The Fascinating Story Of How Yemen Got F-5E Tiger II Fighters

The Fascinating Story of How Yemen Got F-5E Tiger II Fighters shows us that it is inextricably tied to the Second Yemenite War of March 1979.

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The Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), commonly known as North Yemen, had an air force that flew Soviet-supplied MiG-17 and MiG-21 aircraft during the Cold War. But starting in 1979, the nation also flew Northrop’s F-5E Tiger II light fighter aircraft, which made their debut in 1972. It’s a truly bizarre tale of how Yemen came to own its little fleet of American F-5E aircraft.

The purchase of the aforementioned aircraft by the nation was inextricably tied to the Second Yemenite War of March 1979. While South Yemen was formally a member of the British Empire beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, North Yemen was historically a part of the old Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although Yemen’s roots go back to 1918, the United States only officially recognized Northern Yemen (also known as Yemen) as an independent state in 1948. The People’s Democratic Republic of Southern Yemen (PDRY), a communist state with close ties to the former Soviet Union, was acknowledged in 1967. The nation was eventually recognized as the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in 1962. From 1962 until 1970, both countries engaged in a ferocious civil war that ended in Northern victory.

Significant political turmoil and instability between the North and South occurred in the early 1970s, which set the stage for the First Yemenite War in 1972. Between September and October, the battle lasted just three weeks when an agreement known as the Cairo Agreement saw an end to it. However, stability was short-lived as a second Yemenite War broke out in late February 1979.

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Map depicting North and South Yemen, circa 1979. Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Early in March 1979, the United States under President Jimmy Carter chose to support the YAR by supplying it with a variety of military tools, funded by Saudi Arabia, which had supported the YAR militarily during the first Yemeni War.

Twelve F-5E aircraft totaling $390 million were part of the aid package, four of which were brand-new constructions and eight of which were originally built for Ethiopia but later placed under embargo. Two C-130 transport planes, 60 M60 tanks, 50 M113 armored personnel carriers, 302 AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, howitzers, grenade launchers, and other ammunition were also included in the shipment. The Carter administration also gave Saudi Arabia permission to send four of its two-seat F-5B Freedom Fighters to the YAR.

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President Carter in the Oval Office, circa 1979. Jimmy Carter Library, National Archives and Records Administration

Carter’s choice to supply the YAR with military hardware serves as an example of how American policy towards the Middle East is changing as a result of the region’s complex geopolitical situation. Naturally, prior governments had given the YAR equipment. For instance, the Ford administration gave the YAR $140 million worth of American-made weaponry in 1976, mainly ground force weapons and equipment including howitzers, surface-to-air missile systems, and trucks.

However, the U.S. started establishing a more active military presence in the Persian Gulf by 1979, despite heated discussions about it inside the Carter administration. 12 U.S. F-15s were sold to Saudi Arabia in January of that year, mostly as a statement of reassurance from the U.S. regarding Saudi Arabia’s security and to lessen the effects of the impending Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, which was later completed in March. However, the Carter administration made it clear in February 1979 that such actions were a part of a significant change in American policy in the area.

“We have made a policy decision about a more active role in the area,” the then Secretary of Defense Harold Brown said during a 10-day trip to the Gulf and the Middle East that month. “We have told those countries things that they have not heard for a long time — namely, that the United States is deeply interested in the Middle East, we are worried about what the Soviets are doing, we intend to be involved.” During Brown’s trip, which was principally focused on the negotiation of arms transfers, the Secretary of Defense ended up promising Saudi Arabia that the U.S. would furnish the YAR with M60s and F-5s, if the Saudis footed the bill.

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Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and Chairman of The Joint Chiefs of Staff General George S. Brown testifies on Capitol Hill on a defense budget in 1977. Department of Defense Archive 

On February 28, 1979, the PDRY began an invasion of the YAR, led by PDRY Air Force MiG-21s and Su-22s, before Brown’s vow could be brought before Congress. The Carter administration came to consider the Yemeni situation as a serious threat to American interests in the area as a result of Soviet-backed aggression as pressure mounted. Carter determined on March 7, 1979, that the fighting constituted an emergency that jeopardized American national security and required the first-ever application of Section 36(b) of the 1976 Arms Export Control Act. When the national security of the United States is in danger, the president may export weapons without seeking Congressional authorization. Consequently, the $390 million in financing for the YAR, including the 12 F-5Es, was fast-tracked.

The North Yemeni Air Force lacked the resources and pilots to operate the first F-5Es when they arrived, six weeks ahead of schedule. The Saudis scrambled to find foreign pilots to instruct the YAR’s pilots on the F-5E as a result of the delivery’s expedited schedule. The United States and Saudi Arabia eventually reached a deal with Taiwan to send a number of Taiwanese pilots to fly and maintain North Yemen’s F-5E aircraft. The Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF), which initially got the F-5E in May 1975 after receiving its first F-5s from the United States in 1965, had years of experience dealing with the aircraft.

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YARAF F-5E. Mauser792

The Second Yemenite War concluded shortly on March 19, 1979, despite these efforts to supply the YAR with F-5Es. The war lasted three weeks and two days in all. However, Taiwanese forces remained in North Yemen for a considerable amount of time. Lt. Col. Che Meng-sian was in charge of the initial deployment of 80 troops, including pilots and ground crew, from Taiwan to Sana’a to operate and maintain the F-5E aircraft. At Dailami Air Base in Sana’a, 16 F-5s had arrived by the end of 1979.

Pilots from Taiwan joined the 112th Squadron of the Yemen Arab Republic Air Force (YARAF), also referred to as the “Desert Squadron.” The ROCAF Task Force stationed in North Yemen, as noted by Tom Cooper in his book Hot Skies Over Yemen: Aerial Warfare Over the Southern Arabian Peninsula: Volume 1 – 1962-1994, was subordinate to Taiwan’s military liaison office in Saudi Arabia. The task force’s operations were overseen by the full colonel who serves as the head of the ROC Military Liaison Office in Saudi Arabia.

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Taiwan’s heads of the Military Liaison Office in Saudi Arabia and heads of the Task Force in North Yemen, March 1979 to March 1990. Cooper, Hot Skies Over Yemen

Taiwanese pilots and ground crew made up the majority of the 112th Squadron up until 1985, at which time enough YAR pilots had received F-5E training to begin taking over. However, inexperienced YAR pilots who had little access to training found it difficult to get used to the F-5Es and other novel weapons, such as the MiG-21s given by the Soviet Union. By the end of 1985, the YARAF had lost 25 aircraft in various crashes, including four MiG-21s and a brand-new F-5E that crashed while being flown to Saudi Arabia for minor maintenance by a Saudi pilot.

After 1985, Taiwan’s pilots remained in the nation for a while. According to recently disclosed papers, from 1979 to 1990, more than 1,000 Taiwanese pilots and ground crew were sent to the YAR as part of what was known as the Great Desert Program.

The two Yemens merged to form the Republic of Yemen in 1990.

When civil war broke out between the north and south for a brief period from May to July of 1994, the nation’s F-5s saw action. Early in May, Maj. Nabi Ali Ahmad used an F-5E and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles to shoot down at least one Southern MiG-21. Later in May, an anti-aircraft fire brought down an F-5E being piloted by Maj. Mohammed Yâhya ash-Shami. A Southern MiG-21 piloted by Maj. Abdul Habib Salah was successfully brought down in June by two YARAF F-5E aircraft. The surviving F-5s were incorporated into the Yemeni Air Force after the brief conflict, which ended with a Northern triumph and the reunification of the nation.

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During the Houthi rebellion, which started in 2004 and continued well into 2014, the Yemeni military utilized F-5Es extensively against Shiite rebels with ties to Iran. In 2015, a YARAF F-5E was obliterated by Saudi Arabian forces during an airstrike after there were signs that at least some YARAF members had reverted to supporting the Houthi cause.

Even more recently, pictures of Houthi rebels flying at least one outdated F-5 have made the rounds online. In September, witnesses saw that plane making an unexpected appearance at a military parade.

The YARAF presently possesses 11 active F-5Es and 2 F-5B trainers, according to the 2023 World Air Forces directory.

There you have it, the bizarre history behind Yemen’s small F-5 fleet.

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