Hysterical media coverage and calls for arms embargoes from charities such as Oxfam, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, has put pressure on the UK Government to halt arms shipments to Saudi Arabia.
This would constrain the operational effectiveness of Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) Tornados and Typhoons, which tend to rely on UK-supplied weapons, and would also affect some other air forces in the coalition.
Any such embargo would also be damaging for the UK, since Saudi arms purchases account for a third of Britain’s global arms exports.
It has been reported that weapons worth more than £3.3 billion have been sold to Saudi Arabia since the Yemen campaign began in March 2015.
The UK has strongly supported Saudi Arabia and its allies in the war in Yemen. Britain shares the Saudi view that Yemen must be stabilised in order to prevent the failed nation from being used to launch terror attacks against the west. Britain has sold Saudi Arabia equipment and munitions, and has used British military personnel to help train Saudi forces in targeting, as well as to give “general advice” – including ways of avoiding civilian casualties.
Despite this, the United Nations has reported “widespread and systematic” attacks against civilian targets, which would be in violation of international law.
A different analysis might be that the relative inexperience of the air forces in the Saudi-led regional coalition has resulted in some inaccuracy, coupled with some poor targeting intelligence, resulting in significant collateral damage, and a relatively high civilian death toll.
There is also no doubt that the extent of civilian casualties has been highlighted and emphasised (and quite probably exaggerated) by the enemy propaganda machine, precisely in order to try and cut off the supply of weapons to the coalition.
In response to a Parliamentary written question, British Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, confirmed that a number of British-supplied weapons have been used in the Yemen, including the MBDA Storm Shadow long-range cruise missile, the MBDA dual-mode Brimstone (whose integration on Saudi Tornados had not hitherto been officially confirmed), BAE ALARM anti-radiation missiles (withdrawn from service in the UK in 2013), and UK Paveway II laser-guided bombs, as well as the Raytheon UK Paveway IV dual-mode (IN/GPS and laser-guided) bomb.
Fallon also listed the PGM500 (also known as the Al Hakim), a modular powered glide bomb used only by the UAE Air Force and Air Defence.
A number of these weapons are legacy systems, supplied some time ago, and no longer being manufactured or sold. This includes the most controversial UK weapon that may have been used in Yemen, in the shape of the Hunting BL-755 cluster bomb.
The cluster bomb has not been exported since 1989, though both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are known to hold stocks of the weapon.
And, while the UK is a signatory to the 2010 Cluster Munitions Convention, committing it to disposing of its own cluster munitions and working to prevent their use by anyone else, Saudi Arabia is not a signatory.
Evidence of the use of BL-755 in Yemen is sketchy, and there have been suggestions that the single bomb found by Amnesty International could have been left over from a previous conflict since the last delivery of this weapon to Saudi Arabia was in 1989, and weapons like these do not have an unlimited shelf life.
There is no evidence of the weapons having been returned to Hunting for any refurbishing or re-lifing programme.
This has not prevented Abdulaziz bin Habtour, the leader of the rebel Houthi government, from accusing Britain of war crimes by supplying cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia.
The then foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, undertook to investigate fully and promised to seek concrete assurances from Saudi Arabia that it had not used British-made cluster munitions during the current conflict.
Many must be wondering what the fuss is all about. Cluster bombs are of little use in an air campaign like that being waged in Yemen and, in any case, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have plentiful supplies of more recently-supplied, US-provided cluster munitions in the shape of the CBU-97 Sensor Fused Weapon and its guided counterpart, the CBU-105 Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser.
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