The US and UK have initiated attacks on Yemen, but notably avoided using air force bases in Middle Eastern Arab countries. In the early hours of January 12th, over 15 ‘Super Hornet’ multi-role fighters took off from the USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier, launching over 100 precision-guided munitions at more than 60 targets in Yemen, including Tomahawk cruise missiles and AGM-88 air-to-surface anti-radiation missiles. The UK’s Royal Air Force also participated, deploying four ‘Typhoon’ multi-role fighters and an Airbus A330 tanker from their base in Akrotiri, Cyprus.
In the early hours of the 13th, the US and UK struck Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, again. American jets took off from a US aircraft carrier, while British jets flew from a military base in Cyprus. According to information provided by the US and UK, their jets did not take off from airports in Middle Eastern Arab countries.
The US military maintains a large network of bases in the Middle East, housing around 45,000 troops. Major bases include Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base and Bahrain’s Juffair Base. Other bases are located in Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan Air Base, UAE’s Al Dhafra Air Base, Oman’s Masirah Air Base, Kuwait’s Ali Al Salem Air Base, and Iraq’s Al Asad Air Base, among others.
The US military’s decision not to use Middle Eastern Arab countries’ air force bases may be due to several reasons. Firstly, the Houthi rebels warned countries against providing bases to the US. Prior to the conflict, the Houthis warned Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, and others that providing airspace to the US and UK for strikes on Yemen would make them belligerent parties. Despite differences in stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, Middle Eastern Arab countries generally do not wish to align against Palestine and side with Israel, and allowing the US to use their airports to attack Yemen would mean siding with the US and Israel, conflicting with their overall strategic interests.
Oman was the first Arab country to explicitly prohibit the use of its airspace by US military aircraft for attacks on Houthi rebels in Yemen, with other countries also not permitting such use. Secondly, the US is concerned about potential missile retaliation from the Houthis against bases in Middle Eastern Arab countries. Launching jets from aircraft carriers, rather than from land bases in these countries, at least creates a psychological barrier for the Houthis, as countries hosting US military bases would oppose Houthi attacks. If the Houthis were to proceed with such attacks, they risk losing the valuable support of Middle Eastern Arab countries. Currently, the Houthis have not dared to strike US military bases in the region.
Thirdly, the US military believes that its carrier-based aircraft are
sufficient for these operations, thus avoiding the need to involve ground-based airfields and potentially complicating matters further. This reluctance to use Middle Eastern Arab countries’ air bases could signify an important shift in strategy. In future low-intensity regional conflicts, the US might consider relying solely on its carrier-based forces, avoiding involvement of regional allies to make it more challenging for adversaries to respond.
However, this strategy is dynamic and may change depending on the situation. Against weaker, smaller nations, the US might prefer this approach. But in larger scale conflicts where carrier-based forces might be insufficient, the US could still resort to using military bases in allied countries. How the US leverages ally forces and utilizes military bases in different intensity conflicts is something other nations need to study and strategize against.