By Eleanor Beevor
Yemen’s Houthi rebels have been using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, for some time. But this week marks the first occasion that they appeared to use drones to launch bombing attacks against Saudi and Emirati coalition troops.
Moreover, video footage of the attack suggests that the Houthis have a new type of UAV in their arsenal, or at least one that has not been documented before. This presents serious questions about the development of their arms supplies, just as the war in Yemen is taking a decisive turn.
Footage of a Houthi drone dropping grenade-sized munitions, allegedly on Emirati/Saudi-led Coalition forces around 45 kilometers south of Hodeida, #Yemen: 14.341269, 43.033236 (geolocation h/t @AllWilbert). The video doesn't show the moment of impact. H/t @YemeniObserv for video. pic.twitter.com/FgvIuJrejt— Christiaan Triebert (@trbrtc) July 2, 2018
Saudi and Emirati coalition forces are now concentrated around Hodeidah Port, ready for a game-changing but deadly operation to retake the port city from the Houthis. Whoever ends up with control of Hodeidah will have the upper hand in the conflict, and in determining the future of the country.
At the same time, fearing a further dreadful loss of life, the United Nations has been trying to broker a ceasefire, and is offering to administrate the port as an independent entity. A nominal ceasefire is in place over the port for now. But with the fate of Hodeidah up for grabs, the stakes are higher than ever.
Yemeni forces loyal to internationally recognized President Abdrullah Mansour Hadi, and their allies in the Saudi-led coalition, are now trying to push the Houthis outside of Hodeidah, and back away from the port. But the Houthis, and their allies loyal to the ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, are clearly not ready to give up. And outside of the ceasefire zone, both sides are embracing lethal new tactics.
The Houthis’ use of drones so far has been primarily as surveillance tools. However, they also found a novel way to use them offensively. They deployed them in a “kamikaze” fashion, deliberately crashing the UAV into the guidance systems of the Saudis’ patriot missile structures. It was a crude use of UAV technology, but an effective one, and an innovative approach to asymmetric warfare.
The Houthis claim to have manufactured the Qasef-1 drone used for the “kamikaze” operations domestically. However, Conflict Armament Research (CAR), a UK based organization that monitors the arms trade and documents weapons in conflict zones, says it is unlikely that these UAVs were manufactured in Yemen. The Qasef-1 instead appears to be a variant of the Ababil UAVs produced by Iran, and so was likely manufactured there.
Yet on Tuesday 3rd July, around 50km south of Hodeidah, the official Houthi media site released a video which appeared to show a drone dropping bombs on Emirati troops below them, and striking their target. And on Thursday 5th July, there were further reports of a Houthi drone shelling the Saudi-Emirati coalition’s headquarters in Aden, in southern Yemen, before being shot down by coalition forces.
This signals that the Houthis are escalating their use of UAVs against the Saudi-led coalition, and may be embracing drone-based bombing raids as a new tactic. The question is whether they have acquired new UAV technology, just as the battle for Yemen is reaching a turning point. Evidence is still scant, but the video that was released after the reported attack on Tuesday may provide some clues.
Al Bawaba consulted Tim Michetti, the Head of Regional Operations in the Middle East for Conflict Armament Research, about what this video revealed. He said that that the video indicates a previously unknown type of UAV:
“Upon reviewing the footage, CAR believes that the video is showing an airstrike from a fixed-wing UAV. It is possible that this is a new variant of UAV from those that we have previously documented in Yemen. The UAVs we've documented to date have either contained optics for surveillance and reconnaissance, or explosives. However, we've yet to inspect a UAV in Yemen that has contained both. That being said, I've recently heard reports and viewed photos of a new variant UAV not previously seen in Yemen.
That reported UAV shares a resemblance with the Qasef-1 UAV currently being operated by Houthi forces. One of the UAVs shown in the video is a Qasef-1, and the other much smaller one is a Skywalker used for surveillance. The new variant seems to have noticeable differences. Interestingly, the new variant is reportedly equipped with optics gear, so this could feasibly be the UAV that is shown dropping the bombs in the video. However, we have not had the opportunity to inspect one yet, so I'm unable to confirm if this new variant has the capability to conduct strikes with air-dropped munitions.”
There are still a great many questions that need answering around this potential new UAV. However, even if it does represent a technological upgrade for the Houthis, this is a matter of degree. The bombs they used against Emirati forces appear to be low-tech, unguided ones.
Nevertheless, on this occasion they struck their target. And although armed drones are unlikely to ultimately compensate for the Houthis’ inferior firepower in the long-term, the attack has implications for the duration of the conflict, and presents a serious risk to the Saudi-led coalition.
Dr. Andreas Krieg, an expert on defence and security in the Middle East at King’s College, London, told Al Bawaba:
“Armed drones give the Houthis a means to strike terror and fear into the coalition troops, who cannot protect themselves adequately against these strikes. The Houthis are unable to really destroy the coalition but they can undermine their willingness to fight and raise the stakes in the war, which might bring the coalition quicker to the negotiation table. It is a means to exercise pressure.”
And it is likely that UAVs will increasingly be a “weapon of the weak”, adopted by insurgents who can turn this relatively cheap technology against better equipped armies. Dr. Krieg continued:
“Unmanned technology will be a game changer for insurgents and violent non-state actors across the world. We see an increased use of drone technology by insurgents against state actors who have few means available to them to defend themselves. Similar to the AK-47, drones have become cheap to buy, easily to procure and easily to use weapons of choice for non-state actors to engage state actors who might be militarily superior at first sight.
In the context of Mosul, ISIS' use of drones has not helped them to win the fight, but it has helped them to delay the progress of the coalition. Most importantly, it undermines morale of those attacked by drone strikes, which is one of the means insurgents use to win against militarily superior enemies.”
Whether this is a big or a small step in the Houthis’ own arms race remains to be seen. But if this does indeed prove to be a new UAV, with both surveillance and munitions capacities, it illustrates the rapid evolution of unmanned weapons systems. It also shows once again the extraordinary reach of the arms trade, which continues to access places inaccessible to so much else.
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