As lawmakers once again try to stop U.S. refueling and intelligence missions in support of planes from the Saudi-led coalition targeting rebels in Yemen, a top general insists U.S. support is necessary to build on its relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, said working with Saudi Arabia has proven successful in recent months even as the civil war in Yemen has continued on nearly three years and counting.
In response to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Votel said U.S. intelligence in the CentCom area of responsibility does not track where a plane belonging to the Saudi-led coalition goes or what the aircraft targets after it refuels from a U.S. tanker.
Lawmakers questioned whether it is possible for the U.S. to stop providing aerial refueling and intelligence to Saudi Arabia altogether.
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"I think right now that the provision of those things that you just covered right now gives us placement, it gives us access and it gives us influence … with Saudi Arabia," Votel said.
"And what I would highlight to you is that we have been working with them, sharing our own experiences," he said, in response to Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.
"If the argument is this allows us to maintain control, are we maintaining some level of control?" King asked.
"The influence that we derive with them is by working with them to demonstrate how we do our targeting process," Votel said, adding the Saudis "absolutely" listen to the advice the U.S. gives them on limiting civilian casualties.
While CentCom officials in previous months have said the U.S. does not provide specific targeting intel to Saudi jets striking Houthi sites, they do advise them on their missions, as confirmed by Votel on Tuesday.
"Senator, from my perspective, it's better for us to stay engaged with them and continue to influence this," Votel said. "They want this type of support, and they want to improve their capabilities."
Votel's comments came as Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.; Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, are attempting to push a vote to remove the U.S. military from hostilities in Yemen. Congress has not authorized any actions in Yemen.
In November, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to adopt a nonbinding measure that urges forces involved in the years-long Yemen conflict to work toward a political solution -- but does not call for an end to America's assistance in the war.
The measure, House Resolution 599, followed an earlier measure, House Congressional Resolution 81, which stalled. Like the latest Senate bill, it explored whether Congress could invoke the War Powers Resolution of 1973 to force the U.S. to end its involvement in the Saudi-led conflict within 30 days of passage.
Ebb and Flow in Refueling Statistics
Since Saudi-led operations commenced in 2015, Air Force tankers such as KC-135 Stratotankers and KC-10 Extenders have conducted more than 2,800 refueling operations over the Horn of Africa, Air Forces Central Command spokeswoman Capt. AnnMarie Annicelli told Military.com on Tuesday.
The aircraft have offloaded "88 million pounds of fuel in support of U.S. missions and Saudi and Emirate operations against threats throughout the Horn of Africa, to include Yemen," as of Jan. 1, Annicelli said in an email.
The latest numbers show an 18 percent increase in sorties since October, when the command accounted for 2,363 sorties in the Horn of Africa region.
Prior to that, the Air Force routinely provided refueling statistics to this reporter, saying the numbers were specific to jets refueling for operations in Yemen. Last fall, officials said they erred in the way they previously provided statistics because they had no way of tracking refueling missions specific to Yemen.
"We do not have the ability to break out this data just for the Saudi coalition jets in Yemen because our database does not break down details on each receiv[ing aircraft]," Capt. Jose Davis, then-spokesman for AfCent told Military.com at the time.
The data account for total refueling operations happening in or near the Horn of Africa "to include but not limited to Saudi-led operations in Yemen, U.S. missions in that area, and Emirate operations against [Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] targets," Davis said in October.
As operations continue, statistics do not show a significant refueling spike in the region over the last few months. That could be because strikes from Saudi jets have steadied.
"In any armed conflict in which aerial operations play a big role, there will be ebbs and flows of aerial operations … and they tend to be most intense at the very outset because that's when you have the most targets on the ground," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in a phone interview Tuesday.
"It's not surprising that there'd be a slower tempo than at the outset of operations -- but beyond that, it's a little hard to project because sometimes there would be tactical or strategic reasons, and then they'll just revert to the norm," Gartenstein-Ross said, adding it's unlikely this means there will be a prolonged decline in coalition airstrikes.
The war first made headlines in spring 2015, when Iranian-backed Houthi rebels -- anti-government fighters aligned with ousted former president Ali Abdullah Saleh -- were dislodged from their position near the port city of Aden by the coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Kuwait.
The Sanders-Murphy-Lee Bill adds to the ongoing debate on Congress' role in wartime operations.
"There's a secondary debate, if we cut the Saudis off, which is unlikely for a wide variety of reasons," Gartenstein-Ross said. "Especially [given] the assistance being provided to Saudi [Arabia] -- there's a better case than, say [striking Libya in 2011], that assistance in refueling is not the kind of thing which the War Powers Act should be invoked."
The primary argument for this conflict is "whether Congress should take more responsibility for warfighting," he said.