To Threaten Ships, the Houthis Improvised a Missile Strike Force
Yemeni militants pulled Chinese-made anti-ship missiles from old patrol boats
by TOM COOPER
At 7:00 in the evening local time on Oct. 9, 2016, a missile fired from Houthi-controlled territory around the port of Hodeida — on the Red Sea coast in northwestern Yemen — crashed into the water several miles away from U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Mason, underway in international waters near the Bab Al Mandab Strait.
Mason and the destroyer USS Nitze were escorting Ponce, an amphibious assault ship that supports minesweeping helicopters. Another missile struck the sea in the same area around an hour later.
Mason launched two SM-2 surface-to-air missiles and a single Evolved Sea Sparrow in self-defense — and also deployed a Nulka decoy. It’s unclear whether any of countermeasures were effective. It’s possible the missiles crashed into the sea on their own. The Navy said it would investigate.
But the more important question is where the Houthis — an Iranian-backed Shia rebel movement that controls much of Yemen — got anti-ship missiles in the first place.
Houthi forces include two battalions of skilled combatants supported by few tanks and some artillery. However, most of the Houthis’ 20,000-strong militia is poorly trained and incapable of operating high-end weaponry such as anti-ship missiles.
But the Houthi movement retains a few key personnel — and the appropriate technology — for mounting effective attacks on a ship at sea.
As the Yemeni civil war escalated in the period from September 2014 to March 2015, as much as two-thirds of Yemen’s armed forces defected to the Houthi side. The defectors included the crews of three Chinese-made Type 021 missile boats armed with C.801 anti-ship missiles.
The missiles boats were destroyed or left idle. But not so their missiles. Yemeni sailors recovered a number of the C.801s and their launchers. The sailors installed the missiles on several trucks, coupled them with various surface-search radars — and began firing back at the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in the civil war starting in May 2015.
The first attacks was reported on Oct. 8, 2015 — around a week after a combined force of Emirati, Bahraini and Qatari troops forced the Yemenis to withdraw to the port of Mocha, 40 kilometers north of the strategically important Bab Al Mandab Strait, which connects the Red Sea, and thus the Suez Canal, with the Indian Ocean.
According to official reports from the Yemeni capital Sana’a, which is now under Houthi control, this attack “destroyed” the Saudi navy tanker Yunbou. Two nights later, the pro-Houthi Yemenis struck again, this time reportedly targeting either the Saudi navy tanker Boraida or an Egyptian navy warship the Houthis identified as Al Mahrousa.
In truth, neither Boraida nor Yunbou was even damaged, while Al Mahrousa is a 150-year-old presidential yacht that has certainly never ventured anywhere near Yemen in years.
Nevertheless, the Yemenis kept on trying. On Oct. 25, 2015, they fired another C.801 and claimed a third Saudi warship as “destroyed,” this time releasing a video implying that the ship in question was actually either a corvette belonging to the United Arab Emirates navy or an Egyptian navy frigate.
The Houthis reported seven additional ship-attacks in November and December 2015, each time claiming to have sunk a Saudi warship near Bab Al Mandeb Strait. In each instance, the Saudi-led coalition — which has benefited from U.S. logistical support — denied any ship was damaged.
Following a longer break — probably the result of extensive but fruitless negotiations between the Houthis and the Saudi coalition — the Yemenis resumed their anti-ship operations on Oct. 1, 2016.
This time their C.801 missile scored a verifiable direct hit on the catamaran Swift, a former U.S. Navy catamaran now in Emirati service. The missile impacted at the starboard bow and wrecked the ship’s bridge, injuring many of the crew but apparently killing no one.
Although the Houthis denied any role in the attacks on the American warships, Washington was quick to implicate the militant group.
And when Mason came under attack again on Oct. 12 — also unsuccessfully — the Americans retaliated. On Oct. 13, Nitze fired several Tomahawk cruise missiles at three radar sites in Houthi territory, reportedly destroying the sensors.
“The United States will respond to any further threat to our ships and commercial traffic, as appropriate, and will continue to maintain our freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, the Bab Al Mandeb and elsewhere around the world,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook stated.