Eight unanswered questions about UK-Saudi military assistance

Eight unanswered questions about UK-Saudi military assistance

It took myself and Katherine Templar eighteen months, on and off, to establish some basic facts about the large and largely unreported UK support programme to the Saudi Arabian military, including those components currently at war in Yemen. Mandated by a sequence of at least nine government-to-government agreements since 1978, this support programme ranges across the Saudi Air Force, Navy and National Guard, and involves thousands of employees of UK multinational companies, as well as several hundred UK public servants, both civilian and military.

There’s nothing inherently wrong about providing such assistance to a foreign government. But it seems reasonable that public and Parliament should have oversight of long-term agreements into which the UK enters to provide military support to foreign governments – all of which, in the case of UK-Saudi military assistance, remain secret. And it’s equally reasonable that the UK government and its private contractors should ensure that their personnel are not complicit in violations of international humanitarian law.

Although our research went some way to establishing what these personnel do, and what the government know about what they do, some major questions remain unanswered. Here are eight of them.


What commitments do the SANGCOM, Al Salam and MSCA agreements or memoranda of understanding contain for UK personnel to assist the use of UK-supplied weapons systems in times of armed conflict?

We now know that the ‘Al Yamamah’ agreements, governing UK support to Saudi Arabia’s fleet of UK-supplied Tornado fighter-bombers, commit UK personnel (private and public) to remaining in Saudi Arabia to support and arm the Tornado aircraft in the event of Saudi Arabia becoming involved in armed conflict.

Between 1982 and 2017, the UK and Saudi Arabia have signed at least three other government-to-government agreements covering UK in-country support for Saudi weapons systems and other military equipment, which are still in force, and which remain entirely secret. [1] These include the Al Salam agreement covering support for the Saudi Air Force’s newest Typhoon fighters, also in use in the Yemen air war.

Parliament should care about this secrecy: the one agreement whose extracts we’ve seen commits the UK government, without legal or strategic qualification, to provide support personnel both military and civilian to the prosecution of a foreign power’s military conflicts. Though authorisation for UK personnel to engage in or support a foreign war remains an executive prerogative, Parliament has since 2003 expected scrutiny, if not a vote, when the UK commits personnel in support of military campaigns in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Why not Yemen, or future armed conflicts involving Saudi Arabia’s armed forces?


Exactly how many (i) seconded RAF personnel, and (ii) BAE Systems personnel, working under government-to-government agreements, are currently at work in direct support of RSAF operational squadrons engaged in the war in Yemen? What are their precise functions, and what restrictions are placed on their support for active operations?

Many of the employees of BAE Systems and other UK companies working with RSAF in Yemen including seconded UK military personnel –  are employed primarily as “trainers” or “advisers”. Nonetheless our interviews found that many such trainers and advisers have also carried out operational support functions since at least 1991, including as aircraft armourers, supervising weapons loading, and carrying out a range of core maintenance and management functions for UK-supplied weapons systems. Some of these employees work on the Forward Operating Bases from where Yemen sorties are currently launched.

But opacity remains over the numbers and functions of personnel working in these roles for the Saudi Air Force’s training squadrons vs its operational squadrons. Our interviewees told us, for instance, that between five and fifteen expatriate personnel employed by BAE Systems and others under Al Yamamah and Al Salam are assigned to operational RSAF Typhoon and Tornado squadrons. But we don’t know precisely what functions these personnel carry out, precisely where they are deployed, what their management allows them to do or forbids them from doing. The UK government must know, both because these personnel include seconded UK RAF personnel, and because the ‘MODSAP’ team of UK civil servants from the UK Ministry of Defence overseas and audits the provision of these services in detail.

Asked in Parliament last week, the MOD simply gave the total number of seconded RAF personnel in Saudi Arabia, and said that they provided “training support…and routine aircraft engineering support”. The UK government could instead be asked where both these personnel and their private sector counterparts are stationed; whether with operational or training squadrons; and precisely what they do.


What specific restrictions (if any) has the UK government — and private contractors to the MOD under the MODSAP programme — placed on their personnel’s involvement in the preparation, maintenance or operational use of air-delivered weapons in the Yemen conflict?

The UK government has told Parliament that “[n]either UK military nor BAE Systems personnel are involved in the loading of weapons for operational sorties [in Yemen].” This is of course a slightly casuistic argument: in terms of the UK’s practical contribution to weapon use, there may not be very much difference between supervising the loading of weapons, and physically fixing the bomb lugs onto the bomb racks. And employee CVs and job descriptions show that BAE Systems in Saudi Arabia currently employs Weapons Load Technicians “to accomplish safe reliable loading of munitions to [RSAF] Tornado aircraft”, and Weapons Supervisors whose “Responsibilities include the supervision of weapon loading” for RSAF’s Eurofighter Typhoons. Employees undertaking both roles include seconded UK RAF personnel.

It’s possible that restrictions placed on these personnel circumscribe their roles sufficiently to make the UK government’s statement to parliament properly true – for instance, perhaps they’re forbidden from fulfilling these particular roles when aircraft go on sorties specifically to Yemen (though this isn’t the understanding that the armourers and managers we interviewed gave us). The UK government needs to clarify this.


What support do UK personnel (either UK military personnel or employees of commercial contractors under government-to-government agreements) provide to the Saudi Arabian naval vessels currently blockading Yemen? Are they present on naval ships, and are they involved in other capacities in supporting the blockade operation?

Our study focussed out of necessity on UK support to the Royal Saudi Air Force. Nonetheless the UK MOD’s Saudi Arabia Programme (MODSAP) also includes some support to Saudi Arabia’s naval vessels and naval weapons systems. The details of this support remain opaque. The Royal Saudi Naval Forces currently participate in the naval blockade of Yemen, which the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and International Sanctions claimsinvolves grave breaches of the most basic norms of human rights law, as well as of the law of armed conflict“, and that it has contributed to a “man-made famine“. (The opposing Houthi forces have also blocked aid flows). If we care about the UK’s involvement in assisting and sustaining the air war in Yemen, the subject of dozens of parliamentary questions, then we should also care about its role in assisting and sustaining Saudi naval operations around Yemen.


Has the Tornado Sustainment Programme (TSP) provided by the UK to Saudi Arabia involved modifying Saudi Arabia’s Tornadoes – whether its pylons, weapons systems or avionics — to deploy U.S.-made cluster munitions or other cluster munitions?Likewise have the UK-supplied Typhoon aircraft supplied to Saudi Arabia been modified or certified to carry any cluster munitions?

Following the UK and Saudi governments’ admission – after nearly a year of denials – that the Royal Saudi Air Force had dropped UK-supplied BL755 cluster munitions in Yemen in early 2016, the Saudi government promised to stop using their remaining BL755s (though they remain in the Saudi Air Force’s inventory). The UK government had in any case refused since late 2008 to allow UK personnel working with RSAF to be involved with training, use or maintenance of BL755s or other cluster munitions, and specifically removed BL755 munitions from the “Release to Service” clearances for the Saudi Air Force’s BL755s in late 2008, after the UK signed the Cluster Munition Convention.

The Saudi Air Force’s inventory nonetheless contains at least three other types of air-delivered cluster munitions – CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons, CBU-87 Combined Effects Munitions, and CBU-58 cluster bomb units – and possibly also CBU-100/Mk 20 Rockeyes, according to some reports. Three of these types have been used in Yemen, including one type (CBU-58) not known to be in the inventories of any Coalition air force except that of Saudi Arabia.

What we don’t know is whether the Saudi Air Force is using UK-supplied and -supported aircraft to drop these U.S.-made cluster munitions. Since the Tornadoes and the Typhoons manufactured for the UK RAF are not cleared to use U.S. cluster munitions, such use would likely require specific modifications to the pylons, avionics and other systems of the aircraft supplied to Saudi: modifications which would have to made by BAE Systems or its subcontractors, either in Saudi Arabia or at its UK base in Warton, according to BAE Systems technicians and a senior ex-MODSAP official who we interviewed.

When asked in Parliament in January 2017 whether the UK or BAE Systems has made such modifications, the MOD replied that “Details of the wider capabilities of Royal Saudi Air Force aircraft are a matter for the Government of Saudi Arabia and their suppliers”. This deflection is insufficient for two reasons. First, the “suppliers” which would make such modifications are contracted by the UK government, not the Saudi Arabian government, under the MODSAP programme. Second, since the mid-2000s the UK has been cycling Saudi Arabia’s Tornado aircraft through the UK for upgrades under the ‘Tornado Sustainment Programme’; while all of Saudi Arabia’s Typhoons have been tested, certified and delivered new from Warton since 2009. In the cases of both Saudi Tornadoes and Saudi Typhoons, these upgrades and deliveries would give the UK government – both through MODSAP and the UK’s Military Aviation Authority – detailed knowledge of all the weapons systems that these aircraft have been modified and certified to use. There’s no reason the UK government can’t answer the question.


Why did the UK government stop making offers to Saudi Arabia to remove and destroy the RSAF’s inventory of BL755 cluster munitions in 2010? And has it renewed such offers since revelations of the use of BL755s in Yemen?

Between 2007 and 2010, as the UK acquired new commitments under the Cluster Munition Convention, the UK government made repeated offers to the Saudi Air Force to remove and destroy its stocks of UK-supplied cluster munitions, the BL755. When in January 2017 the UK government finally admitted that the Saudi Air Force had used BL755s in Yemen, the UK government told Parliament confidently that the UK “have offered to assist with the destruction of any remaining stocks of the weapon [BL755].” This is technically true in a historical sense: but responses to parliamentary questions in November 2017 and Freedom of Information requests in November 2016 suggest that in fact no such offers had (as of November 2017) been made since the change of UK government in 2010. Why did these offers stop – was there political or commercial exigency involved — and have they now resumed?


Does the UK government intend to issue any specific guidance or instructions on reporting evidence or suspicions of violations of international humanitarian law, either to UK military personnel, or to employees of private contractor companies like BAE Systems supporting the Saudi armed forces under UK MOD contracts? If not, why not?

The UK government told the High Court last year that it assesses the risk of misuse of UK-supplied weapons in violations of International Humanitarian Law, in part, based on information from the small army of UK support personnel in Saudi Arabia, including UK MOD Liaison Officers, MOD personnel within its MODSAP team, and RAF staff seconded to BAE Systems. But when we asked the MOD, it could find no guidance issued to any of these personnel on the reporting of possible violations of IHL.

Last week the UK government effectively confirmed this absence of specific tasking or guidance, telling parliamentarians simply that “Military personnel, wherever they are serving, would be expected to report any concerns about possible violations of international humanitarian law through submissions to their chain of command.” Given that the UK government has told the High Court it relies on information from these personnel in its IHL judgements about continuing weapons supplies to Saudi Arabia, it needs to explain why it has in fact issued them with no specific guidance on IHL reporting.


Has the UK government obtained legal advice on what functions seconded military personnel and private employees working in Saudi Arabia under the various UK-Saudi Memoranda of Understanding governing support for UK-supplied military equipment may or may not be permitted to fulfil, in relation to the use of that equipment in Yemen? When was this advice obtained? And can the government publish it, or at least place it in the library of the House of Commons?

We already know that under these support programmes there’s a disjuncture between some employees’ job titles, and the operational roles they are sometimes required to carry out. Parliament should be told what legal due diligence has been done to protect these UK citizens working on contract for the UK MOD.


[1] These three agreements are the second ‘SANGCOM’ agreement signed in 1982, covering the provision of secure communications and electronic warfare systems to the Saudi Arabian National Guard; the ‘Al Salam’ agreement covering UK provision of 72 Eurofighter Typhoon fighter aircraft, and in-country support for the Typhoons, signed in 2005; and a more general Military and Security Cooperation Agreement (MSCA) signed in September 2017.

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