The Growing Threat of Naval Mines in the Red Sea

The Civil War in Yemen has presented several maritime threats in recent months. One of these threats is the deployment of naval mines by Houthi militias that endanger international ships and shipping routes

Saudi and Yemeni naval engineers cleared Iranian-made mines which Houthi militias planted along the Hodeida coast (Photo: Al Arabiya)

Since January 2017, the Saudi-led coalition forces discovered and dismantled naval mines that were set by Houthis and militias allied to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh near Yemen's coastline in the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

A report issued by the US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) in March 2017, warned merchant ships of the dangers of mines in Bab al-Mandeb near the Mokha port entrance.

Bab al-Mandab, which is 25 kilometers wide, is a strategic waterway, through which merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden sail to the Red Sea, and then to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. It is one of the most crowded waterways for oil transportation in the Middle East and other regions. More than 60 commercial ships cross the Strait of Bab al-Mandab with more than 3.3 million oil barrels per day.

Naval mines are one of the oldest weapons in the naval inventory – they are often the cheapest and most available weapons. Naval mines are not only cheap and deadly, but they are also difficult to find even with modern equipment.  

The naval mines near Yemen, which are believed to have been sourced from Iran, appear to be of the floating type with contact detonators. Although they appear basic, they are a significant threat to merchant shipping using the busy Red Sea shipping lanes. 

In January 2017, several naval mines were found by forces allied with the internationally-recognized government of Yemen which seized control of the strategic Red Sea port near Mokha.

On February 4, 2017, the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) warned that Houthi rebels were suspected of having placed mines in the vicinity of Mokha harbor.

In March 2017, Saudi Navy forces confirmed they had dismantled several naval mines deployed by Houthi militias near the southwestern port city of Mokha aimed at targeting international shipping boats in the Red Sea.

On March 8, 2017, the Royal Saudi Navy identified two minefields off the coast of Midi District, Hajjah governorate, after a fishing boat detonated a mine killing eight civilians. Yemeni media aligned with the Hadi administration claimed that the naval mines were Iranian-made. Maj. Gen. Ahmed Al-Assiri, the spokesman for the Saudi Arabian military, stated the following: "Just a few days ago there was an incident where a fishing boat hit a mine off the Yemeni shores. Seven innocent fishermen were killed in this incident. This signifies the threat of these mines which needs to be addressed."

On March 10, 2017, two sailors lost their lives, and eight other were wounded when a Yemeni Coast Guard vessel hit a naval mine in the Red Sea.

On March 25, 2017, Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition, disclosed that Royal Saudi Navy vessels were carrying out "constant" mine-sweeping operations along Yemeni shores and that they had found several naval mines near Mokha.

On March 25, 2017, Royal Saudi Navy and Yemeni Navy engineers cleared mines in the vicinity of Al Hudaydah.

In April 2017, the Yemeni Coast Guard warned the shipping community of the possible dangers in the navigational channel following reports that Houthi rebels had placed a number of naval mines in the vicinity. The Yemen Coast Guard Chief, Maj. Gen. Khalid Al-Ghommaly, confirmed that the authorities were provided with the information on the mines.

On May 1, 2017, a naval mine detonated against a fishing boat, killing one fisherman, in northern Al Hudaydah governorate. The chairman of the Yemeni National Association for Mine Action, Taher al-Mikhlafi, stated that the naval mine was an Iranian acoustic naval mine.

On May 8, 2017, the spokesman for the Arab coalition announced that it monitored and dismantled naval mines near the strategic Midi port in Yemen, which was retaken from the Houthi militias by legal forces several months ago, and was used for weapons smuggling from Iran. The statement declared by the coalition leadership highlighted the type of the mines deployed by the coups. After the results of the experiments, it became apparent it was primitively manufactured.

Operation "Naval Arrow"

Yemen’s legitimate forces launched an operation codenamed "Naval Arrow" on April 16, 2017, in an effort to remove naval mines which they say was planted by Houthi militias at the Midi front, northwest of the Hajjah Governorate.

The mines, which are believed to have been sourced from Iran and which are used in old-fashioned submarines, threaten fishermen and residents of islands near the coasts of Midi. They also threaten international navigation in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait.

Summary

The Civil War in Yemen has presented several maritime threats in recent months. First, the Houthi rebels attacked a UAE naval transport Swift and also targeted US Navy warships with and anti-ship missiles in October 2016. The US responded with Tomahawk cruise missile strikes in October 2016. In January 2017, they rammed a Saudi frigate Al Madinah with a remote controlled explosive boat.

The Houthi militias spread naval mines, off the western Yemeni coastline – especially in the vicinity of Mokha, Al-Hudaydah, and Midi, thereby endangering international ships and shipping lanes. The mines were said to be relatively simple in nature, but that does not mean they would not have catastrophic effects on ships moving through the area, many of which carry huge loads of oil and natural gas. These mines pose a clear threat to the safety and the movement of international and commercial shipping, making it a clear violation of international law.

The Yemeni forces and Saudi Navy are constantly engaged in mine-sweeping operations off Yemeni shores, amid warnings over mines planted by Houthi militias but these anti-mine warfare efforts don't seem to be sufficient for confronting the threat. The US Navy is the only force in the region that does maintain a robust anti-mine warfare capability.

A report issued by the US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), in March 2017, stated that the attacks on ships in the Bab al-Mandab strait, especially commercial ones, will trigger the involvement of other parties, pointing out that the US Navy will deploy all the needed efforts to protect the freedom of shipping. The US warning noted that the closure of this waterway would lead to substantial increases in total energy costs and global oil prices.

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