Monday 2 January 2023

A Maritime Menace: The Houthi Navy

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Yemen's Houthis have managed to build up a military arsenal that exceeds the capabilities of many larger nation states. In addition to operating a wide range of Iranian-designed loitering munitions and ballistic missiles, the Houthis also field a number of naval craft, water-borne improvised explosive devices (WBIEDs), anti-ship missiles (AShMs), naval mines and even anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs). And although the Houthi's Navy has scarcely received any attention over the years, it has definitely left its mark on the Yemeni War. Notable feats have included the destruction of the HSV-2 Swift by an AShM in 2016, a successful WBIED attack on the Saudi frigate Al Madinah in 2017, the sinking of an Emirati minelayer in 2017 and the damaging and capture of two Saudi landing craft in 2020 and 2022. [1]

These feats are arguably even more even impressive considering the Houthis inherited little of a navy to start out with. In the fight to secure the port city of Aden in 2015, most of the Yemeni Navy was destroyed, including all of its missile-toting vessels. What did survive were a number of smaller patrol craft, landing craft and Mi-14 and Ka-28 ASW helicopters. Their existence under Houthi ownership would be short-lived, as most of these were destroyed in air attacks during the 2015 Saudi Arabian–led intervention in Yemen. The Houthis were thus left with AShMs stored ashore (but no launchers) and a hodgepodge of small patrol ships. These, along with a number of domestically produced small craft and miscellaneous vessels, were to form the nucleus of the new Houthi Yemeni Navy. [2]

Already soon after the movement's 2015 takeover in Yemen, Iran sought to further strengthen the Houthis' naval capabilities to allow the Houthis (and by extension Iran) to interdict Coalition shipping off the Red Sea coast, providing additional AShMs and constructing truck-based launchers that could easily be hidden after a launch. Iran also anchored the Saviz intelligence vessel (masqueraded as a regular cargo vessel) off the coast of Eritrea, from where it provided the Houthis with intelligence and updates on Coalition ship movements. [3] The Saviz fulfilled this role until it was damaged in an Israeli limpet mine attack in April 2021, after which it was replaced by another vessel known as the Behshad. [4] [5] Like the Saviz, the Behshad is based on a cargo vessel in order to hide its true purpose.

Meanwhile in Yemen the Houthis (presumably with the aid of Iranian engineers) managed to convert a number of 10-meters long patrol craft donated to the Yemeni Coast Guard by the UAE in the early 2010s to WBIEDs. One of these was used to strike the Saudi frigate Al Madinah in 2017. Three more WBIED designs were constructed in the years since, comprising the Tawfan-1, Tawfan-2 and Tawfan-3. Some 15 types of naval mines also entered production. [6] These are meanwhile increasingly deployed in the Red Sea though have yet to attain any successes (against naval vessels). Arguably the most significant escalation in support came through the delivery of 120km-ranged Noor and 200km-ranged Qader AShMs, 300km-ranged Khalij Fars ASBMs and Fajr-4CL and ''Al-Bahr Al-Ahmar'' anti-ship rockets by Iran, whose unveiling during a 2022 Houthi parade marked a serious increase in capabilities. Representing some of Iran's most recent rocket and missile designs, they combine long range, low cost and high mobility with various types of guidance to make for a weapon well-suited to the Houthi Navy.

Iranian-made Khalij Fars ''Aasif'' anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) on parade in Saa'ana, September 2022.

Though the Houthis ASBM arsenal remains untested thus far, the Houthi Navy has already achieved a notable success using AShMs. On the 1st of October 2016, it managed to strike the UAE's Navy HSV-2 Swift hybrid catamaran with a single C-801/C-802 AShM fired from a shore battery. Although the vessel managed to stay afloat, the damage was so severe that it had to be decommissioned from service. The U.S. Navy subsequently dispatched two destroyers and an amphibious transport dock to the area to ensure that shipping in the area could continue unimpeded. These vessels were subsequently attacked using AShMs on three separate occasions as well, though without success. [7]

Though these attacks showcased that the Houthi's ability to threaten vessels in Yemen's surrounding seas is still limited, the threat posed by them has since evolved significantly. Now armed with several types of anti-ship ballistic missiles and rockets, which can be notoriously difficult to intercept and cover large areas, the next round of maritime clashes with the navies of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. could potentially see a whole different outcome. The Houthis have also hinted at using its extensive arsenal of loitering munitions against commercial shipping in the Red Sea, mirroring recent Iranian tactics in the Persian Gulf. [8] Even as the Yemeni conflict has all but vanished from international headlines, and is now generally considered stagnant, its dynamics continue to evolve as the Houthi's military capabilities grow. If underestimated, there may soon come a time when the lack of headlines or even the conflict's stagnancy are once more a thing of the past.

The HSV-2 Swift after being hit by a Houthi C-801/802 AShM in 2016.

The goal of this list is to comprehensively catalogue the Houthi's current inventory of naval craft, water-borne improvised explosive devices, anti-ship (ballistic) missiles and naval mines. Small, civilian water craft are not included in this list. The part within apostrophes refers to the designation given by Houthis to foreign-delivered equipment. A year in square brackets after the designation refers to its perceived date of inception in Yemen. The year is only added to armament delivered or produced after the Houthi takeover of Yemen in 2014/2015.

(Click on the equipment to get a picture of them in Houthi service)

Fast Attack Patrol Craft


Water-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (WBIEDs)

Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles And Rockets (ASBMs)

Anti-Ship Missile Systems (AShMs)

Naval Mines

Special thanks to Joshua Koontz.
[1] The minelayer was later raised and presumably repaired. 
[2] Which is known as the Yemeni Navy and Coastal Defence Forces. The maritime element of the the Saudi-backed government is known as the Yemeni Coast Guard (which also existed prior to the 2014/2015 Houthi takeover in Yemen.
[5] Iran replaces stricken Red Sea spy ship with new focus on oil tankers 
[6] Houthi Rebels Unveil Host of Weaponry, Compounding Drone and Missile Threat
[7] USS Mason Fired 3 Missiles to Defend From Yemen Cruise Missiles Attack
Recommended Articles: