23 June 2020

The war of the future has started. In Yemen

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

For soon to be 10 years, an almost forgotten, often archaic, sometimes extremely modern war continues in the Southern extremity of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen is the country of historical, religious and geographic contrasts and, more recently, of those who look at both peace and war. It is a paradox that in the poorest of all Arab countries, the one to have the most tribal organization, there is an ongoing conflict wherein the actors are the infantry, the tanks and the special forces. The place is occupied by missiles, drones, video messages and air manoeuvres blanketing thousands of kilometres. It seems to be the war of the future, carried where the most important culture is the qat, the plant that gives euphoria and resistance to a nation that does not seem to know the century they are in.

Image source: Profi Media

Let’s start with some maybe unexpected questions and answers

Question: Which is the war that used the biggest number of ballistic missiles?

Answer: The Yemen war. There is not a clear situation now, but some are estimating that hundreds of such missiles were used by the Houthi rebels to hit targets of the Arab Coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, both in Yemen and the Saudi territory.

Question: Which is the war that used the most advanced air defence in the entire history?

Answer: The Yemen war. A statistic leads to 162 intercepted missiles, many of them by the Patriot systems of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The countries that posses such systems, a total 13 states, among them, starting this year, Romania, were extremely careful with how these were used.

And the last question: Which war uses both archaic and modern fight methods?

The already predictable answer: The Yemen war. Indeed, a guerrilla conflict where only frontline fighters have weapons, where the unit is a team that could enter the platform of a jeep, where Janbiya, the Yemeni dagger, is a dreaded weapon.  But also the place the use of drones became something normal, where the attacks combined with missiles, suicidal drones are practiced on the field, where teenagers who just enlisted are trying to communicate on Motorola phones, depending on satellites’ program.

When the state disappears, but the arsenal stays...

After a series of six wars with the Sana’a government, carried with the classical Kalashnikovs, in the seventh war, carried also due to the local “Arab spring” revolution, the Houthi movement has quickly became luckier, getting its suit, turban and sandals fighters on the Sana’a streets, but also in the possession of the military arsenal.

As any other poor country, Yemen placed in its military deposits the equipment and weapons needed for many years of conflicts, both light weapons for the guerrilla fights and sophisticated equipment, such as functional ballistic missiles.

After taking the control of Sana’a, in 2014, together with the forces of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, when they first encountered the arsenal, in Zaydi’s revolutionaries’ (the Shia connotation of the Houthi community) inventory have been added 6 9M117M launchers and 33 ballistic missiles with R-17E Elbrus short range of action (NATO term SS-1C Scub-B). It is a short range of action, like 500 km. That was just the beginning.

Meanwhile the Houthi offensive was heading south, towards Aden, Iran offered to support the new authorities through an air bridge with two transports a day, which were bringing new equipment and taking hundreds of Houthi operators and teach them how to use the new military systems, during classes in Iran. Because they wanted the training classes to finish as quickly as possible, Hezbollah offered trainers. Houthi has a certain common religious platform with the Lebanese militant group, which also thought Houthi things related to the cross-border fight. Until the states in the region and the international community realized, the Teheran organized even maritime transports to the ports controlled by the Houthi group in the Red Sea.

... and the arsenal gets larger

In the war wherein the Saudi Arabia interfered in behalf of other nine Arab states as well, in order to bring the president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to Sana’a, the Houthi forces have used ballistic missiles as their main attack weapon, both against the inside enemy forces and the foreign targets. Sometimes, even far away from their border. The missiles were also used as an effective propagandistic tool, proving movement’s capabilities to manage not just an effective guerrilla, but also one with sophisticated technologies.

Although the country lacks the basic infrastructure, the education systems is not that advanced, the industry is mostly manufacturing, this did not stop the development of some research centers in military technologies field. The Houthi Rebels present them as exclusively local achievements, but Riyadh and Washington say it is impossible. Some things cannot be improvised in the local ironmongery, because only the assembly of the missiles asks for capabilities which are not available for everyone. And all of this is happening during an intense air campaign led by the anti-Houthi coalition, whose targets were exactly these deposits, the research and assembly sites for the missiles.

Years have passed, the Saudi air raids have continued equally intense and, however, the advanced armament proliferation developed in these difficult conditions. The deposits have developed, being now protected against air raids, they have created manufactures for drones and communication centres.

In the midst of 2017, it emerged Burkan 2-H (the 2-H Volcano), an indigenous missile, presented as such by the Houthi propaganda, whereof the analysts think it is based on the Qiam 1 Iranian missile, which is also based on Soviet layouts...

The Saudi Arabia accuses it for being completely Iranian, although all analysts say it would be impossible to transport it integrally given the trade embargo and the total air and maritime interdiction.

Most likely, these have been transferred dismantled, on a maritime and land route – some people say it would go through Oman – and they were assembled in the Yemen sites. Specialists who analyzed the remaining pieces from 10 destroyed Burkan missiles came to the conclusion that it is the same well-trained technicians’ team but, as they work in limited conditions in North of Yemen, they have put a specific mark on how they pieces were brazed.

Of course, Iran denied any suggestion that it had violated an embargo. Assuming  this too, we can only appreciate the technological achievements of the Houthi engineers who later managed to produce the series of ship-to-ship Qaher missiles which, no longer having enough access to the sea, they used them on Saudi ground targets, somewhere at only 250 kilometres away from the border.

The easiness these technologies have been implemented with in dried up local conditions can only be explained by consistent and uninterrupted external support. All the more so as the Houthi forces, although they took over the strategic arsenal of the government they had overthrown, transferred only the missiles to the safe areas of northern Yemen, without the related personnel (Republican Guard, loyal to former President Saleh). This did not prevent them from gaining in a short time the expertise of their use on punctual and distant targets.

It is perhaps just a coincidence that the prototype of the Qasef-1 drone strikingly resembles the Ababil-T model, made in Iran. These drones were the spearhead in the attacks targeting Patriot radars and batteries that protect Saudi oil infrastructure, and can also be used on military command centers and during military operations.

Another example of the way the new military technologies were adopted by some guerrilla forces previously equipped only with basic individual weapons is the developments in naval warfare. Although the Red Sea coastline has been contested, ensuring its protection has been considered a strategic objective due to the impact of naval traffic on the Red Sea. Again, we can hardly assume that only with local forces, Houthi militants, regardless of how much warrior enthusiasm they possessed, were able to turn the flotilla of small warships, taken over after 2015, into fast ships equipped to execute direct projectile shots with guided projectiles over Saudi Arabia's upper naval platforms (including a frigate), to make coastal observation radar stations an integrated surveillance system, to conduct training and then operations with combat diver subunits.

Both in naval operations, but, much more strongly in those aimed at missile launches, the system used was that of the trinomial: force attack - command centre - media support. It seems, again paradoxically, that in one of the most isolated conflicts, with so few connections to the outside world, due, including, to the intermittent operation of the national electricity supply system, so much attention is paid to the media component of the warfare.

The Red Sea war – learned lessons

In a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies/CSIS, they reviewed some of the characteristics of this conflict, which make it one of the most complexes in recent times, with certain war elements belonging to future technologies. Although the report focuses on the use of ballistic missiles, considered to be confrontations’ centre of gravity, but also peace negotiations’ cornerstone, it captures war’s conceptual and spatial diversity, good only to serve as "lessons learned" for military specialists coming even from countries very well-developed in the security field. The references are, of course, primarily to the operations carried out by Houthi forces. The coalition led by Saudi Arabia mainly used the classic model of war, with large concentrations of human and material forces, offensive operations and airstrikes where the main element was the superior endowment.   

There is, therefore, the classic guerrilla war, where Houthi fighters, divided into very small teams, generally of three people, disbanded in the civilian population, most often circulated unarmed, were not limited by the front lines, had a support network inside their own controlled territory, which permanently provided them with the necessary human resources, as well as a network of informants in the enemy territory, including outside the country.

The media war was based on several components, among them the Al Masirah television station, created with the help of Hezbollah and with the platform deployed in Lebanon, to avoid being the target of Saudi airstrikes, which is probably the most important component. For a population with limited access to the print media and the Internet, television is the main communication channel, and the massive support enjoyed by Houthi leaders is due, in part, to its use for propaganda operations. Missile shots are filmed from the moment they are launched and sometimes, when possible, even in the moment of impact. The videos are directed and dramatized to become true visual manifestos of Houthi forces’ resilience and combativeness.

The exhibition from the summer of 2019 can also be mentioned, when the Houthi authorities presented the latest achievements in the missile technology field, models and even prototypes exhibited only in front of video cameras, in an unknown location. Freshly painted, the missiles were inscribed, like any factory product, with the slogan "Made in Yemen." Of course, the question mark was missing.

The economic war. I know, you thought of the one carried by Saudi Arabia to block the Sana’a regime's international economic connections. It's more like the other way around. The Houthi forces were the ones who tried, through military strikes, to short-circuit the Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ economies. When they managed to reach the target, even if they caused only symbolic damage, missile attacks executed to a decrease in commercial traffic, oil exports, had consequences on markets and stock exchanges and have increased the insurance cost.

In August 2019, a military operation carried out by Houthi forces was even called "Operation Economic Deterrence", targeting the Shaybah oil field. It did not succeed militarily, but it was a huge blow in terms of economic damage. Even the continuation of the conflict is an economic blow. The $ 5-6 billion a month spent by Saudi Arabia on operations in Yemen and support for President Hadi's regime is a proof to that end.

The missiles, drones and radars war. Although conducted far from the interrogative eye of international public opinion, with little data on how combat actions take place, the theatre of operations in Yemen reveals a series of learned, modern lessons, necessary especially for those who may encounter situations similar to those from this "missile conflict". An Israeli study presents some of these:

● air strikes do not solve the problem of concealed military arsenals. Houthi forces have found resources for the quick transfer of missiles from warehouses to new locations;

● the retaliation attacks (to the air campaigns of some air coalitions) will not be directed only to military targets. The targets of the missiles attacks, it was demonstrated in the conflict in Yemen, can be airports and ports, economic infrastructure, populated centers near the border, occasionally concentrations of forces. Symbols of political power, public figures should not be excluded;

● regardless of how strong the embargo is, or how many measures are taken to secure the borders, there will always be possibilities for illegal transfer of technology and components, even for the most sophisticated equipment. The restriction is never 100% effective, and its exercise often stimulates a process of identifying unconventional military means, sometimes as effective as those to which access is prohibited;

● drones have proven to be an effective and much cheaper replacement for ballistic missiles. Even their indigenous production is easier to achieve, the components easier to procure, and the effects on target, more complex. Drones, in combination with ballistic missiles, in addition to which they can act, for example, to neutralize radars, are an expository combination.

The conclusion is that the Yemen war has some resemblances with the previous conflicts, some of them extremely different, like the Spanish civil war, from 1936-1939 (also called the “the waiting room of the second world war”) because of being a field where foreign forces are practicing operations and checking on technologies about to be used in the future.

It is also followed the model of another civil conflict in the region, the Syrian one, where sponsor-states of different factions support them with equipment, sometimes even with troops, to identify, among others, the way a future large-scale regional conflict will look like.

 Many aspects are different between the two wars, but there is also a resemblance: Iran.

Translated by Andreea Soare