SANA’A, Yemen- Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs) or Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs,) more commonly known as drones, are hardly new topics in media. Extensive coverage has gone to the use of drones in the Middle East and Africa, particularly the controversy over whether the practice is legal or violates international and/or domestic laws. Military spending is also not a novel subject; however, the comparison of types of United States spending in Yemen is worth looking at.
In recent years, Yemen faced uprisings, transitional instability and insurgent violence. The degree of instability is one of the factors that caused major inflation and price hikes for basics necessities, particularly food. In 2012, seven charities, including Oxfam, Mercy Corps and Save the children, released a joint warning regarding the worsening levels of hunger in Yemen. The World Food Programme estimated a third of children and 44 percent of the entire population were malnourished, a rate that doubled since 2009. The issue is not necessarily the overall shortage of food, rather the increased prices that many are unable to afford.
Humanitarian assistance has not been especially forthcoming. A United Nations appeal for funding fell short of its ultimate goal by $262 million. The U.S. reportedly spent $62 million in 2011 and planned to spend $185 million in 2012, specifically for humanitarian aid to provide health services, food, water, and protection to the almost 775,000 million internally displaced persons and refugees. Despite increases in aid and arguments that the U.S. is now sending more civilian aid than military aid to Yemen (in 2012 civilian aid was approximately $198 million and military aid was $158 million,) these numbers do not include the spending for the ‘War on Terror,’ which topped $900 billion in 2012. The estimates regarding Yemen in particular do not take into account the armed drone attacks that infiltrate the borders.
The small Gulf nation is one of the top destinations for U.S. RPAs on anti-terrorist missions. Human Rights Watch estimates there have been at least 81 targeted killings, executed by drones, warplanes or cruise missiles, since 2009 (one was in 2002). Though accurate counts regarding civilian casualties (let alone all casualties) are almost impossible to get, they range from the government’s claim of zero to claims topping 300.
The sheer cost of drones, however, is staggering when compared to the needs of Yemen’s food crisis. There are currently two types of armed drones used by the U.S., the MQ-9 Reaper and the MQ-1B Predator. Estimates and assertions of the number of armed drones owned by the U.S. vary widely depending on the source. The U.S. Air Force states that as of 2010 they owned 104 Reaper and 164 Predator drones. Friends Committee on National Legislation estimates the Pentagon has 7,000 and the CIA has 30.
While the stock is unclear, the cost of armed drones is more straightforward. The U.S. Air Force states an MQ-9 Reaper, fully armed, costs $56.5 million, not including the flight or personnel costs. The MQ-1B Predator, following the same parameters, costs $20 million. How does the cost of armed drones compare to Yemen’s humanitarian aid?
The entire U.N. appeal’s shortfall of $262 million could be covered by at least 13 Predator or 4 Reaper drones. More shocking, the total cost of the Air Force’s Reaper drones fully armed: $5.876 trillion. The total cost of the Air Force’s Predator drones: $3.28 trillion. The combined total of $9.156 trillion is enough to give the approximately 24,771,809 (2012 estimate) individuals in Yemen almost $370,000 each, children included, a sum that would certainly suffice for many years worth of food supplies per person since the average yearly income is $1,250. Therefore, $370,000 per person would be the equivalent of 296 years worth of work. It’s important to note these totals are only for the U.S. Air Force’s claimed drones as of 2010. This does not take into account drones owned by the CIA, Joint Special Operations Commands, or even other branches of the military. It may be prudent to ask which is a better use of money, aid or drones?
– Katey Baker-Smith