WASHINGTON — The US plans to halt some arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of the high civilian death toll in the kingdom's Yemen bombing campaign.
Quoting a US official, Reuters first reported that "systemic, endemic" problems in Saudi Arabia's targeting drove the US decision, which officials acknowledged Tuesday, to halt a future weapons sale involving precision-guided munitions made by Raytheon.
The contract — to convert dumb bombs into precision-guided munitions that can more accurately hit their targets — is valued at $350 million, according to a report in The New York Times.
"We've decided not to move forward with some foreign military sales cases for air-dropped munitions, PGMs (precision-guided munitions)," the unnamed US official told Reuters. "That's obviously a direct reflection of the concerns that we have about Saudi strikes that have resulted in civilian casualties."
As recently as July, the US State Department approved a possible foreign military sale to the United Arab Emirates for more than 14,000 Raytheon-made Paveway guided bombs and Joint Direct Attack Munition kits worth an estimated $785 million. The UAE had been involved in air operations in Yemen since March.
Since taking office in January 2009, the Obama administration has offered more than $115 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia in 42 separate deals, more than any US administration in the 71-year history of the US-Saudi relationship, according to a report by the Center for International Policy. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and General Dynamics are the biggest beneficiaries of these deals.
This week, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the Obama administration has "long expressed some very significant concerns about the high rate of civilian casualties" in the conflict. While the US has been providing logistics and intelligence aid in the Saudis' 18-month campaign in Yemen against Houthi rebels, the conflict has claimed 3,700 civilians, according to United Nations data.
State Department spokesman John Kirby confirmed Tuesday that there were "some adjustments made" in US aid to help the kingdom, and that the US would continue to help enhance "the sharing and analysis of threat information so that Saudi Arabia can better defend itself against future cross-border attacks."
In a signal of the growing concerns on Capitol Hill and strained ties between Washington and Riyadh, the US Senate in September voted on a measure to block the $1.15 billion sale of US tanks to Saudi Arabia, which failed with 27 "yes" votes. One of the co-sponsors of the defeated measure, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., described Saudi Arabia as America's "frenemy" for its suspected sponsorship of radical Islam.
Another of the co-sponsors, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Wednesday that halting the weapons sales to Saudi Arabia was, "the right call," and that the US should go further to stop refueling Saudi planes conducting the airstrikes.
"Any further assistance – including weapons deliveries already in the pipeline – should be conditioned on prioritizing civilian protection and a willingness to compromise in political negotiations to end the war," Murphy said in a statement.
Though the move to block sales could further stress the US-Saudi relationship before President-elect Donald Trump takes office, military cooperation will remain intact. According to Reuters, the US will keep refueling Saudi-led coalition aircraft involved in the campaign, increase intelligence sharing and not halt all weapons sales.
The worst single event in the war was on Oct. 8, when a double airstrike by a coalition warplane hit a packed funeral hall in the capital Sanaa, killing 140 people, mostly civilians. Though Saudi officials have maintained the overall civilian casualty count has been exaggerated, in this case, the coalition reportedly admitted the strike was carried out in error and has offered compensation.
The US then announced it had been undertaking an interagency review to assess the appropriate level of support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen "to ensure it is consistent with our foreign policy goals and values," a State Department official said. That review involved the Defense Department and other relevant departments and agencies responsible for security assistance programming.
"This review reflects our continued, strong concerns with the flaws in the coalition's targeting practices and overall prosecution of the air campaign in Yemen," the official said. "We are also exploring how to refocus training for the Saudi Air Force to address these kinds of issues. We have also undertaken steps to refocus our information sharing and our personnel in Saudi Arabia."
The US continues to encourage the Saudis to take immediate steps to mitigate against future civilian casualties, including by remediating flaws in its targeting process, the State Department official said, adding: "And we continue to believe that the surest way for the Saudis to protect their border with Yemen is to achieve a comprehensive political settlement of the Yemen conflict."
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.