. This is on top of a steady influx of additional U.S. military personnel and assets, including U.S. Air Force fighter jets and bombers and additional Navy warships, into the Middle East, as a whole, since May.
The United States also says it plans to fast-track additional military aid to the Kingdom. This follows a major Saudi spending spree on U.S. military hardware in recent years, including combat jets, warships, air and missile defense systems, and more. One has to wonder, given the available details about the SANG and their apparent recent performance in Najran, whether Saudis forces would truly be able to put that additional materiel to good use within any reasonable timeline of whenever they receive it.
Whatever the case, there seems to be a growing danger that Saudi Arabia may find itself as a center of a larger regional conflict, one that it appears to be largely unprepared for. The incident in or around Najran shows that the country may not even be able to guarantee security along its southern border against a more limited opponent after more than four years of heavy fighting.
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