A Houthi missile struck Abha airport in Saudi Arabia last week. In his announcement of this development, the spokesman of the Arab Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen said that 26 people were injured in the attack and taken to hospital after which the airport resumed operations.
The Saudi-led coalition described the attack as a “war crime” and vowed a harsh reprisal against the Houthi militia. Coalition officials simultaneously pointed fingers at Iran which they accuse of aiding and arming the Houthis.
Other members of the coalition, the US and a number of Western nations condemned the attack against a vital civilian target in Saudi Arabia.
The Houthis immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. The movement’s Al-Masirah TV reported that Houthi forces had fired a cruise missile targeting Abha airport’s control tower.
Houthi officials then warned that they will launch more strikes targeting airports in Saudi Arabia as a means to end the blockade imposed on Sanaa airport since the Houthi insurrection in September 2014.
The missile strike on Abha airport on 12 June comes nearly a month after the Houthis launched a drone strike against an Aramco oil pumping station in Saudi Arabia on 14 May.
If that incident revealed advances in the range and precision of Houthi drones, the recent incident in Abha marked the first time the Houthis used a cruise missile in their attacks against Saudi Arabia, signalling advances in Houthi missile technology with the addition of new types of missiles to the Houthi arsenal.
According to the Arab coalition, this development confirms that Iran is supplying the Houthi militias with new types of advanced weaponry and that the Houthis are not merely upgrading the capacities of their already existing missilery.
In April, the Houthis announced that they had modified the Badr-B to produce the longer-range Badr-F guided missile.
Houthi military spokesman Brigadier General Yehia Sarie announced last week that his forces had fired a “winged cruise” missile at Abha airport and that it “struck its target with high precision”.
He claimed that the target was the air traffic control tower which, he said, had been “destroyed and put out of service” as the result of the “direct hit”. He added that the Saudi aerial defence system had failed to intercept the missile.
Al-Masirah TV reported that the missile has a range of 2,500 kilometres, is designed to carry a 450-kilogramme conventional warhead and has high precision accuracy and less than a 1.5-metre margin of error.
The self-navigating missile, which is guided using GPS receivers and other digital technology, flies at low altitudes and is highly manoeuvrable.
Part of the Houthi narrative regarding the attack can be taken at face value. The incident, as the military spokesman described it, more or less correlates to other reports and although he referred to the use of a cruise missile, he did not discuss its technical specifications.
However, Houthi media accounts of the missile’s capacities do appear exaggerated and are obviously intended for propaganda purposes.
As it has been proven that the Houthis do not possess the wherewithal to develop ballistic missiles themselves, it is Iranian capacities that must serve as the criteria.
In February, Iran announced its acquisition of new intermediate-range missiles that have nowhere near the range of and can carry only half the payload of the “cruise” missile described in the Houthi media.
For example, the Qader and Qadir that Iran unveiled during Iranian naval manoeuvres in the vicinity of the Gulf of Oman in February have ranges of only 250 kilometres and 300 kilometres respectively.
The fixed Hetz class missiles that were also revealed that month have a range of 1,350 kilometres. Clearly, the range cited by Al-Masirah is excessive and much more than needed for an operation involving a target some 300 kilometres away from the Houthis’ operational staging areas inside Yemen.
During the manoeuvres it conducted in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz in August last year, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) announced that Iran had succeeded in developing a cruise missile with a range of 1,500 kilometres that could be installed on a Sukhoi fighter plane.
The claim was refuted by Farzin Nadimi in “Responding to Iran’s New Weapons and Naval Drills in the Gulf”, an analysis published by the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy in August last year. “At present... none of the Iranian missiles known to be under development fits this description of an air-launched cruise missile with 1,500 kilometres range,” Nadimi wrote.
He also questioned the stated range of the Iranian Soumar, a copy of Russia’s Kh-55 cruise missile which the IRG claimed was able to reach targets up to 2,500 kilometres away. Nadimi also noted that, contrary to the IRGC claim, the new Iranian cruise was too large to be carried on a Sukhoi.
He is also sceptical about the stated specifications of a smaller cruise missile called Ya-Ali that the Iranians are developing. The missile would need to be lengthened and upgraded in order to reach the range announced by the IRGC in August last year.
Evidently, the Houthis want to boast possession of a missile with specifications comparable to US cruise missiles, let alone Iranian missiles that, according to experts, are not what they are billed to be. By the time this report was filed, Arab coalition officials have not confirmed the “cruise” narrative.
They use the terms “missile” or “projectile”. But this does not refute the possibility that a cruise was used. In February 2017, the Houthis targeted the airport with a ballistic missile that Saudi air defences intercepted.
So perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the missile that Saudi air defences failed to intercept last week was a guided missile. As for the type, maybe it was a modified Qader and Qadir with a range not exceeding 300km, which is slightly longer than the distance between the Yemeni border and Abha.
To this we should add that the photographs Saudi authorities released on the damage done to the airport show a hole in the suspended ceiling in the arrivals hall and very little damage to the floor, indicating a much lighter payload than the specifications cited by the Houthi media.
The Houthis’ transition to the use of a guided cruise missile from the less sophisticated missiles it used before the Arab coalition launched Operation Storm of Resolve in March 2015 conveys a number of messages:
The ability to alter the mode of confrontation: Shifting between diverse sophisticated weapons systems is meant to demonstrate breadth and diversity of military capabilities and, hence, the ability to alter tactics, whether along battle lines on the ground in Yemen (where coalition forces have extended to new fronts in the far north) or across the border.
This is consistent with the statement of Mohamed Abdel-Salam Al-Houthi following the strike against the Aramco station (which was reiterated by Houthi commanders following the Abha airport strike) that a new phase in the confrontation has begun and that 14 May marked the turning point.
Independence from Iran: The cruise missile strike coincided with the arrival of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Tehran to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in order to offer his services as a mediator to alleviate mounting tensions between Iran and Washington.
The Houthis have undertaken several attacks against Saudi and UAE targets which have all elicited charges that Iran was behind them.
The Abha strike was timed to deliver the message that these strikes are connected with the war in Yemen and that the Houthis are acting independently without Iranian interference.
The Saudi-led coalition is not convinced, as its statement indicates. The same applies to other parties, most notably the Americans.
Evolution in military strategy: In contrast to previous occasions when the Houthis boasted the development of a new missile, as occurred in April with the upgraded Badr-B, the Houthis did not announce their acquisition of a cruise missile in advance.
The new tactic is to use an offensive operation as a means to proclaim the acquisition of a new weapon as was the case with the drone attacks against the Aramco installation and the Patriot missile system at Najran airbase.
This is a sign that the Houthis are developing new dimensions in their military strategy that they had not explored much before, such as psychological warfare.
In this case, the Houthis could be using the element of surprise to intensify the enemy’s perception of threat or the narrative of the cruise’s capacities as a means to create the impression that they have a secret weapons development programme.
Strategic alternative: The Houthis must have felt it necessary to overcome challenges to their existing missile capacities and the cruise missile provided the alternative.
It offers essential advantages over less sophisticated missiles, such as the power to guide it in-flight, its manoeuvrability, its high precision and its greater impact.
As the situation stands, the Yemeni war has entered a new chapter that forebodes an unprecedented escalation in view of the heightened threat the Houthis pose to territory beyond the Yemeni border and their consequent ability to provoke the coalition into escalating in return.
This appears to have worked. The coalition has suspended civilian air traffic from Aden to destinations abroad, a sign of an imminent military operation in response to repeated Houthi attacks.
Another challenge the coalition faces is the unconventional warfare tactics used by Houthi militias in tandem with continued Houthi attempts to undermine the peace process.
There remains the question of the Iranian role in strengthening the Houthis military infrastructure, a role that reflects Iran’s continued ability to influence and inflame conflict zones abroad as a means to strengthen its bargaining position vis-à-vis the US.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Houthis step up attacks