The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

The weapons and tactics employed in Yemen today will be used against Israel tomorrow.


The four-year-old war between the Saudi led coalition of Sunni states and the Iranian led Houthi regime in northern Yemen is drawing little attention in Israel, but its outcome will be decisive for the region and will impact significantly on Israel’s security environment. The war is being exploited by Iran to test strategies, tactics and weapons in battle conditions. It stands to reason that the weapons and tactics employed in Yemen today will be used against Israel tomorrow. This article focuses on Houthi/Iranian use of rockets, missiles and UAVs, and suggests four major lessons for Israel.

A Forgotten War

“Out of sight, out of mind.” Nothing fits this folk wisdom more than the ongoing war in southern Arabia which involves the two rival governments of Yemen, the Saudi Kingdom and a coalition of Sunni Arab states, versus the Islamic Republic of Iran – through proxies. This is a veritable regional war of considerable scale that involves tens of thousands of troops, several air forces and navies, tribal militias, Islamic fundamentalists and foreign mercenaries. At stake is not just the fate of Yemen, but hegemony over the entire Middle East. The winner of this war will gain control not merely the resources of Yemen, modest as they are but also control of Bab El Mandeb, one of the seven maritime arteries of global maritime commerce that is also the key to the Suez Canal.

Yet other than the human suffering of the war victims, global audiences take little notice of this war. For Westerners, Yemen is like Timbuktu – an epitome of remoteness. The conflict is too complex to fathom and there are no identifiable heroes or villains. Yet for the Middle East at large, and for Israel in particular, the outcome of this war could be fateful.

Yemen is a remote country distinguished by its rugged highlands and blessed by yearly monsoons, which create a veritable oasis at the southeastern corner of the great Arabian desert. Dubbed “Arabia Felix” – Happy Arabia – by the ancient historians of the Roman Empire, it was largely left alone throughout its history. In ancient time, it was home of the Sabaean civilization famous for its aromatic resins, the Myrrh and Frankincense of biblical lore and possibly was the source of the Queen of Sheba legend. Neither the Romans, nor the Byzantines managed to occupy it. Prior to the advent of Islam, Yemen was torn between rival Jewish and Christian kingdoms. The Sassanid Empire managed to annex it for a short while through local proxies. During the late Middle Ages it was briefly occupied by Egypt. By the 16th Century, the Ottoman Empire managed to secure a toehold in the lowlands near the Bab el Mandeb but was subsequently expelled by the British Empire’s occupation of Aden. Not unlike Afghanistan, Yemen’s rugged mountains populated by fiercely independent tribes discourage foreign occupation. Whoever controls the highlands of central Yemen can hardly be dislodged. Today, this natural fortress is controlled by the Ansar Allah group better known abroad as the Houthis.

The Houthis bear the name of their founder, Hussein Al Houthi, who established the movement in the 1990’s. Like Hamas in Gaza and the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthi movement combine social welfare and military activism. The movement caters to the Shia Muslims of Yemen, who constitute about 45% of the population. It launched an insurrection against the central government in 2004, which was later subsumed in the civil uprising of 2011 (during the so called “Arab Spring”) that toppled Yemen’s then-strongman Ali Saleh. In February 2015 the Houthis captured Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, and proclaimed a national government of their own.  This triggered a military intervention by a Saudi led coalition of Arab countries aiming to restore the internationally recognized government. The initial Houthi offensive threatened to overrun Yemen’s lowlands, including the major port city of Aden. Fierce fighting by the Coalition and local militias managed to throw the Houthis back to their highland fortress. The battle lines subsequently froze into their current positions, effectively dividing Yemen between two rival governments – The insurgent Houthi government in Sanaa and the, internationally recognized government in Aden, legacy of the pre – Houthi era in Yemen’s history.

The Houthi movement is virulently anti-Western and unabashedly anti-Semitic.  Its flag lacks any figurative symbols, as befits devout Muslims.  Instead, it sports a slogan in bold colorful letters: “God is Great; Death to America; Death to Israel; A Curse on the Jews; Victory for Islam.” Birds of feather flock together, and the Islamic Republic of Iran lost no time in recognizing the Houthi government and in pumping money, arms, advisers, technical experts and weapon production lines to its new ally’s war machine. This entails a formidable logistical operation, carried out under the auspices of the “Al Quds” brigades, in charge of exporting the Iranian revolution to like-minded communities across the Middle East. While the Arab coalition maintains an air and maritime blockade on the Houthi controlled areas of Yemen, the demarcation lines remain porous, and it seems that Quds force commander General Suleimani has no difficulty in transferring people and equipment from Iran and Lebanon into the Houthi state.

While the war between the Houthi and the Saudi coalition features ground, sea and air operations, it has the characteristics of a typical war in the periphery which is essentially an asymmetric contest between traditional military doctrine of maneuvering field armies and the hybrid positional warfare doctrine of static but well equipped and well entrenched militias. Like other ongoing conflicts in the region (e.g. Gaza, northern Syria and Libya) it features the copious use of rockets, missiles and drones. Already, the four-year-old war in Yemen holds many lessons for Israel. This article will focus on one aspect of the war: How the Houthi/Iranian alliance is employing its rockets, missiles and drones against the Arab coalition in general, and against Saudi Arabia’s hinterland in particular – and what Israel can learn from this.

Missile Warfare

The Houthis lost no time in launching missile and rockets against the Arab coalition forces. Initially, these came from the arsenal of the ousted legacy government. That arsenal dated from the time when Yemen was divided between the legacy highland kingdom, independent since 1911 (a.k.a “Northern Yemen”) and the newly created Republic of Southern Yemen, established in 1967 when the Britain quit its Aden protectorate with its adjacent lowlands. Both states acquired heavy rockets and ballistic missiles from the Soviet Union. Their unification in 1990 did not merge those arsenals, but a second unification following another round of civil war in 1994 did. The merged missile arsenal, stored near the capital city of Sana’a, was hit by Saudi air strikes in March 2015, shortly after the debut of the Saudi led intervention in Yemen. Despite Saudi claims that the arsenal had been completely destroyed, the Houthis promptly embarked on a missile offensive against the Saudi led coalition forces deployed within Yemen as well as against nearby Saudi towns and military installations – using the selfsame types of missiles that had been allegedly destroyed. This perhaps is the first lesson from the conflict: That preemption by targeting missile storage facilities is not too effective. The history of missile preemptions from WWII to Israel’s wars in Lebanon and Gaza teach a similar lesson.

The Houthi missile offensive has been going on ever since. The first recorded missile strike occurred in June 2015, when Saudi Arabia announced the interception of a Scud missile near its major Air Force base in the town of Hamis Mushaiet, about 100 km from the nearest Yemeni border. The Houthis have not limited their fire to Saudi Arabia proper, but used their more accurate Tochka missiles (Nato code name SS21), also legacy from the previous regime, to hit coalition forces inside Yemen. They scored their biggest success in September 2015 when they killed 60 coalition troops with a Tochka missile that hit an ammunition truck in a coalition camp near the town of Marib inside Yemen proper. The rate of the Houthi fire has been gradually increasing ever since, evidently facilitated by the increasing success of the Al Quds brigades to smuggle in fresh supplies of rockets, missiles and missile fuels. The total number of missile attacks from the onset of the offensive is unclear. According to the Saudi government announcements, the total number of attacks from March 2015 to April 2019 was 150, with 2018 being the peak year during which 78 missile attacks were recorded. Some of these attacks included salvoes of more than a single missile. It therefore stands to reason that the total number of missiles fired by the Houthis against targets in Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s hinterland must have been approximately 200. However, other sources cite larger numbers of up to 300 missiles. This does not include short range artillery rockets fired against coalition field forces or against nearby Saudi towns adjacent to the Yemeni border – the “Yemen envelope” area which not unlike Israel’s own “Gaza Envelope” suffers the most from cross border rocket harassment. This rather modest rate of fire is roughly comparable to the rate of Iraq’s missile fire on Iran during the seven and a half years that preceded the four-month War of the Cities that concluded the Iran Iraq war.

This somewhat sparse yet persistent missile offensive reveals the Houthi/Iranian alliance’s targeting policy that include force targets, value targets and population centers. Force targets include Saudi Air Force bases, concentrations of coalition forces within Yemen, coalition high ranking officials (“targeted killing”) and missile defense batteries – on this, more later. Value targets include airports, seaports, oil refineries, oil pumping stations and state symbols such as royal palaces. Targeted population centers included cities within the “Yemen envelope” as well as major cities such as Jeddah and Saudi Arabia’s capital city of Riyadh.  This is the second lesson from this conflict: That in forthcoming wars, Israel should expect missile attacks against her military and civilian infrastructures such as oil refineries, power stations, gas networks’ seaports and airports. State symbols such as major government buildings may also be targeted. Attempts to hit specific high-ranking persons such as political and military leaders cannot be precluded.

Initially, the Houthis used the legacy SCUDs and Tochkas missile captured from the previous regime’s arsenals. With original stockpiles being exhausted, they switched to Iranian supplied short- and long-range missiles. Since arms transfers to the Houthis were prohibited by UN Security Council decision no. 2216 as of April 2015, the Iranian have been anxious to dissociate themselves from the missiles fired by Houthi forces. Those missiles are claimed to be indigenously developed and manufactured in Yemen, a country more famous for its Ghatt (a mildly narcotic weed) crops than for its military industries. The Iranian, however, are less successful (or less interested) in hiding their fingerprints.  One of the “Indigenous Yemenite” missile dubbed “El Kairah” is a spitting image of an Iranian missile called “Tondar” – which by itself is a Chinese conversion of the venerable Soviet SA 2 from an air defense missile into a ground-to-ground missile. The first appearance of longer-range Scud type missiles in Houthi service was in 2016 when they unveiled several “Burkan” missiles, indistinguishable from the Shahab 2, an Iranian produced version of the North Korean Huasong 5 copy of the venerable soviet Scud B. A year later they unveiled an even longer-range version called “Burkan 2” with a front end that resembled an Iranian designed advanced version of the Scud dubbed “Quiam” but with a rear end sporting Scud like fins. Those missiles, with a range of about one thousand kilometers, were promptly employed to attack Riyadh, leaving enough debris strewn on Saudis soil to allow reconstruction and identification. It turned out that this was indeed an Iranian made Quiam, with its original Khaki color paint scheme overpainted blue and bearing the Houthi battle slogans. The Iranians did not even bother to erase the trademarks of its subcontractors punched into the various component. It turned out that for the sake of deniability, the Iranians added bogus fins to their “Indigenous Yemenite” Burkan/Quiam missiles to confuse observers. Once in use, the bogus fins were discarded from the rear of the missiles.

Piecing together the “Burkans” from their debris revealed how the Iranian managed smuggle such fairly large ballistic missiles into Houthi held territory. Poor quality weld lines indicated that the missiles have been chopped by the Iranians into short segments to ease transportation, probably by civilian truck. Once arriving in Houthi territory, the chopped segments were poorly welded back together into complete missiles by local mechanics in the workshops of the Houthi main stronghold of Sad’ha. How the missile segments are smuggled from Iran to Sad’ha is not entirely clear. A UN panel report on the war in Yemen describes eight possible smuggling routes, of which the most likely is a land route from the eastern Yemeni port of Al Guydah – which is not controlled by the Saudi Coalition – to the inland city of Thamud and thence to Sa’dah. The chopped-up missiles could arrive at the Al Guydah seaport either directly from Iran aboard cargo ships or by road from nearby Oman. It stands to reason that the same routes are used to smuggle in other war materials, most noticeably machinery for manufacturing rocket fuels. Such machinery was captured by the Saudi coalition in the city of Ma’rib after the Houthi forces were expelled. The equipment included liquid fuel production facilities as well as a planetary mixer necessary for making solid propellants.

The most significant attack to date was carried out by a cruise rather than a ballistic missile. The Houthi forces announce in December 2017 that they had attacked the Barakah nuclear reactor, currently being constructed in the UAE, about 1200 Km from Houthi held territory. Moreover, the Houthis released a video clip showing the takeoff of the missile used for this attack. This was not a ballistic missile, but clearly a cruise missile that was a spitting image of Iran’s “Soumar” land attack cruise missile, itself a copy of an older Soviet design. Beyond the sheer audacity of launching a strategic weapon against a nuclear reactor, the incident indicates that Iran is using Yemen as a proving ground for its new designs. The UAE claimed that no missile ever arrived at their nuclear reactor. It stands to reason that the newly developed Iranian missile failed and crashed before reaching the UAE due to some teething trouble. This is typical for new any missile, and the Iranian designers could actually learn more from the failure than from a success.

Significantly, no more land attack cruise missiles have been observed in Yemen ever since. (The source and types of weapons used in the September 14 attacks on the Khurais and Abqaiq oil installations are not yet precisely known.) Perhaps the logistics of moving large and complex missiles to remote Houthi areas was too difficult. Alternatively, the appearance of what could hardly pretend to be an “indigenous” Yemeni design risked Iran’s policy of deniability. In any case, the Iranians have since been carrying on long range strategic attacks by UAVs rather than dedicated land attack cruise missiles. More on this later.

With remarkable persistence and ingenuity and in the face of a UN arms embargo enforced by a Saudi led blockade, Iran did manage to build an effective war machine for its Houthi ally. This is the third lesson that Israel should derive from the Yemen conflict: That arms blockades are porous, and that a determined enemy like Iran can always find a way to supply its allies. This is not to say that blockades are completely redundant: rather, their effectiveness is limited in scope and volatile in time. As Israel has already learned from the buildup of the Hamas/Islamic Jihad war machine in Gaza: Blockades can slow the rate of arms transfers but cannot choke them off completely. As for Israel’s ongoing effort to curb the development of a Hezbollah rocket production industry, time will tell whether Israel can succeed in this effort.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE deploy US made Patriot air/missile defense systems to defend their forces in Yemen and their own national territories.  The Saudi government has claimed numerous successes in intercepting Houthi launched missile, but no official disclosure on their overall success rate has been made. Collating all Saudi announcements reported by a Washington think tank yields a total of 135 claimed interceptions as of June 2019. The reliability of those Saudi announcement is not clear. For example, on November 4 2017 the Saudis announced that they had successfully intercepted a Houthi ballistic missile that targeted Riyadh’s international airport. This was contested by some US analysts. Indeed, in 2018 the Saudis conceded that the airport area was actually hit, although no damage was inflicted to its runways and buildings. The impact crater north east of the main terminal indicated that the Houthi missile managed to penetrate the Patriot defense shield.

Assuming that about 200 missiles have been fired at Saudi targets, the 135 Saudi reported intercepts indicate a success rate of about 68% which is a relatively low figure. However, this could be misleading since there is no information about which of the targets attacked by those 200 missiles had Patriot deployed for their protection. In fact, judging by the number of civilians that died from rocket attacks – more than 110 to date – it can be deduced that many of the targeted population centers were not defended against missile strikes. From photos of missile debris in various Saudi locations it is hard to judge whether they resulted from interceptions or simply from shattering on impact. Videos of interceptions are rare, they all come from Smartphone wielding bystanders. Amateur videos from Riyadh provide a mixed impression. Some show spectacular failures of Patriot missiles – mid air explosions and erratic flights that end in ground impacts. However, one bystander’s video, uploaded to YouTube on June 24, 2018 show what seems to be a perfect interception of an incoming warhead. Indirect evidence tends to confirm that the Patriot missile shield is effective, at least in Riyadh. With a population of 6.7 million spread over 400 of built up area, the city is a huge target that is hard to miss even by ballistic missiles of mediocre accuracy. Yet, in spite of being targeted at least five and possibly eight times, only one resident was ever killed – and this from a piece of debris that detached from an incoming missile (A similar incident occurred in Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, when a resident of a Tel Aviv suburb was injured by a piece of debris from an incoming Iraqi missile. The victim survived). Except in the case of the November 2017 attack on Riyadh’s international airport, no warhead impact was ever recorded in the city. Concealing a warhead induced destruction from the public anywhere within the built-up area of a modern city is neigh impossible in this era of smartphones. Hence, one way to explain the low number of casualties within Riyadh is the effectiveness of its missile shield.

UAV Warfare 

Another hint of the effectiveness of Patriot defense are Houthi/Iranian alliance efforts both to suppress it and evade it. To elucidate this point, we need to refer to another aspect of the Houthi/Iranian war machine in Yemen: UAV warfare. UAVs are one of the main pillars of Iranian military doctrine. Together with other weapon shipments, Iran has been providing the Houthis with numerous types of UAVs, both of the larger types used for armed reconnaissance such as the Shahad 129 (roughly equivalent to Israel’s Hermes 450) and smaller “suicide” UAVs (such as the Ababil, used by Hezbollah in 2006 for attacks deep within Israel, which for the sake of Iranian deniability has been renamed Kasef 2). The Houthi arsenal is augmented by the acquisition of mail order UAVs such as the Chinese “Skywalker” available online from Ali Baba. More remarkable, the Iranians have provided the Houthis with knowhow, production machinery and expertise to set up a UAV industry of their own in their stronghold of Sad’ha in northern Yemen. The Houthi UAV industry is now producing unique designs of long-range machines, some equipped with jet engines, obviously designed in Iran. Beyond the classic UAV roles of reconnaissance and light bombardment, the Houthi/Iranian alliance is using them for direct “suicide” attacks on Patriot batteries. Three incidents of direct attacks on Patriot batteries have been claimed: Two attacks were within Yemen, probably targeting UAE batteries in Mocha and Marib, and one attack on a Patriot battery defending the Saudi border city of Najran, with unknown results.

Even more significantly, the Houthi/Iranian alliance exploits the Patriot’s system limitations in engaging low and slow threats in order to penetrate beneath the Saudi air/missile defense shield. In fact, UAVs are now being used by the Houthi’s as ersatz land attack cruise missiles. With immunity against air and missile defense, and with much better accuracy than ordinary ballistic missiles, UAVs now seem to be the preferred weapons for imaginative and audacious strikes deep within Saudi territory.  For example, the civilian airport of the Saudi town of Abha, about 120 km. from the Yemeni border, was attacked by Houthi suicide UAVs no less than three times during the month of June 2019, wounding 28 passengers and airport workers. In August 2019, the Houthis managed to strike the Shaybah oilfield deep within Saudi Arabia, almost 1200 Km from the Houthi stronghold in Sad’ha. The attack was carried out by no less than 10 UAVs and sparked a fire in gas storage tanks. Such a complex attack needs precise coordination and excellent navigation, which demonstrates the proficiency achieved by Iran’s UAV operators. While those strikes did not cause excessive damage – perhaps intentionally so – they were propaganda coups for the Houthis, providing them with solid achievements in the cognitive battlefield.

The fourth lesson for Israel is the growing military role of UAVs both for missile defense suppression and for evasion. UAVs were first used by Hezbollah for reconnaissance over Israel even prior to the 2006 Lebanon war. At the closing stage of that war, four suicide UAVs were launched by Hezbollah against Israeli targets (One suffered a failure and fell near the border, two were intercepted by Israeli jet fighters, and the fourth vanished). In the 2014 Gaza war Hamas tried to attack Tel Aviv with its own UAVs (Two, perhaps three UAVs were shot down by Patriot air defense batteries). This experience is not indicative of the future. The Yemen war demonstrates how UAVs will be employed in future wars in significant numbers to erode Israel’s missile defense capabilities by attacking the Iron Dome, David Sling and Arrow batteries. Hostile UAVs, in conjunction with precision rockets, may well be tasked to damage Israel’s critical infrastructures such as desalination plants. Consequently, Israel needs to integrate air defense capabilities into its missile defense systems, and to provide its critical infrastructures with their own point defenses.

The current civil wars in the Middle East – especially in Syria and in Yemen – resemble the Spanish civil war of the 1930s inasmuch as they are exploited by outside powers to test new doctrines, weapons and tactics in realistic battle conditions. What the Axis powers (and to a lesser extent the USSR) did in Spain during the 1930s is being done today by Iran in Yemen.

It would be advisable for Israel’s Ministry of Defense and the IDF to closely study the civil war in Yemen, particularly its rocket and drone warfare aspects. The weapons and tactics in use in Yemen today will be employed against Israel tomorrow.

photo: Carport [CC BY-SA 3.0]

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