Construction Of A Large Runway Suddenly Appears On Highly Strategic Island In The Red Sea

Satellite imagery shows that, earlier this year, construction began on a new, approximately 6,150-foot-long runway on Perim, an island right in the middle of the highly strategic Bab Al Mandeb Strait, which links the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In addition to its location inside this critical maritime junction, which is an important route for both naval and commercial ships, Perim is situated less than five miles off the coast of Yemen, making it a valuable potential staging area for military operations in that country, possibly against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, as well as elsewhere in the region.

Images from Planet Labs that The War Zone reviewed show that construction of the airstrip, which is around 165 feet wide, on the northwest portion of Perim, also known as Mayyun, only began sometime between Feb. 18 and Feb. 22, 2021. The full outline of the runway, with a turnout at the western end, was visible by March 3.

A satellite image showing Perim island in the Bab Al Mandeb Strait as of March 9, 2021. The new runway is plainly visible in the northwest portion of the island., PHOTO © 2021 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION / Google Earth
Another shot of Perim as of Feb. 2, 2021., PHOTO © 2021 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION / Google Earth

Available imagery also shows that two new small hangar-like structures appeared on a concrete pad to the south of this runway work sometime after Feb. 24. That paved area is part of an apron left over from a separate, now-dormant project that began in 2016 and that was working toward the establishment of an air base with a nearly 10,000-feet-long runway. 

There has been no active work on this larger facility since 2017. It’s not entirely clear what happened, but Perim, a remnant of an ancient volcano, has an unforgiving climate that has frustrated attempts to build military outposts on it for centuries.

There is activity at this older site, beyond the construction of the two structures, but it appears to be linked to the new runway. An additional image of the island, dated March 8, that The Intel Lab, an independent intelligence analysis group, obtained from Airbus, seen in the video below, strongly suggests that workers are using this older, half-built site as a dumping ground for earth and stone is being removed as part of the construction of the new runway.

That image also shows that the two structures each have what appear to be three generators and that a high wall that shields them on three sides. To the south of those buildings, “a protected position is in the making, comprising two high walls and fresh asphalt,” according to The Intel Lab. “This uphill location could be reserved for a future AD [air defense] system or EW/SIGINT [electronic warfare/signals intelligence] hardware.” Some type of general air and/or surface search radar could be another possibility.

As to who is carrying out any of this work and what their ultimate goal is, it’s unclear, but the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as Saudi Arabia, are distinct possibilities. There has already been significant discussion about this construction being linked to the UAE. This follows earlier satellite imagery that The Associated Press obtained indicating that the Emiratis had dismantled many, if not all of their facilities at Assab in the East African country of Eritrea on the other side of the Bab Al Mandeb Strait sometime between January and February of this year.

The UAE had begun expanding airfield and port facilities in Assab just months after it, as part of a Saudi Arabian-led coalition, had intervened in Yemen to push back Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. That Eritrean base became an important hub for the UAE’s contribution to that campaign, including as a forward base to launch airstrikes against the Houthis and as a point through which to funnel various forces, including Sudanese troops and foreign mercenaries, onto the Arabian Peninsula.

It is certainly possible that some of the UAE forces that had been based at Assab have now moved to Perim. The Intel Lab suggests that the two-new structures could house a small UAE contingent, with at least some of that space serving as a headquarters of some kind. In addition, the runway being built now would definitely be long enough to support tactical airlift aircraft, such as C-130s, as well as the UAE’s Boeing C-17A Globemaster III airlifters, among other types.

A UAE Air Force C-17A Globemaster III cargo plane., Boeing

Perim had been under UAE control since 2015, when its forces, together with local tribal militiamen, had ejected the Houthis. The UAE had started the first abortive air base project and had also reportedly operated a secret prison on the island. 

However, in 2019, the UAE had removed itself from the Saudi-led coalition and officially ended operations against the Houthis, though it continued to work with the U.S. military to combat other terrorist groups in Yemen. Saudi troops, together with elements of the official Yemeni Coast Guard, part of the internationally-recognized, pro-Saudi government of the country, subsequently arrived on the island to take over operations there, according to Reuters. There are no reports that the Saudis or the Yemenis have subsequently withdrawn or that the Houthis, or even their Iranian benefactors, have made any effort to return.

In addition, The Associated Press reported that the dismantling of facilities at Assab had been accompanied by online flight tracking software showing numerous flights by an Antonov An-124 cargo plane belonging to Maximus Air, a Ukrainian-Emirati enterprise, between that base and Al Ain in the UAE. This would seem to suggest that at least some portion of the personnel and assets that had been in Eritrea had returned home, rather than redeployed in the region.

None of this, of course, precludes the UAE from having also sent a contingent back to Perim. If this latest construction project is ultimately completed, unlike the last attempt to establish an air base on the island, it will likely become more apparent who is using these new facilities. 

Whoever is behind the construction work could be looking forward to establishing an extremely strategic outpost in this already critical maritime passage. With respect just to the Houthis, an airfield on the island could serve as an important hub for operations in and around Yemen, including counter-smuggling, maritime patrol, and even anti-submarine operations, among others. Last year, interestingly, the U.S. government approved the possible sale of MQ-9B drones with maritime surveillance and anti-submarine capabilities, among other items, to the UAE. 

The Iranian-backed rebels routinely employ mines and remote-operated explosive-laden boats to carry out attacks in this general area against both warships and commercial vessels. Iran itself is known to operate a modified cargo ship capable of acting as a covert operations mothership, which could support various kinds of malign activities, including waterborne and other kinds of attacks, in this region, as well.

More robust facilities on Perim would also offer a location detached from the mainland from which to carry out various kinds of broader intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, including aerial ISR, using manned or unmanned aircraft. Sufficiently expanded, it could also be a valuable launch point for airstrikes, either using combat jets or drones, across the region. 

The air base could be coupled with additions to the docks on the southern part of Perim, which, in turn, might enable at least limited naval operations. As already noted, the Yemeni Coast Guard is among the forces that are reportedly making use of the island already.

A satellite image of some of the existing docks on Perim as of 2019. Two gray-color boats, which might be Yemeni Coast Guard patrol craft, are seen moored together at one of the docks., Google Earth

Beyond the immediate conflict in Yemen, where Perim is situated, the straight is less than 20 miles across. Basing various kinds of anti-access and area denial assets on the island, such as surface-to-air missiles or anti-ship cruise missiles, would give whoever controls them immense leverage in the region. An outpost here could also serve as a base from which to help ensure the safe passage of friendly ships, protecting them from the Houthis or any other threats.

At the same time, if the UAE, or the Saudis, are looking to establish an outpost on this island, it would be well within the range of Houthi ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as suicide drones. The Iranian-backed group has been stepping up its missile and drone strikes on Saudi Arabia proper in recent months, including a massive operation just this past weekend that reportedly involved the launch of eight ballistic missiles and 14 unmanned aircraft against targets in four Saudi cities. This was the largest such strikes on the Kingdom since an unprecedented barrage of missiles and drones in September 2019. With this in mind, it’s hard to see how the rebels would not devote significant resources to striking at a target as important as an air base operated by either the UAE or Saudi Arabia on Perim.

Whatever the exact details are regarding the construction on Perim, someone is working to build a new airstrip and is already establishing other associated facilities on what is one of the most strategically significant islands on the planet.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.