Making Sense of the Missile Mess in Yemen
Where do the Houthis' rockets come from?
Houthi rebels in Yemen launched a missile at King Khalid International Airport outside the Saudi capital Riyadh on the evening of Nov. 4, 2017.
Where in the world did the rebels get that rocket — as well as the scores of other missiles they’ve launched recently? It’s hard to say.
The Houthi coalition has controlled the Yemeni capital Shana’a since September 2014, when it ousted the internationally-recognized president of Yemen, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Saudi Arabia and several of its allies launched a military intervention in the country in March 2015.
Four U.S.-made MIM-104 Patriot PAC-3 surface-to-air missiles, operated by the Royal Saudi Air Defense Force, intercepted the Houthi Burkan-2H rocket over the airport. The wreckage fell on one of the runways and a parking lot, causing no damage or injuries. The airport continued operating with only slight delays.
This was the Houthis’ 77th missile strike against Saudi Arabia, and thus nothing new. Nevertheless, this was a significant event – not only because this was the first-ever missile strike targeting the Saudi capital, but also because of the Saudi reaction to it.
At top — a still from Houthi video showing the launch of the Burkan-2H ballistic missile toward King Khalid International on the evening of Nov. 4, 2017. Above — a pro-Houthi member of the Yemeni army’s special forces with either an Austrian-made anti-material rifle sold to Iran, or its Iranian-made copy. Photo via Facebook
The government in Riyadh blamed Iran for providing the missile to the Houthi coalition, describing the attack as an outright “declaration of war” by Iran. Oil prices jumped 10 percent on news of the diplomatic row.
Foreign governments and experts for years have claimed that Iran supplies arms to the Houthis. But there’s simply no evidence to back such accusations. Saudi authorities have gathered up all the rocket wreckage from failed Houthi attacks, preventing outside observers from inspecting it.
The only firm evidence of Iran providing any direct military support to the Yemeni alliance is the video below, depicting a supposed “Hezbollah instructor” at a camp in Yemen. Saudi forces captured the video in a raid on a Houthi camp in February 2016.
No doubt, since 2015 warships from several navies have intercepted something like half a dozen small merchant ships loaded with arms sailing off the coast of Yemen. U.S., Saudi and Israeli media all insisted the vessels carried Iranian weapons on behalf of the Houthis, but all eventually turned out to have been either crudely constructed ruses or bound for Somalia — in other words, smuggling enterprises originating from Yemen, not bound for it.
The only arms captured anywhere in or around Yemen that can be linked to Iran have been a few RPG-7 grip-stocks, several machine guns of North Korean origin that are known to have been exported to Iran back in 1980s and a handful of sniper rifles of Austrian origin that were exported to Iran and then reverse-engineered there.
Even in these few cases, it remains unclear whether the arms in question reached Yemen with at least some sort of a consent from Tehran, or via the black market. The public is therefore left with a choice. Buy the story about Iranian arms-deliveries … or ask some hard questions.
One possible answer is that the Houthi coalition is still deploying only missiles it took from the former Yemeni military. Two-thirds of Yemen’s troops left government service and joined the Houthis in 2014 and 2015. They apparently took with them:
- Soviet-made V-755 surface-to-air missiles originally developed by the Soviets for the S-75 Dvina/SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile system. Yemen acquired 964 V-755s in the 1970s and 1980s. The Houthis have used them in a surface-to-surface mode under the designations Qaher-1, Qaher-2 and Qaher-2M.
- OTR-21 Tochka/SS-21 Scarab surface-to-surface missiles. Originally developed by the Soviets and delivered to the former South Yemen in the 1980s, at least 60 of the missiles remained as of 2015.
- R-17/R-300 Elbrus/SS-1C Scud-B surface-to-surface missiles that the Soviets delivered to former North and South Yemen in the 1970s and 1980s. Up to 100 R-17s were still in the Yemeni inventory as of 2015.
- Hwasong-6. A stretched variant of the R-17 with a downsized warhead to enable longer range, at least 20 copies of this North Korean missile were delivered to Yemen in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The Houthi coalition uses Soviet-made V-755 SAMs in a surface-to-surface mode. Photo via the author
Since mid-2015, the Houthis’ Missile Research and Development Center has built several local copies of R-17s and Hwasong-6s. These are designated Burkan-1 and Burkan-2/2H. The rebels launched at least eight Burkan-1s at Saudi Arabia in 2016 and early 2017.
Some of missiles in question seem to have been created through repairs on missiles damaged during the first few weeks of the Saudi-led intervention. The work on them is undertaken under relatively primitive conditions and with rudimentary tools.
Unsurprisingly, the first firing of a Burkan-2 – on the evening of Oct. 29, 2017 – failed. The missile malfunctioned and exploded high above Sa’ada. The second was the one that targeted King Khalid International on Nov. 4. The Houthis are perfectly capable of bombarding Saudi Arabia without Iran’s help.
That said, the rebels do seem to be running out of rockets. The tempo of attacks seems to be slackening. The rebels might be launching rockets faster than they can build them. Equally bad for the Houthis, the Saudi-led coalition has destroyed at least four of the mobile launch ramps that the rebels use to fire R-17s, Hwasongs and Burkans.