The Houthis have emerged as a significant obstacle to shipping in the Red Sea. A factor contributing to the escalation is the Houthi threat of launching missile assaults against vessels in the Red Sea. The substantially enhanced offensive capacities of the Houthi group are predominantly accountable for the recent escalation in hostilities in the southern Red Sea.
An Overview of Confrontation’s Past
Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, was besieged in 2015 by militants affiliated with the “Ansar Allah” movement, colloquially referred to as the Houthis (after their 2004-deceased commander Hussein al-Houthi). The movement successfully seized authority over a substantial portion of the nation, thwarted an invasion and airstrikes orchestrated by a coalition of states headed by Saudi Arabia, and actively backed the Palestinian HAMAS in its opposition to the United States and Israel.
The Houthi movement initially received support only from Iran. Their ability to withstand the strikes of the Arab coalition and the potential to inflict painful blows on Saudi Arabian targets were linked to Iranian military assistance. These strikes were carried out using both drones and relatively modern missiles, including ballistic and guided missiles.
At first, the Houthi movement was bolstered exclusively by Iran. The capacity to endure the assaults of the Arab coalition and the capability to cause significant damage to Saudi Arabian targets were intricately linked to military support from Iran. A combination of drones and relatively contemporary missiles, such as ballistic and guided missiles, were used in these attacks.
The Houthis began endangering Israeli maritime vessels in the Red Sea in November 2023, with their threats later expanding to include vessels from other nations. The group can potentially exert control over all maritime traffic along the route connecting the Suez Canal with the coasts of Africa, the Persian Gulf, and Asia. This route is particularly advantageous from Europe due to its minimum length.
As per reports from Western media outlets, the Houthis have reportedly launched over twenty assaults against commercial vessels in international waters since November 19, 2023. They claim to target vessels associated in some way with Israel exclusively. They continue using guided and ballistic missiles and drones to attack maritime targets. In addition, they have launched a variety of missiles in the direction of the southern Israeli city of Eilat. Although these projectiles were thwarted, such assaults serve as a stark reminder of the Houthi’s formidable missile prowess.
As of December 3, a destroyer of the American Arleigh Burke-class activated its missile defence system in response to the approach of two Houthi drones. This action subsequently assisted commercial vessels that ballistic missiles had targeted. Finally, the US and British ships and aircraft initiated attacks against Houthi missile capabilities on January 12 of this year. The situation in the vicinity of Yemen has attained an unprecedented degree of escalation.
What weapons do Hussein al-Houthi’s adherents carry? The expansion of the Houthi missile arsenal has been substantial in recent years. It comprises cruise and ballistic missiles of diverse iterations, predominantly sourced from Iran. The Houthis have undeniably refurbished certain antiquated Soviet-origin missile systems with the support of Iran. Considering that Houthi-controlled Yemen is Iran’s most steadfast ally in the twenty-first century, this is comprehensible.
Some of the anti-ship missiles that the Houthis currently possess were manufactured in the Soviet Union. They seized control of Yemen’s stockpile in the middle of the 2010s, including Soviet anti-ship missiles such as the 80-kilometre-range P-15M “Termit” and their Chinese equivalents, the C-801. While these systems were occasionally displayed in parades, they have probably been replaced by Iranian anti-ship missiles that are more advanced than their Chinese counterparts and have a range of 200 or 300 kilometres. The Iranian Ghader and Ghadir missiles, which are reportedly in the Houthis’ possession as well, possess the potential to impede commercial shipping in the Red Sea utterly.
Although anti-ship cruise missiles pose a risk, they can be technically intercepted by a variety of modern ship-based air defence systems, as seen in the Russia – Ukraine war. Confronting ballistic missiles, particularly those that are equipped with self-guidance systems, a capability that the Houthis have exhibited, becomes considerably more arduous.
Ballistic missiles such as the Asef and Tankil, which have a range of 450–500 kilometres, are regionalised iterations of the Iranian Fateh 313 and Zohayr missiles. These ballistic missiles can focus on mobile objects with high thermal contrast, such as ships, with infrared navigational self-guidance systems. When considering their descent velocity and a warhead mass of approximately 300 kg, these missiles can incapacitate or even sink virtually any commercial vessel upon a successful impact. The opposition to these missiles presents a more formidable obstacle in the form of their velocity and trajectory in contrast to cruise missiles.
Mohit is an infrared homing guidance system-equipped adaptation of the obsolete Soviet S-75 air defence missile system repurposed for ground targets. Numerous of these systems were bequeathed to the Houthis by the Yemeni army’s inventories. Iranian technologies, such as the Iranian self-guidance system, were evidently involved in the adaptation. Although doubts may be cast regarding these missiles’ efficacy, they constitute a lethal instrument that can be used in combat against vessels.
The Houthis have a collection of long-range liquid-fueled missiles with Iranian and North Korean origins. These missiles, which appear to be interceptable by Israel’s current Arrow anti-missile defence system, continue to constitute a significant threat, particularly with extended ranges of several thousand kilometres. The Houthis’ arsenal of such rockets is presumably limited. Furthermore, these systems require significant time to prepare for launch, allowing the international coalition’s aircraft to find and destroy the launch pads.
Finally, the Houthis have long-range cruise missiles based on Iranian missiles, which are recreated versions of Soviet air-launched missiles, especially the Kh-55. Iran obtained these missiles in the 1990s and 2000s, most likely from Ukraine. Such missiles can range almost 2,000 kilometres, and their primary targets could be stationary objects in Israel. While they have been intercepted thus far, given the right circumstances, the Houthis’ missile arsenal might disrupt commercial shipping in the Red Sea, cutting off the shortest route from Europe to Southeast Asia.