Houthi Drone Strikes: Transit from a Stalemate to Momentary Conflagration?

By Sameer Mallya, Senior Analyst, GRID91

By Sameer Mallya
Senior Analyst, GRID91

Image Attribute: The file photo shows the aftermath of a Yemeni drone strike against the command center of Saudi-led forces in Yemen’s western coastal city of Hudaydah on September 11, 2018. / Source: Media Bureau of Yemen’s Operations Command Center/Press TV

Image Attribute: The file photo shows the aftermath of a Yemeni drone strike against the command center of Saudi-led forces in Yemen’s western coastal city of Hudaydah on September 11, 2018. / Source: Media Bureau of Yemen’s Operations Command Center/Press TV

Current Situation


Saudi Press Agency, on May 14 confirmed a Houthi armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) attack on an oil pumping stations belonging to Saudi ARAMCO in Dawadmi and Afif Governorate in Riyadh region. The attack was reportedly carried out during the early morning hours resulting in limited damages to the installations which were reportedly contained. Official Houthi channels announced the use of at least seven UAV’s of unspecified type in the attack. The pipeline in question was running from the oil-rich Eastern Province to the Yanbu port along the Red Sea coast.

Territorial control of Pro-Houthi and Anti-Houthi forces in Yemen


Significance of the Event


Low Frequency of Attacks and Rarity of Acknowledgement by Saudi authorities. The latest attacks on Saudi oil installations in Afif and al Dawadmi in Riyadh region remain highly notable given the rarity of such incidents. Moreover, there has been a marked discord between the Houthi claimed attacks inside Saudi Arabia and reciprocal confirmation by the KSA authorities in the preceding years. The latest confirmation on the event by the Saudi authorities only bolsters the Houthi claim of attack. In this context, the last acknowledged attack by the Saudi government was that of a Houthi ballistic missile attack targeting Riyadh airport in March 2018. The attack was reportedly foiled by the Saudi Air Defence system. Furthermore, in July 2018, Houthi militia linked media claimed a similar UAV attack targeting Saudi ARAMCO linked refinery in Riyadh. However, the state-owned oil enterprise issued a vaguely worded statement acknowledging a fire in the installations but attributed the same to an unspecified ‘operational glitch’. Moreover, the majority of the Houthi claims (which remain unverified) involve attacks targeting oil infrastructure and other strategic military and civilian installations have been stipulated along the Saudi-Yemen border region. 


An uptick in operational capabilities of the Houthis?



Image Attribute: Iranian Shahed 129 UCAV (first generation) at an IRGC-ASF arms expo 2014 / Source: FARS News Agency (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License)

Image Attribute: Iranian Shahed 129 UCAV (first generation) at an IRGC-ASF arms expo 2014 / Source: FARS News Agency (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License)

While instances involving Houthi UAV missions inside Saudi Arabia have noticed an uptick with the latest and most notable being a successful surveillance mission of a water desalination plant in al Shuqaiq region along the Red Sea as highlighted by the group on March 16. The Houthi UAV’s have also witnessed actions along the wider frontline in Yemen, with some successful attacks targeting senior Yemeni military officials. Furthermore, given precedence, majority of ballistic missiles and armed Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) attacks inside Saudi Arabia originate from northern Yemen, especially along the Houthi held areas of the Saada governorate. However, attacks in central areas like Riyadh have been relatively rare as compared to those along the border region. This can primarily be attributed to the state of the art Air Defence network deployed by the Saudi security forces in and around critical installations, including Riyadh airport. The successful interception of a salvo of ballistic missiles fired by the Houthi militias in Riyadh on March 2018 is a case in point.

In the case of the May 14 attack, apart from the low frequency of attacks, the distance from the nearest Houthi held area to the target location (over 1000 km) coupled with the timings (near simultaneously launched attacks), indicating a notable surge in the Houthi UAV capabilities. Official Houthi sources confirmed the use of seven UAV’s for the attack on the Aramco pumping station indicating a ‘swarm attack’. While swarming tactics are known to be a potential threat with the increased use of UAV’s especially in combat zones, this attack remains one of the first confirmed usages against a commercial installation. 

While the majority of the UAV fleet with the rebel forces are known to be Iranian origin either adapted technology, involving improvisation to the existing surveillance and reconnaissance platforms retrofitted with explosive ordinance but with limited range. Moreover, given the extended range and limited damage, the possibility of deployment of an improvised explosive ordinance on the UAV remains likely. While the details of the platform used in the latest attack remains unannounced at the time of writing, given the existing Houthi UAV arsenal, it remains likely that a modified version of the Iranian Shahed 129 or the Sammad 3 drone which is suspected to have derived from the Iranian platform and also allegedly used to target the Dubai airport in August 2018 could have been potentially used in the attack.  

A predictable Trend or an Anomaly?

   
The timing and choice of the target also remain a notable phenomenon as it follows an alleged sabotage incident involving two Saudi crude carriers in the critical Fujairah port in UAE on May 12. Preliminary reports on the incidents point towards an alleged Iranian involvement. The issue also remains highly critical especially in the backdrop of the ongoing tensions in the region between the US and Iran which has led to the latest deployment of a carrier-based strike force in the Persian Gulf by the US navy alongside cyclical deployment of bombers in the region. This is likely aimed at deterring Iran from resuming its nuclear program as well as supporting non-state actors, including Houthis, threatening the interests of the US and its allies in the region. The recency of the incident is thus expected to significantly jack up the pressure in the region, especially given the significance of the target and its potential impact on global oil prices. While the latest attack targeting the ARAMCO installation has been perpetrated by the Houthis, given the alleged backing by Iran, it remains likely that the Tehran regime will be accused of its tacit involvement in the current incident. 

What to expect?


  • The strike distance, irrespective of the extent of damage, coupled with the continued display of capabilities highlights the persistent threat emanating from the Houthi UAV forces to Saudi critical installations in the region.
  • The operational and economic feasibility, as well as the effectiveness of the platform, may result in a surge in UAV strikes by the Houthis inside Saudi territory. Increased use of the swarm tactics alongside other battlefield modifications and ordinance may be witnessed.
  • Attacks like these are expected to be used to alleviate the pressure on the Houthi held frontlines in Yemen.
  • Given precedence of similar incidents, while attacks on Saudi mainland targets, including those on Riyadh, are likely to continue intermittently, the majority of attacks remains likely to be recorded in Saudi Arabia’s Jazan and Najran governorates, along the Saudi- Yemen border.
  • Concerted attacks against Saudi oil infrastructure as well as shipping by Iran- either alleged or actual, is expected to fuel the ongoing standoff between the US and Iran.


About the Author:

Sameer Mallya (ORCID ID: 0000-0003-4413-840X) is a senior analyst at GRID91, a security risk management company. He works on geopolitical and security issues concerning the Middle East and parts of North Africa (MENA). His academic areas of interest are international relations, geostrategic military developments, and analyzing trends in terrorism and counter-terrorism in MENA and South Asia.

Cite this Article:

Mallya, S., "Houthi Drone Strikes: Transit from a Stalemate to Momentary Conflagration?", IndraStra Global Vol. 005, Issue No: 05 (2019), 0054, https://www.indrastra.com/2019/05/Houthi-Drone-Strikes-Transit-from-Stalemate-to-Momentary-Conflagration-005-05-2019-0054.html | ISSN 2381-3652

Mallya, S., "Houthi Drone Strikes: Transit from a Stalemate to Momentary Conflagration?", IndraStra Global Vol. 005, Issue No: 05 (2019), 0054, https://www.indrastra.com/2019/05/Houthi-Drone-Strikes-Transit-from-Stalemate-to-Momentary-Conflagration-005-05-2019-0054.html | ISSN 2381-3652

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.
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IndraStra Global: Houthi Drone Strikes: Transit from a Stalemate to Momentary Conflagration?
Houthi Drone Strikes: Transit from a Stalemate to Momentary Conflagration?
By Sameer Mallya, Senior Analyst, GRID91
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