President Donald Trump, who repeatedly complains that the United States is paying too much for the defense of its allies, has praised Saudi Arabia for ostensibly taking on Iran in the Yemen war. It turns out, however, that U.S. taxpayers have been footing the bill for a major part of the Saudi-led campaign, possibly to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.
The revelation—detailed in a Defense Department letter obtained by The Atlantic—is likely to raise further ire among senators who have grown ever-more critical of Saudi conduct in the war, which has resulted in a growing number of civilian casualties, and U.S. support for it.
Since the start of the Saudi-led intervention, in March 2015, and up until last month, the United States provided mid-air refueling for Saudi-led coalition aircraft that then flew missions related to the Yemen campaign. Getting heavy U.S. tankers into the air and carrying out this job is enormously expensive. The recipient country is required by law to pay the costs, but that isn’t what happened here. In a mea culpa of sorts, the Pentagon’s November 27 letter states that while the Defense Department “believed” Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “had been charged for the fuel and refueling services, they in fact had not been charged adequately.” How inadequately, the Pentagon will not yet say; it is “currently calculating the correct charges,” the letter states.
On Thursday, the Pentagon confirmed the letter’s contents to The Atlantic. “Although DoD has received some reimbursement for inflight refueling assistance provided to the Saudi-led coalition (SLC), U.S. Central Command recently reviewed its records and found errors in accounting where DoD failed to charge the SLC adequately for fuel and refueling services,” Commander Rebecca Rebarich, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told The Atlantic.
The Pentagon’s letter says that it reached these conclusions after Senator Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, made a specific request for information.
Reed, along with seven other Democratic senators, raised the question of reimbursements in a letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in March. The Pentagon’s response admitting “errors in accounting” arrived the day before a key Senate procedural vote on withdrawing U.S. support for the war effort.
“It is clear that the Department has not lived up to its obligation to keep Congress appropriately informed or its responsibility to secure timely reimbursement,” Reed told The Atlantic. “U.S.-provided aerial refueling assistance was provided to the Saudi-led coalition for more than 3.5 years, activities that likely cost tens of millions of dollars. We must ensure that U.S. taxpayers are fully reimbursed for that support.”
When asked by The Atlantic how much reimbursement DoD had received from the Saudi-led coalition, Rebarich said that “CENTCOM is still working through the calculation.” The Saudi and UAE embassies in Washington had not responded to The Atlantic’s requests for comment about any reimbursements at the time of publication.