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Missiles still fly over: How effective is Yemen air defense?

This post was published in Defence24. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.

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WARSAW, (BM) – The rocket attacks on July 13, which targeted petrochemical infrastructure in the Saudi town of Gizan on the Red Sea, highlight two facts. First, the war in Yemen is far from over, and the pro-Iranian and anti-Saudi Al-Husich movement has still not been pacified.

Second, these forces – fighting against the Riyadh-backed central government in Saana – are invariably able to attack with missile weapons, the use of which has significantly decreased recently.

The attack, one of the largest since the outbreak of the war, was carried out at night. The Saudis informed, but as always in such situations it is impossible to verify the truth of these words, about the interception by their defense of four rockets and six drones armed with explosives. According to Saudis, the launch was made from the Yemeni capital of Saana, located south of the target.

In turn, according to Al-Husichi, the attack was successful, and as a result of the raid, a number of military installations and energy infrastructure in the local industrial zone were destroyed. 60 km from the Yemeni border, the Saudi Aramco center, producing 400,000 barrels of oil a day.

It was added that military aircraft were also destroyed at airports near the cities of Abha, Jazan and Nejran. The spokesman of the movement mentioned that the target was also Riyadh, including the Ministry of Intelligence and Defense and the air base of King Salman.

It was another attack recently. On June 16, Saudis reported the interception of one ballistic missile that was to head towards Nejran (the southwestern part of Saudi Arabia, just off the border with Yemen), as well as a drone flying towards Asir Province (also near the border).

Then Riyadh announced that 313 rockets and 357 drones had been intercepted since the beginning of the campaign in 2015. On July 8, the media reported about the explosion of the rocket launched by Al-Hussi. It allegedly injured several civilians in the Yemeni city of Ma’rib.

The place was probably not accidental, because just the day before the local court began a trial of several commanders of Ansar Allah (Al-Hussite organization), accusing them, among other things, of complicity in overthrowing the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in 2015.

Resumption of fights after a break may surprise, but only seemingly. The temporary suspension was a result of the ceasefire, related, inter alia, to the SARS CoV-2 pandemic, as well as a certain weakening of Al-Hussi.

Already at the end of 2019, Ansar Allah lost some support as Iran plunged into financial problems and had to increase its involvement in Iraq and Lebanon, where social protests broke out.

In May this year, UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths informed the UN Security Council of “clear progress” in achieving a permanent ceasefire (the previous two-week ceasefire expired in April).

Evolution of the use of rockets

The use of ballistic missiles in this conflict is unprecedented – in no other case has so many been used, although there is no fully reliable and verifiable information that would make it possible to say exactly how many were used, how many were intercepted and how many hit the target, and what losses were induced.

Nevertheless, the American analytical center CSIS (Center for Strategic & International Studies) has prepared a report in which, based on available press releases, data similar to the facts are presented.

They report that by April 2020, i.e. the abovementioned ceasefire, Saudis were to shoot down at least 162 enemy rockets.

During the first phase, already discussed in the pages of Defense24, Ansar Allah relied on rockets acquired in Yemen. For example, in September 2015, a tactical Soviet 9K79 Toczka rocket system killed 60 coalition soldiers. In December of the same year, another Tochka killed 100 soldiers from Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

As CSIS notes, Ansar Allah then focused more on – in addition to attacking military targets – Saudi and Emirate industrial infrastructure, mainly energy.

The target was Dżizan, Nadżran, Abha and Khamis Mushayt. This was due to technological limitations, as Al-Husi then had short-range missiles at their disposal. In time, however, starting from September 2016, Burkan-1 rockets with a range of about 800 kilometers began to be used.

They were launched, among others, at the air force base in At-Ta’if and the base on the island of Zukar in the Red Sea. Eighty coalition soldiers lost their lives in the attack.

A new variant soon appeared, designated Burkan 2-H with a detachable warhead and a range of approximately 900 kilometers. According to CSIS, the first time this type was used was in July 2017.

These rockets extended the range of harassment by Ansar Allah, who began attacking the capital city of Riyadh and other locations, such as Jeddah in the western part of the country.

CSIS analysts recognize October 2016 as another breakthrough, when Ansar Allah once again increased its missile capabilities – the use of anti-ship missiles. A party to the conflict has become the US Navy.

Then it came to “the greatest militant use of anti-aircraft and missile defense systems in recent history.” Also then – in October 2016 – Ansar Allah damaged the HSV-2 transport catamaran. American warships also began to attack.

CSIS emphasizes that from mid-2018 the intensity of ballistic missile attacks of a larger range has decreased, which can be explained on the one hand by the quite effective actions of the Saudis. Second, Ansar Allah has run out of stocks and replenishing them is difficult.

Thus, it had to focus on the use of shorter-range artillery missiles and drones, which began to “attack military bases, coalition air defense, individuals, as well as civilian targets such as airports and energy infrastructure.”

The extraordinary precision of this weapon, as well as the limited capabilities of the Saudis, are testified by two attacks from 2019 – in January the drone killed several soldiers during the parade in the Yemeni Al-Anad base, and in August during the ceremony in Aden.

As for missile defense, CSIS gives completely different data than the coalition representative cited at the beginning. According to an American center, from March 2015 to April 2020, at least 162 Ansar Allah rockets were intercepted.

Four of the seven bloodiest attacks took place where it took missile defense. It is emphasized that the rocket war in Yemen has revealed the importance and usefulness of missile systems, but at the same time showed their weakness in combating smaller and lower flying objects, such as equipped with war drones.

These often go undetected as radar stations are capable of detecting fast-moving missiles at high altitudes.

Moreover, the advantage of drones – demonstrated in the Yemen war – is their ability to approach targets from any direction, which allows them to bypass radar surveillance sectors. Their effectiveness has been demonstrated with the successful attacks of Al-Hussie drones on the Patriot radars.

At the same time, it allows to support the thesis that drones are effective not only against large, stationary targets, such as refineries or military bases, but they can also precisely hit a smaller target, which is a radar station, which significantly reduces the enemy’s military potential in a given section of the theater of operations.

Destroying such a target is all the more valuable as its completion requires time and relatively large financial outlays.

The differences may result from several factors, both related to the information warfare (by both sides of the conflict) and objective ones.

As for the latter, the CSIS data mainly talks about interceptions of ballistic missiles, while it is known that the Saudi coalition’s aviation also intercepts unmanned aerial vehicles – and not necessarily with the use of Patriots and other air defense systems, such as F-15 fighters, led by AWACS machines.

It should also be remembered that Saudi Arabia was gradually modernizing its missile defense – PAC-3 CRI missiles, designed to hit ballistic targets with a direct hit (hit-to-kill), are available only recently, they were included in the arsenal of Saudi Patriots some time after the start of the operation .

On the American side there were signals that Patriot batteries were being allocated to Sentinel radars in the region to support them in combating low-flying targets.

On the other hand, the mere fact that Riyadh and other coalition states engage such expensive systems and that Husim still manages – at least in some cases – to launch effective attacks speaks volumes about the degree of threat and effectiveness of their systems, often much cheaper than equipment used for defense.

Summarizing the missile war in Yemen, CSIS concludes:

“Considering the complexity of the conflict in Yemen, it is difficult to clearly indicate the impact of a given weapon on the course of the war. Nevertheless, the frequent use of ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as other means of air attack, is a hallmark of this conflict, undoubtedly influencing the course of events.”

“From a military perspective, Al-Hussi’s use of longer-range ballistic missiles, such as the Burkan family, had limited benefits. Of the hundreds of rockets launched, only seven of them led to significant losses in the coalition ranks.”

“Rocket and drone attacks on Saudi economic targets also did not have a significant impact on the long-term and marked reduction in oil production capacity. They have not shaken the global market.”

“On the other hand, however, secondary benefits have been achieved. The attacks on Saudi Arabia tied up coalition aviation, which had to focus on the search for a launcher, so that the forces and means could not be used otherwise.”

“While the physical losses were minor, the attacks on targets in the heart of Saudi Arabia created consternation for Saudi authorities and raised the stakes in the search for a way out of the conflict. When the attacks on petrochemical infrastructure became more accurate over time, which increased the risk of large losses, Saudi Arabia had to more vigorously look for ways out of the crisis.”

Forecasts for the future

According to estimates, Ansar Allah rockets and drones have killed at least 400 Saudi Arabian coalition soldiers since 2015, but CSIS notes that the greatest losses were inflicted at the beginning of the conflict, when Al-Hussi still had 9K79.

The second reason identified for reducing the effectiveness of missile attacks was to improve the capabilities of the Saudi and Emirate anti-missile defense forces, which started to deal better with missiles than at the beginning, when they represented a new, previously unknown threat.

Over time, anti-ship missile attacks were also limited – these turned out to be ineffective, and then they simply ran out.

Moreover, the strengthening of the blockade has made it increasingly difficult for Iran, mired in internal problems, to transport ballistic missiles to Yemen, where their local production is also difficult.

Hence the recent increase in the use of drones – they are easier to produce, store and secretly fire, although the losses caused are small. Drones cannot change the tide of war.

While Saudi Arabia’s losses have not been large over the years, the recent attacks and the risk of an intensification of hostilities worries Riyadh (the millions of Yemenis whose fate no one cares, let alone).

On June 29, 2020, a press conference was held in Riyadh, at which the interception of boats near the Yemeni city of Mokka was announced. On its deck – according to the Saudi side – there were supposed to be weapons, including sniper rifles, as well as unspecified rockets.

The message was clear – it was a shipment of weapons from Iran to Yemeni guerrillas. This fact was used by the local government, supported by Saudi Arabia, to call on the international community to stop Iran and its activities.

It’s hard not to see the desperation – despite several years of operations in Yemen, almost unlimited funds, full air and sea dominance, frequent bombings, Ansar Allah still receives enough rockets from outside to continue its operations.

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