Yemen and the Drone Innovation

Houthi-deployed Qasef-1 drone, Feb. 2017 (Conflict Armament Research)

Published Aug 10, 2018 4:35 PM by The Lowy Interpreter

[By Rodger Shanahan]

As Yemen’s deadly conflict grinds on, exactly how much assistance the Iranians are providing the Houthis is open to conjecture.

The Saudi-led coalition is keen to portray the Houthis as agents, rather than allies, of Iran. And while there is certainly strong evidence of technology and weapons transfer – either by land through Oman, or via the Red Sea – the Yemenis have also demonstrated their ability to improvise when necessary. Their reported conversion of anti-ship missiles from a ship- to shore-based role is one example. 

Drones are another another area of innovation. The Houthis have deployed drones as suicide aircraft, designed to destroy the supporting radars of Patriot anti-missile defence systems used by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates forces. Such attacks allow ballistic missiles fired by Houthis a better chance of penetrating air defences.

The weaponization of Houthi drones, and their use as a strategic rather than tactical capability, may be a further innovation – at least, that’s if pro-Houthi media claims are to be believed. In July, pro-Houthi media released video of what it said was one of its drones dropping bomblets on Saudi and Emirati troops in the field.

A few weeks later, the Houthis claimed that a drone attack was conducted against a Saudi Aramco facility in Riyadh (a claim quickly backed up by Iranian television). Shortly after, UAE authorities denied a claim that the Houthis had conducted a drone attack on Abu Dhabi airport. 

Whatever the truth, in terms of maintaining the support of people in areas under their control, the information operations campaign the Houthis are waging with their drone fleet is proving effective. And once again Yemen proves, even to regional states, that its physical and human geography make it one of the hardest operating environments for invading forces.

Dr Rodger Shanahan is a Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute. A former Australian army officer, he had extensive service within the Parachute Battalion Group (PBG) and has had operational service with the UN in South Lebanon and Syria, with the PBG in East Timor, in Beirut during the 2006 war, and in Afghanistan. He was the former director of the Army's Land Warfare Studies Centre, and has also been posted to the Australian Embassies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Dr Shanahan has MAs in International Relations and Middle East Studies from the ANU, and a PhD in Arab and Islamic Studies from the University of Sydney.

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