The armed forces of the Yemen Arab Republic and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen were officially merged in May 1990, but in May 1994 civil war broke out between the forces of the two former states, culminating in victory for the North. In October 1994, President Ali Abdallah Salih announced plans for the modernization of the armed forces, which would include the banning of party affiliation in the security services and armed forces, and in March 1995 the full merger of the armed forces was completed. For many years the supreme commander of the armed forces was Field Marshal, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the President of the Republic of Yemen prior to his ousterin 2012.
Yemen's Middle Eastern neighbors who were members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) participate in a defense force based in Saudi Arabia. Yemen was not a member of the GCC, and there were no reports of the country having a military presence outside of its own borders.
Security forces were thought to number 70,000, with 20,000 of that number coming from tribal levies. The number of military personnel in Yemen was relatively high; in sum, Yemen has the second largest military force on the Arabian Peninsula after Saudi Arabia. Yemen's military consists of the Yemen Army (includes Republican Guard), Navy (includes Marines), Yemen Air Force (Al Quwwat al Jawwiya al Jamahiriya al Yemeniya; includes Air Defense Force). In 2007 total active troops were estimated as follows: army, 60,000 [versus 40,000 in 1999]; navy, 1,700 [versus 1,000 in 1999]; and air force, 5,000 [versus 2,500 in 1999]. In September 2007, the government announced the reinstatement of compulsory military service. Yemen's defense budget, which in 2006 represented approximately 40 percent of the total government budget, was expected to remain high for the near term, as the military draft takes effect and internal security threats continue to escalate. Despite these troop levels, Yemen's military equipment was considered to be light, outdated, and poorly maintained, particularly when compared with neighboring Gulf states.
In 2001 Yemen's National Defense Council abolished the existing two-year compulsory military service, relying instead on volunteers to fill posts in the military and security forces. In 2007 the government announced it would reinstate the draft to counter unemployment; approximately 70,000 new recruits were expected to join the military.
Although law and government policy expressly forbid the practice, by 2015 children under age 18 directly participated in armed conflict for government, tribal, and militant forces, primarily as guards and couriers. Child labor was common, including its worst forms. According to a 2013 ILO study, more than 1.3 million children participated in the workforce, including 469,000 children between ages five and 11.
During the year 2015 the Houthis and other armed groups, including tribal and Islamist militias, including AQAP, increased their recruitment, training, and deployment of the children as participants in the conflict, according to Human Rights Watch. In May, Human Rights Watch reported that children accounted for as many as a third of all fighters for these armed groups. Fighting killed at least 279 children and wounded 402 others between March 26 and June 16, more than four times the 2014 child casualty rate, according to Human Rights Watch.
Tribes, including some armed and financed by the government to fight alongside the regular army, used underage recruits in combat zones, according to reports by international NGOs such as Save the Children. Houthis routinely used children to operate checkpoints and search vehicles. Combatants reportedly involved married boys ages 12 to 15 in armed conflicts in the northern tribal areas. Tribal custom considers married boys as adults who owe allegiance to the tribe. As a result, according to international and local human rights NGOs, half of tribal fighters were youths under 18. Other observers noted tribes rarely placed boys in harmís way but used them as guards rather than fighters.
In August 2014, to combat fraud and corruption in the government payroll system, the government implemented a plan to collect biometric information on all government employees, including soldiers and security forces, and to create a central registry designed to eliminate tens of thousands of fraudulent names and double dippers from the payroll. By the end of 2014, this registry included nearly half a million civil servants. It had reportedly identified 5,000 workers who illegally received more than one paycheck. The government suspended implementation following the armed Houthi takeover in February. The government also suspended implementation of a payment system for soldiers and security forces via bank or post office accounts. Prior to the outbreak of conflict, that system bypassed paymasters who had previously paid soldiers in cash, to provide for only the intended individuals collecting salaries.
Yemen's defense spending has historically been one of the government's three largest expenditures and was expected to remain high as a result of the reinstatement of conscription and security threats posed by terrorism and tribal conflict. The defense budget increased from US$540 million in 2001 to and estimated US$823 million-US$1.1 billion in 2006. According to the U.S. government, the 2006 budget represented about 6 percent of gross domestic product.
One form of patronage payoffs to military elites was through the Military Economic Corporation (MECO), now known as the Yemen Economic Corporation (YECO). YECO was a nominally independent economic corporation, but it was run by active duty military officers. YECO used to be a dominant economic force that controlled most basic commodities. With the end of subsidies, YECO got out of the commodities business. Instead, it controls large swaths of land and various parastatal enterprises, primarily from the old South Yemen. Land ownership and registration famously lack transparency and clarity in Yemen, and were rife with corruption. The military, either directly or through YECO, can claim land for military use, and then turn around and sell it for private gain to developers. 'Tourist City' in Sana'a was among the most well-known economic enterprises of YECO.
Payoffs to important security elites work in much the same way as in the military, but on a smaller scale. While the military's budget appears as a single line item, security sector budgets were even less transparent. Security sector monies come in large measure through discretionary budgets. End of fiscal year supplementary budgets were especially large in Yemen and entirely discretionary, expanding opportunities for corrupt behavior.