Saudi Arabia and the Houthi Missile Threat

Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay discusses the threats imposed by the Iran-backed Houthi insurgents in Yemen with a special emphasis on their rocket capabilities

Saudi Arabia and the Houthi Missile Threat

Photo: AP

Saudi Arabia has accused Iranian-backed Houthi rebels of firing a missile at the holy city of Mecca from the northern Yemeni province of Sada'a, on October 28, 2016. Saudi air defenses downed the missile at a distance of 65 kilometers from Mecca. The missile caused no damage and the Saudi military immediately targeted the area from where it was launched. The intercepted Houthi missile that was fired deep into Saudi territory was a Burkan-1.       

Houthi officials (Ansarullah) strongly denied Saudi regime's claim that the Yemeni movement had targeted the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. They claimed that they fired a Burkan-1 missile towards King Abdulaziz International Airport, located 19 kilometers north of the western Saudi port city of Jeddah.

Although Iran’s name was not explicitly mentioned Saudi Arabia has strongly hinted that it was behind the missile attack as a part of the Iranian strategy to portray Saudi Arabia as incapable of defending the Holy sites.

Iran views the Houthis as the legitimate authority in Yemen. The Iranian support to the Houthis includes political, propaganda, financial and military support (military training, specialist advisors, weaponry). The Houthis have acknowledged Iranian political support but have repeatedly denied receiving arms from Tehran.

The controversy over its direction and destination remained unresolved because the cities of Taif, Jeddah and Mecca all lie in more or less same range from northern Yemen (province of Sada'a) and all can be reached by a Burkan-1 midrange missile, which means that its actual destination is open to speculation.

The ballistic missile launched by the Houthi militias targeting the holy city of Mecca evoked worldwide condemnation with key world leaders and prominent organizations unequivocally slammed the attack.

The Houthi rebels backed by Iran are using short- and middle-range surface-to-surface missiles to hit targets in the Saudi territory as strategic game changers in the war against the Saudi-led coalition.

The Houthis have fired missiles from Yemen toward Saudi Arabia at least 30 times between June 2015 and November 2016, but most of those missiles were intercepted by the Saudi Patriot missiles.

Missiles in Service of the Houthis in Yemen

Scud missiles: Until July 2016, in most of the reports the missiles were identified as Scud missiles. It is not clear how many missiles Houthi forces currently have in their arsenal. Yemen’s military was believed to have had 300 Scud missiles when the conflict began – most of which fell under the control of Houthi rebels and allied troops loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president. Some previous estimates of Yemen’s missile arsenal from defense analysis groups were much smaller.

Yemen is believed to have several different types of Scud missiles of both North Korean and Soviet origin. During 1994’s civil war between southern separatists and the forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, both sides used Scuds.

The Houthis first launched a Scud missile in early June 2015, after two months of Saudi-led bombing. Saudi Patriot missiles intercepted the Scud, which was aimed at a Saudi Arabian air base.

Maj. Gen. Nasser Al-Tahri, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Saudi Arabia, revealed that the military of Yemen acquired information confirming the cooperation of several Iranian experts with Houthi rebels to gear up Scud missiles.

Burkan-1 ("Volcano 1") – An Iranian-modified Russian Scud missile, it weighs eight tons, can carry a 700-kilogram warhead and has a range of up to 800 kilometers, making it a midrange missile. The existence of this type of missile in Yemen was first discovered in September 2016, and it was fired against the city of Taif.

Zelzal 2 (“Earthquake-2″) – The solid propellant missile has a range of 200-300 kilometers. The length is 8.32 m, and the diameter is 0.61m. The missile has a launch weight of 3,400 kg., including a 600 kg warhead carried over a range of 200 km. The missile is carried and launched from a truck-mounted rail. The Zelzal-2 was apparently an Iranian locally produced version of the Luna-M (NATO name FROG-7) missile with a launcher based on the MB LA-911 truck chassis.

Prior to the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Iran supplied Zelzal-2 missiles to the Lebanese Hezbollah, which tried to launch them against Israel. However, most of the missiles were destroyed in a preemptive strike by the Israeli Air force.

The Saudi forces' gathering center in Malah region of Sana'a came under attack by the Yemeni army's home-made Zalzal-2 missile; a Houthi source said on November 4, 2016. It was the first report of the use of Iranian-made Zelzal 2 missiles by the Houthis in Yemen.

Zelzal 3 (“Earthquake-3″) – An Iranian-made solid propellant single stage missile, with a range of 200 km. The Zelzal 3 missile was first introduced in September 1999. The variant Zelzal-3B has smaller warhead and a range of 250 km.

Iran is already taking steps in giving its conventionally armed missiles more accuracy. Iran is deploying short-range systems with GPS guidance and has said publicly that it is seeking to provide its missiles with precision guidance and/or terminal homing warheads, and with countermeasures to ballistic missile defenses.

In 2001, some unverified reports claimed that the missiles had been equipped with a simple inertial guidance system. A number of sources indicate that its systems with greatly improved guidance include the production of the Zelzal-2 as a guided rocket and the Zelzal-3 ballistic missile. The Zelzal 3 has 600 kg warhead with 1300 m CEP. The Zelzal 3 has a transporter erector launcher.

According to some reports, Iran has armed its allies: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad regime in Syria and now the Houthi rebels in Yemen with Zelzal 3 missiles.

The First Use of Iranian-Produced Zelzal 3 Missile by the Houthis

A Zelzal 3 missile fired by Yemeni militias on August 16, 2016, killed seven civilians in Najaran inside Saudi Arabia. It was the highest reported number of civilian casualties in the kingdom's south since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in March 2015 in Yemen.

In August 2016, several media sources have reported the first use of Iranian Zelzal 3 missiles in the war in Yemen:

·         Al Arabiya claimed that Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) has said that missiles made in Iran were recently used in Yemen by Houthi militias in cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia. The news comes despite Iranian denials earlier in August 2016, of their direct involvement in sending weapons to Yemen. According to the Iranian news agency, those rockets that were fired were found to be Zelzal-3 missiles.

·         Hezbollah TV channel, Al-Manar, claimed that "the rocketry power in the Yemeni army and the popular committees fired a ballistic missile on a Saudi military camp in Jizan. Military sources said that the attack was part of retaliation by the Yemeni allied forces against violations carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. The camp was totally destroyed; with dozens of Saudi-led forces were killed or injured." "A few days earlier, the allied forces also fired missiles on Saudi camps in Najran and Jizan in the border area between Yemen and Saudi. Three ballistic missiles (local-made Zelzal) and Uragan rockets were in response to the continuous violations by the Saudi-led coalition."

·         Houthi rebels in Yemen fired at a military base in the South of neighboring Saudi Arabia’s “Zelzal-3″ missile. According to Houthis, the missile “accurately hit the target” at a military base in the area of Najran, but data on victims or destructions were not given. Saudi side information is not commented

Saudi Arabia's Response to the Missile Threat

Offensive Countermeasures: On March 28, 2015, two days after the Saudi-led bombardment on Yemen began (Operation Decisive Storm), Saudi coalition spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Assiri, said the bombing campaign had destroyed “most” of the rebels’ missile capabilities.

Brig. Gen. Assiri asserted that 80 percent of Yemen’s 300 or so missiles had been destroyed. On April 20, 2015, a coalition strike targeted a Scud missile base in Sana'a, killed 25. But the air strikes still did not eliminate the Houthi’s missile capabilities.

The Saudi Arabian anti-missile defense: Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates used American-made Patriot missile interceptors to shoot down missiles and rockets fired by Houthi rebels from Yemen. The Patriot is defense system, which has components made by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.

The Saudis claim to have intercepted around 40 percent of the missiles fired across their border, though the number is impossible to verify.

In 2015, the State Department cleared Saudi Arabia to buy 600, advanced PAC-3 interceptors, which are made by Lockheed Martin.


Since March 2015, a Saudi-led Arab coalition has fought against the Iran-backed Shia Houthis and their allies in support of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi's government. Operation "Decisive Storm" was the only option to prevent Houthi-Saleh alliance backed by Iran from occupying Yemen and turning it into a large regional war front between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia achieved this goal, but the war is not over.

The coalition fighting to restore the internationally-recognized government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi accuses Iran of supplying Al Houthis with weapons. Accusations that have been denied by Iran.

The war in Yemen and the competition over control of the Bab El Mandab Straits and the Red Sea maritime route are part of the regional conflict between Iran and its allies and Saudi Arabia, and Egypt led moderate Arab Sunni coalition.

By firing Scud, Burkan-1, Zelzal 2 and Zelzal 3 missiles against civilian and military targets in Saudi Arabia, the Houthis try to change the military balance of the war in Yemen and to create a new balance of deterrence with the Saudi Arabian-led coalition.

Pro-Houthi media reports claimed that the Houthis had displayed new, “locally-designed” Burkan-1 and Zelzal 2 and 3 missiles. The building of such weapons in Yemen requires advanced technology which Houthis and their ally, ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, do not possess and the missiles are likely to be locally produced with Iranian support or Iranian imports.

On April 14, 2015, UN Security Council Resolution 2216 lent international blockade on Yemen, calling for member states to "take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply of arms to these actors." The supply of Zelzal 2 and 3 missiles by Iran to the Houthi rebels is a clear violation of the UN resolution.

The Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents will continue their efforts to achieve strategic balance through the deployment of ballistic missiles. The use of missiles against targets in Saudi Arabia should be considered clearly as an escalation in the war and requires a new strategy of the Saudi-led coalition and the international community to respond the new challenge.


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