For the second time in as many weeks, the Houthis in Yemen claim they have successfully challenged aircraft belonging to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in the skies over the country, saying they drove off a pair of F-16E/F Viper fighter jets belonging to the United Arab Emirates with surface-to-air missiles.
Though its difficult to confirm any reports coming out of Yemen, it seems that the rebel group is increasingly capable of engaging its aerial opponents, amid reports that it may be receiving additional support for its air defense forces from Iran.
On March 27, 2018, the Houthis released a video showing the operation through social media and other outlets, including via Yemen's Al Masirah television network, which the group controls. The clip shows a unknown type of missile speeding into the night's sky, followed by footage of at least one F-16 that the rebels shot with a FLIR Systems infrared camera. The insurgents have used this equipment, an American-made system that they likely captured or otherwise obtained from former Yemeni government elements, to film attacks on aircraft in the past.
Unlike in past incidents, the Houthis have not claimed that they actually shot any UAE F-16s down, but imply that they were able to prevent them from completing their missions. It is not clear from the footage whether or not this was the case or if any missiles scored hits.
In one instance a missile appears to narrowly miss its intended target. There is a debris cloud visible at one point in the clip, which could indicate some level of damage to a Viper, but may also be the remnants of one or more of the decoy flares the aircraft fired off during the engagement or of a missile that detonated by accident.
We also don't know what type of missiles the Houthis employed in this case. Evidence suggests the group has a mix of purpose built and locally modified systems, including various air-to-air missiles they captured from government stockpiles and turned into surface-to-air weapons.
On March 21, 2018, the group did reportedly fire a modified Russian-made R-27 air-to-air missile at a Saudi F-15 Eagle, possibly causing some level of damage. Saudi Arabian authorities later said that the aircraft had been able to finish its mission and safely return to base.
The bigger concern, however, is that the rebels may be in the process of obtaining radar-guided surface-to-air missiles from Iran or have done so already. Following a Houthi ballistic missile attack on Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh on March 26, 2018, that country's government displayed captured weapons and remnants thereof, as well as other intelligence imagery and information about apparent Iranian arms shipments to the group.
This presentation included claims that Iran had supplied a number of Sayyad-2 surface-to-air missiles, an extended range derivative of the semi-active radar-homing American RIM-66 Standard Missile, to the Yemeni insurgents. The Saudis also said they had a destroyed a Sayyad-2 launcher situated near the main airport in Yemen's capital Sana'a.
If confirmed, this would represent a major increase in Houthi air defense capabilities, offering better range and precision over existing jury-rigged air-to-air missiles, obsolete Soviet-era systems, and short-range man-portable types. However, the imagery Saudi Arabia said one of its unmanned aircraft had captured of the launch position showed what actually appeared to be one of the Houthi's Badr-1 truck-mounted unguided artillery rocket systems, though there is the possibility the rebels adapted this vehicle to fire the new missiles.
The pictures of the missiles themselves that the Saudis showed were from official Iranian releases.
But whether or not there are Sayyad-2s in Yemen in any numbers, there is growing evidence that Iran is assisting the Houthis with the development of various types of missiles, including short-range ballistic missiles, and other more advanced weaponry.
Iranian help may be tied to the group's ability to employ anti-ship missiles, remote-controlled suicide boats, and kamikaze drones that can target air defense systems. Above all else, their ability to consistently deploy ever more capable ballistic missiles is blamed on Iranian support. Former Yemeni military personnel, who have at times allied themselves with the Houthis as a matter of convenience, could also be aiding in fabricating these weapons.
And regardless of how successful the Houthis actually were in their attempt to shoot down the UAE's F-16s in this instance, it shows that they remained determined to fight back against the Saudi-led coalition's overwhelming air superiority. It seems that the countries involved in the aerial campaign will increasingly have to take these threats into account.
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