The Houthis’ Do-It-Yourself Air Defenses
On the evening of Jan. 7, 2018, the coalition of the Houthi insurgency and Yemeni military units that sided with the Houthis claimed to have shot down a Saudi Tornado fighter-bomber.
A day later, Houthi and allied forces claimed to have shot down a Saudi F-15 fighter. In support of their claim, they published a dramatic video depicting what they said was the shoot-down.
For a while at least, it appeared the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis and their allies was on the verge of losing its total control of Yemeni air space.
It is impossible to sufficiently emphasize the importance of this development. Although its troops are far better equipped and trained than the Houthis’ own forces are, the Saudi-led coalition has fewer troops on the battlefield. Complete control of the air is thus of crucial importance to the Saudis.
At top — a rare photograph of Soviet-made RSP-7 or RSP-10 radar systems used for ground-controlled approach, as operated by the 101st Air Defense Brigade at Daylami air base at Sana’a International since the early 1980s. Pit Weinert collection. Above — North Yemeni troops walking through a position of a South Yemeni SA-3 SAM site that used to protect Anad air base, shortly after this base was captured during the civil war of 1994. Albert Grandolini Collection
The origins of the Houthis’ air defenses can be traced back to the early 1970s. At the time there were two Yemens. North Yemen received some support from Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union. Still, North Yemen was militarily weak.
South Yemen, a former British protectorate, gained independence in 1967 and enjoyed the support of the Soviet Union and Cuba. Working methodically, the Soviets and Cubans helped the South Yemenis gradually develop a small but effective air force and a strong ground-based air defense.
In 1977, the latter was equipped with four S-75/SA-2 surface-to-air systems and 136 associated V-755 missiles. All the officers in command of these systems were trained in the USSR, while other personnel were trained by Cuban advisors in South Yemen.
The South Yemeni air force and air defenses played a small but important role in the short but bitter war between two Yemens in early 1979. The conflict ended with the North’s defeat. Immediately after the ceasefire, supporters of each side scrambled to bolster the Yemens’ defenses.
South Yemeni SA-6s on display during a military parade in Aden in the early 1980s. Pit Weinert collection
With the Saudis keen to keep the United States out of North Yemen – which they consider to be within their sphere of influence – Washington showed no interest in providing surface-to-air missiles to the government in Sana’a. The Saudis went as far as to consent to North Yemen purchasing Soviet weapons, instead.
Therefore, the government in Sana’a placed an order for 12 S-75M and four S-75M2 SAM systems and a total of 752 associated V-755 missiles from the Soviet Union. Personnel were trained by Soviet advisors in North Yemen.
While always welcoming the income from arms exports, Moscow could not ignore the defense requirements of what was then its most important ally on the Arabian Peninsula — South Yemen. Correspondingly, the USSR delivered three additional S-75 SAM sites to Aden, too.
By the end of 1979, the Soviets added two 2K12/SA-6 and four 9K31/SA-9 SAM systems to the South Yemeni arsenal.
Two South Yemeni SA-9 vehicles and a single SA-2 missile, as seen during the same parade. Pit Weinert collection
In a similar action a few years later, Moscow granted permission for the export of a further air-defense systems to both Yemens. South Yemen received three S-125/SA-3 SAM systems and 108 associated V-601 missiles in 1985. North Yemen received three systems and 148 V-601 missiles in 1986.
All of these air-defense weapons saw significant action during the bitter Yemeni civil war in 1994, in the course of which the South was defeated and Yemen united into one country under the control of the government in Sana’a.
During the late 1990s and for most of the first decade of the 21st century, the air defenses of the united Yemeni military were barely operational. It was only in 2012 that Sana’a contracted the Ukrainian arms exporter Ukrobronservice to overhaul several of the remaining systems.
How much of that project was actually realized remains unclear. There were multiple reports that Ukraine upgraded of all of Yemen’s S-125s to a standard similar to the Russian-made Pechora-2M, but no evidence of the work ever emerged.