The USV Threat in the Red Sea

According to US assessments, the January 31 Houthi attack on a Saudi frigate was carried out by an unmanned, remote-controlled vessel. If this is true, then the Red Sea arena is facing a new threat with significant implications

The USV Threat in the Red Sea

A Saudi frigate has come under a terrorist attack on January 31, 2017, while it was on patrol in the Red Sea, west of Yemen’s Hodeida port. Houthi boat collided with the rear of the Saudi warship, resulting in the explosion of the boat and a fire at the rear of the ship. The crew was able to extinguish the fire but two members of the ship’s crew were killed in the attack while three others were injured. The Saudi frigate presumed military mission, enforcing a blockade on the nearby Houthi-controlled port of Hodeida.

However, the Saudis and Iranian and Houthi media disagree on whether a missile or bomb-laden boat carried out the attack. Saudi Arabia claimed that three small boats approached the frigate. One got close enough to ram it, causing a large explosion. The others were "dealt with as necessary."

Iranian state media claimed the attack was carried out by Houthi militants in Yemen with a guided missile against a Saudi navy vessel. The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels official news channel, Al-Masira, contradicted the Saudi report, quoting a military source as saying the explosion was caused by a guided missile they fired.

The Houthi-run Saba news agency released a footage claiming to show the attack on the Saudi ship and a statement saying, “The targeted Saudi warship was taking part in the aggression against the Yemeni western coastal cities and fishermen."

Later, The US Navy determined the Houthi boat that attacked and hit the Saudi frigate, Al Madinah, was carried out by an unmanned, remote-controlled craft laden with explosives. The attack on the frigate appears to be the first confirmed use of remote-controlled boat in this type of mission. The unmanned boat was likely provided to the Houthi rebels by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces.

The Iranian Naval Forces

Iran has two independent naval forces with parallel chains of command. The conventional navy is called the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN). The second is the naval wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), named the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN). The two navies have overlapping functions and areas of responsibility, but they are distinct in terms of how they are trained and equipped – and more importantly also in how they fight.

Iran has reorganized its naval forces to give operational control of the strategic Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz to the naval component of the IRGC, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy.

IRGCN doctrine has been geared to asymmetrical warfare against the US or any other advanced naval power. Iran will combine swarming attacks of fast boats, mine laying operations and shore-launched missiles to try to damage or destroy as many US ships as possible. It seeks to harass and potentially cause enough casualties to compel a withdrawal from the Persian Gulf and northern Indian Ocean, where Iran seeks to be the predominant influence.

The IRGCN's Fast Boats

The IRGCN has concentrated on acquiring and developing small fast boats: patrol boats, commando boats, missile boats, torpedo boats and fast attack craft. Those developments have included at least one unmanned surface vessel (USV) – the "Ya Mahdi." Alleged to be based on a high-speed British hull, the unmanned fast boat has been in the Iranian inventory since 2010.

The "Ya Mahdi" Unmanned Surface Vessel

According to a 2015 US Army assessment on threats from unmanned craft, “utilizing suicide drones is an asymmetric strategy which both allows Iran to compete on an uneven playing field and poses a risk by allowing operators to pick and choose targets of opportunity.” The asymmetric advantage the Iranians have provided the Houthi’s have been instrumental in extending the conflict.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy's "Ya Mahdi" (a reference to Shia Islam's 12th Imam) USV was first publicly described in 2010 as a remotely controlled fast attack craft. During the Guard Corps' "The Great Prophet 5" exercise held that April in the Straits of Hormuz, IRGCN commander Ali Reza Tangsiri said, "since the boat has high speed, it is less detectable by radar." Some reports say that the vessel is based on the civilian Bladerunner 51 speedboat, of which manned variants serve with the IRGCN. The boat is reportedly capable of firing missiles (others say unguided rockets).

What was the Target of the Attack?

In October 2016, the Houthi militants successfully attacked a United Arab Emirates vessel with an anti-ship cruise missile in the waters off Yemen's western coast. Later in October, Houthi militants shot missiles at US ships, which the US intercepted. Former President Barack Obama launched cruise missile strikes on coastal radar sites in response.

American defense analysts said that after analyzing video footage of the attack, a voice could be heard shouting in Arabic: “Allahu akbar [God is great], death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews and victory for Islam.” They added that the attack against the Saudi frigate off the Yemen coast might have been intended for a US ship.

The United States has placed a Navy destroyer, the USS Cole, in the vicinity of the Bab al-Mandab Strait off southwestern Yemen to protect waterways from Houthi militia aligned with Iran, amid heightened tension between Washington and Tehran.

The attack against the Saudi vessel came on the background of the Saudi Arabian coalition's  operation "Golden Spear," aimed at liberating the Bab al-Mandab strait, all the west coast of Yemen, including the ports and entire Taiz province. For more than two weeks, government forces along with a number of military advisers from the Saudi-led Arab coalition have battled the Houthis and renegade army units loyal to ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Yemeni forces backed by the Saudi-led Arab Coalition freed the strategic Red Sea port city of Mocha in Yemen’s Taiz Governorate, from Iran-aligned Houthis on January 26, 2017. The liberation of Mocha was a primary target achieved by phase one of operation ‘Golden Spear’ and has facilitated moving to the operation’s next target, Hodeidah, the largest port in the area controlled by Iran-backed militants.

The command of the coalition asserted that the continuation of the Houthi militias" use of the port of Hodeida as a launching pad for terrorist operations is a serious development that would affect the international navigation and the flow of humanitarian and medical assistance into the port for Yemeni citizens."


The Bab al-Mandab Strait is a strategically vital maritime route connecting the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. This strait is vitally sensitive, not only to all countries bordering the Red Sea, but to the world trade as a whole. Warships operating in the Bab al-Mandab will be at risk until Yemen's coastline is secure. Operation "Golden Arrow" aimed at liberating the Bab al-Mandab Strait, all the west coast of Yemen, including the ports and entire Taiz province. The attack on the Saudi vessel should be considered as a part of the ongoing fighting between the coalition forces and the Iran-backed Houthis over the control of the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the west coast of Yemen.

Yemeni government increased military pressure on the rebel alliance to create fissures between the Houthi movement and the Saleh loyalists. Beyond tactical military gains, the operation appears intended to achieve the broader political goal of the resumption of negotiations. Already the Houthi-Saleh bloc agreed in November 2016, to negotiate on the basis of the UN roadmap. It seems that now the government and coalition are determined to try to break the military stalemate and bring them back to talks in a weaker position.

Saudi Arabian ships are high priority targets for the Houthi rebels, and they claimed responsibility for several attacks against Saudi Arabian ships, but the Saudis denied all the Houthi claims in the past.

If the attack has been intended for a US ship, then the attackers either believed the ship belonged to the US or were using the attack as a dry run for an attack on US ships.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps use small fast boats regularly in the Persian Gulf. If the US report is the correct one, then it was the first naval bombing conducted by an unmanned, remote-controlled craft filled with explosives.

The incident has wider implications. Iran's backing of the Houthi rebels necessarily raises comparisons between the Bab al-Mandab situation and the significant choke point in the Persian Gulf's Strait of Hormuz and Iran is watching how the Trump administration and the Saudi coalition respond to the incident.

Several US vessels are in the area in support of the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebels, and the US warships are well equipped and prepared for such attacks, but the Saudi coalition naval forces will have to find the technological and operational responses to the threat of suicide boats and anti – ship missiles.

Israel has to take in consideration that the Hezbollah in Lebanon may have similar Iranian-made unmanned, remote-controlled crafts filled with explosives, and can use them against the Israeli navy.

You might be interested also

Fire burns in an area near Sderot where rockets from Gaza were fired towards Israel and Israeli Iron Dome anti-missile system were fired as well near the Israel-Gaza border August 6, 2022. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Operation “Breaking Dawn”: Nearly 600 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip at Israel

 The IDF has launched an attack against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad on Friday, targeting its leaders and posts. PM Lapid: “Anyone who tries to harm Israel should know: we will find you”