Last Wednesday, a drone launched from Yemen by the Iran-allied Houthi's was shot down by a US military vessel sailing in the southern Red Sea.
“At approximately 11:00 a.m. Sanaa time,” the USS Carney, a Navy destroyer “shot down an Iranian-produced KAS-04 unmanned aerial vehicle launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen,” the US Central Command (CENTCOM) stated.
Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct.7, Yemen’s Houthis have launched several drone and missile attacks on Israel. “The Yemeni armed forces will continue their military operations until the end of the Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank,” threatened Yahya Sarea, spokesman of the Houthis’ military wing on Nov. 22.
What we know about the drones
Houthi forces have been using a heavier version of the Samad long-range suicide drone, said Fabien Hinz, an expert focused on missile proliferation in the Middle East.
“Some parts of the Samad are manufactured in Yemen, but most are smuggled out of Iran. The Houthis also have the Shahed drone, which is supplied by Tehran and is capable of reaching Israel. But we don’t know whether it has been used,” he added.
The Houthis have used suicide drones against Israel to cover the 1,600 km distance between the two countries. “These drones are not equipped with communication satellites that allow them to send data to the operator. The Houthis therefore use them essentially as cruise missiles,” Hinz explained.
The distance the drones must travel to reach Israel complicates things. The US Navy shot down several drones over the Red Sea on Nov. 23, and another on Nov. 15. They also intercepted missiles and drones on Oct. 19. Israel has also intercepted its own set of drones.
“These drones can be shot down and they are quite slow. That’s what the Ukrainians are doing against Russian attacks with drones identical or similar to those launched by the Houthis. Shooting them down becomes more difficult when borders are extended and there are vast areas to monitor. The small size of Israeli territory is an advantage [for Israel],” said Hinz.
“It is therefore easier for it to protect its airspace and detect drones (...) While the Houthis’ arsenal is effective, sophisticated and precise, with a few exceptions, it is facing Israel, which has one of the most developed defense systems in the world,” he explained.
Unlike Hezbollah and Hamas, the Houthis are less secretive about their arsenal, which they have displayed during military parades. The group’s arsenal has diversified and developed since 2014, and now includes ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as “unmanned aerial vehicles carrying explosives,” according to the latest report of the panel of experts on Yemen, which was submitted to the United Nations Security Council in February.
“Thanks to Iran, the Houthis’ arsenal has become substantial. Some of their cruise missiles can even reach Israel,” Hinz noted.
The group has had to smuggle such weapons into Yemen.
“It [arsenal] can pass through the Red Sea or Oman without [Yemeni] authorities knowing about it. There is some speculation that these weapons are also arriving by sea at the Houthi ports without the cargo having been properly inspected beforehand,” Hinz said. “As far as the Shahed-136 drones are concerned, we know that some of them are sent by air.”
Faced with the war in Gaza, the resistance axis, made up of Iran and its allies, has “had to act while maintaining Iran’s military strategy, which is based on grey zones, without triggering an open war,” Hinz said. A full-scale war isn’t in the interests of Iran or Hezbollah, he stressed.
“Yemen therefore allows them [Iran and its allies] to launch attacks, but the risk for Iran is low.”
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.