At a July weapons exhibition in Yemen’s Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa, military officials whipped sheets off what they said were newly-developed drones and missiles.
The gesture revealed the slogan “Made in Yemen” spray-painted onto the weapons.
The moment was a celebration of sorts for Yemen’s Houthi fighters. Despite years of air strikes, the militia now boast drones and missiles able to reach deep into Saudi Arabia, the result of an armament campaign pursued and expanded since Yemen’s war began four years ago.
Whether or not the Iran-aligned group carried out Saturday’s crippling raid on a Saudi oil plant — as it asserts — its capabilities mean it can feasibly claim responsibility for the strike, a humiliating blow against its top adversary.
Much is still unclear about the attack: Some Western officials believe responsibility lies with Iranian-backed militias in Iraq or Iran.
What is certain is Houthi weapon capabilities have evolved rapidly in accuracy and distance, analysts, UN data and Houthi media indicate.
Their growing abilities exemplify the threat Iran’s other regional allies – be they in Iraq, Syria or Lebanon – pose to foes and the global powers seeking to contain them.
In an unverified Houthi video, a covert launch vehicle rises from the desert floor and fires missiles thousands of feet into a clear blue sky, before retracting into hiding.
“They are getting better on accuracy,” a Saudi-based security source said. “The message is: We are getting through and hitting the right locations.”
“As these technologies – long range drones or cruise missiles – spread, it adds to the distance of warfare. It also adds to deniability of the perpetrator,” said James Rogers, assistant professor in War Studies at University of Southern Denmark.
The Houthis’ growing military clout checked Saudi ambitions in Yemen. Riyadh leads a coalition that intervened in 2015 to restore the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which the Houthis ousted from power in Sanaa in 2014.
The Houthis built their arsenal using local manufacturing, foreign expertise and parts smuggled from ally Iran and elsewhere. They also took over large swathes of Yemen’s conventional military, including Scud missiles, when they seized the capital.
The Saudi-led coalition said in June the Houthis fired 226 ballistic missiles and 710 606 “projectiles” during the war.
This proliferation happened despite a years-long air and sea blockade on Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen and years of strikes the coalition say are against weapons depots, drone manufacturing locations and military communications hubs.
The Houthis’ reach is longer.
A new type of Houthi drone appeared in mid-2018 which the UN said can fly up to 1 500 km) – putting Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Dubai in range.
A 2018 study of Houthi’s military by Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the clearest example of direct Iranian help with advanced Houthi weaponry was the Burkan 2-H medium-range ballistic missile.
He said wreckage from 10 Burkan missiles suggested they were smuggled into Yemen in pieces and welded together by a single engineering team, whose “fingerprint non-factory welding technique” was found on all the missiles.
Iran denies arming the Houthis and says it played no part in Saturday’s strike, which raised already simmering tensions in the region between Tehran and its Gulf and US adversaries.
DRONES, MISSILES, ROCKETS
President Hassan Rouhani said the attacks were carried out by “Yemeni people” in response to the Yemen war.
The Houthis, who this year also hit smaller oil targets and airports in southern Saudi, said they carried out the Aramco strikes with unmanned aerial vehicles.
The UN says the Houthi arsenal now includes anti-ship cruise missiles, waterborne improvised explosive devices, ballistic and cruise missiles and rockets.
The group seized some of the Yemeni armed forces’ arsenal when it invaded Sanaa. None had the range seen today, said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East and Africa editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly.
Analysis of weapons captured or seen in Houthi images show a combination of home-grown designs, entire foreign items and components from outside to upgrade existing stock, a January 2018 UN panel of experts report said.
“They now increasingly rely on imports of high-value components, which are then integrated into locally assembled weapons systems, such as extended-range unmanned aerial vehicles,” the report said.
A Western diplomat said there were noticeable reductions in Houthi attacks after big coalition strikes, but new supplies keep coming in and home-grown production continues.
“You see this everywhere you have Iranian groups – one of the first things will be to get local manufacturing capability up and running. That might start with basic artillery rockets and then progress,” Binnie said.
Iran and the Houthis have close relations and analysts say some weapons technology resembles Iranian designs. A Houthi delegation visited Tehran in August and the sides exchanged ambassadors for the first time.
A senior regional official told Reuters around 35 senior Houthi fighters were on that trip and received missile and drone training.
The coalition said Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah has experts in Yemen assisting the Houthis. Hezbollah denies it helps the Houthi war effort.
The Houthis also indicated Saturday’s attack on Aramco was made possible by on-the-ground informers.
“It came after an accurate intelligence operation, advance monitoring and co-operation from honourable and free people in Saudi,” the group’s military spokesman said.