A fight is brewing within the Democratic party over whether to permit the sale of defensive air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration’s State Department approved the sale of 280 AIM-120C missiles to Riyadh, but a far-left group of members in the House of Representatives, led by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., introduced legislation on Nov. 12 to block the sale.
Refusing to provide even defensive missiles to Saudi Arabia will not only damage U.S. relations with a valuable security partner, make it harder for the kingdom to defend itself against drone attacks by Iranian-supported Houthi terrorists, and incentivize Riyadh to acquire weapons from suppliers such as Russia or China; it will also worsen the conflict in Yemen, which is the primary cause of the horrible humanitarian crisis there.
The $650 million sale in question includes 280 AIM-120C-7/C-8 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles and related equipment, including missile rail launchers, spare parts and contractor support. The Saudis would use the additional missiles and equipment on their Eurofighter Typhoon and American-made F-15 fighters to destroy Houthi drones attacking Saudi citizens and infrastructure. In other words, the AIM-120C is an air-to-air missile designed to be fired at enemy aircraft (of which the Houthis have none) and drones.
That’s significant because much of the criticism of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia has focused on Riyadh’s airstrikes in Yemen that have resulted in civilian casualties. Those strikes, however, were conducted with air-to-ground weapons, not air-to-air missiles like the AIM-120C.
In fact, Riyadh needs the AIM-120C missiles to destroy unmanned aerial systems that the Houthis have increasingly used to attack Saudi citizens and destroy infrastructure there. This is not some rare or minor problem for Saudi Arabia. In April, Riyadh told The Associated Press that the Houthis have launched more than 550 bomb-laden drones toward Saudi Arabia since the war’s inception.
“We’ve seen an increase in cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia over the past year,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said on Nov. 18. “Saudi AIM-120C missiles, deployed from Saudi aircraft, have been instrumental in intercepting the persistent UAS attacks on the Kingdom that also put more than 70,000 U.S. citizens living and working in Saudi Arabia at risk.”
The war started in late 2014, when Houthis marched on Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and forced President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to flee. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia intervened, with U.S. support, at the head of a coalition that included the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, aiming to reinstate Hadi’s internationally recognized government. The war continues today despite diplomatic efforts to get the Houthis to the negotiating table.
Seeing an opportunity to cultivate another terrorist proxy in a key location to attack U.S. and partner interests, the Islamic Republic of Iran for years has systematically supplied the Houthis with small arms, anti-tank missiles, anti-ship missiles, drones and ballistic missiles. The terror group has used its weapons to indiscriminately target civilians in Yemen and to bombard Saudi cities and critical infrastructure.
As a U.N. report documented, the Houthis have also employed human shields, seeking to protect terrorist fighters while inviting civilian casualties that can then be blamed on Saudi Arabia. That deplorable tactic takes a page from Tehran’s other terror proxies and will sound familiar to Israelis battling Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as to some American service members who fought in Iraq.
While Riyadh has endured widespread criticism (some of which is warranted) for its actions in Yemen in the past, the failure to seriously address the flow of weapons from Iran to the Houthis has given the latter little reason to stop its military offensive and negotiate in good faith. In March, the Houthis responded to a genuine Saudi peace initiative by firing 18 armed drones at Saudi energy and military sites.
A continuation of Washington’s one-sided approach will simply leave Yemen with more of the same: more violence and more humanitarian suffering.
Members of Congress on the extreme end of the debate, such as Rep. Omar, want to end all U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. But some members of Congress distinguish between the provision of offensive and defensive weapons. Under that distinction, which can be somewhat arbitrary, Riyadh’s use of the additional AIM-120C missiles to destroy suicide drones destined for targets in the kingdom would clearly be defensive.
The Biden administration recognizes this fact, as do many Democrats on Capitol Hill. Earlier this month, Democrats such as Reps. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., and Adam Schiff, D-Calif., criticized Saudi Arabia and the campaign in Yemen, but noted that the AIM-120C missiles are “intended to serve defensive purposes and protect against further Houthi airborne attacks.”
Those persistent attacks have forced Saudi Arabia to invest heavily in air defense to protect its population and infrastructure. The air-launched AIM-120C is a critical component of this defense system, as the kingdom’s large landmass necessitates mobile intercept platforms — exactly the capability that air-to-air missiles would provide.
The AIM-120C sale, therefore, is consistent with the Biden administration’s policy of ensuring Saudi Arabia has the means to defend itself. But if Congress blocks the sale, it would leave Riyadh with two options — both of which would damage American national security and humanitarian conditions in Yemen.
If unable to procure defensive arms from the United States, Saudi Arabia will not simply shrug and leave itself defenseless. Riyadh would likely turn toward Russia to procure additional air defense systems. In particular, the Russian S-400 is a capable system that Saudi officials have previously discussed purchasing. Acquisition of the S-400 has severely strained the U.S.-Turkey relationship and is also creating problems in U.S.-India relations.
Reminding us once again that great power competition happens in the Middle East, not just Europe and the Asia-Pacific, Saudi procurement of the S-400 would represent a political and military bonanza for Russian President Vladimir Putin. And unlike the United States, Putin would never use the associated leverage to push Riyadh to avoid the indiscriminate use of weapons that results in civilian casualties.
It is true that transitioning from American to Russian weapons takes time and is hardly easy. But it is a mistake to believe that Riyadh would not take that step if core Saudi national security interests required it. Plus, it is worth noting that Saudi Arabia has already demonstrated a willingness to make modest initial purchases of weapons from America’s authoritarian adversaries, acquiring Wing Loong II drones from China that were then used to conduct strikes in Yemen.
Regardless of any decision to purchase weapons it needs elsewhere, if Riyadh sees its supply of air-to-air missiles being depleted in the face of an onslaught of Houthi suicide drones, Saudi Arabia may decide that it has no choice but to intensify its air campaign in Yemen to destroy the drones before they are launched. Such a campaign would increase civilian casualties in Yemen, exacerbating humanitarian suffering there.
Advocates of banning even arms sales deemed defensive to Saudi Arabia seem to think that there is a third option: that Riyadh will simply sit back as the kingdom is bombarded by Houthi rockets, drones and missiles. This expectation is unrealistic and devoid of strategic empathy. After all, how would U.S. politicians and policymakers react if Minneapolis or Detroit was attacked from the air every week? The answer, of course, is that they would take all available measures to defend the American people.
That would include taking steps that some could consider offensive, which is why the distinction between offensive and defensive weapons can be unhelpful. Is targeting a Houthi drone or missile about to be launched toward a Saudi city an offensive or defensive action?
No nation or military would be satisfied with purely playing defense in the light of an intensifying missile, rocket and drone barrage against its homeland and citizens. Eventually, defenses will fail, and action must be taken to target the aggressor’s supply, assembly and launch capabilities to prevent the barrage from continuing or escalating.
If the flow of Iranian weapons to the Houthis is not stopped, the conflict will almost certainly persist, meaning continued Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia. Under such a scenario, if Riyadh can’t get its weapons from the United States, we should expect them to look to Russia and China. When that happens, American national security interests will suffer, and things will only get worse for civilians in Yemen.
On this arms sale decision, the Biden administration got it right. Congress should now permit the sale of AIM-120C air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia. Members of Congress are entitled to criticize Riyadh, but blocking the U.S. provision of even defensive missiles to a security partner facing a suicide drone onslaught will only undermine U.S. national security interests, empower a terrorist proxy of Tehran and worsen the suffering of innocent individuals in Yemen.
Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow and Ryan Brobst is a research analyst. FDD does not receive financial support from Raytheon Technologies, foreign governments or indirect lobbyists for Saudi Arabia.