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Analysis: Houthis arsenal used against Western ships in Red Sea.

After Israel launched a military operation against the Palestinian movement Hamas, the Yemeni Islamist group Ansar Allah, better known as the Houthis, have been attacking commercial and military ships in the Red Sea since early October 2023 using attack drones and missiles. The Houthis declared that they had joined the war alongside Hamas and claim that they only target ships docking at Israeli ports or those owned by entities with links to Israel. The Houthi attacks have severely hindered international maritime transport, and a number of companies have announced they will no longer send their ships through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea and is one of the most important maritime routes.

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Houthis rebels near occidental ferry ship named Galaxy Leader. The ship was air assaulted by Houthis on October 19, 2023(Picture source: Reuters)

In their early attacks, the militants landed on ship decks from helicopters and tried to capture them using small boats. It is known that the Houthis try to use unmanned fast boats to block navigation, but the greatest danger comes from unmanned aerial vehicles and anti-ship missiles. Iran is the main supplier of anti-ship weapons to the Houthis. In Yemen, samples of Soviet and Chinese production, legally acquired before the outbreak of the civil war in the country, might still exist.

The armed formations of the Ansar Allah group have more than ten types of unmanned aerial vehicles of various configurations, including disposable kamikaze drones, attack drones capable of carrying missiles and light bombs, as well as vehicles designed for reconnaissance and surveillance.

In the past, the Qasef-1 and Qasef-2K drones, identified as Iranian drones from the Ababil family, have been used to strike targets controlled by the anti-Houthi Arab coalition forces in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

In Iran, since 1999, these types of devices have been primarily used as aerial targets for air defense crew training. However, according to information published in English-language sources, the Houthis have tried to use these drones, equipped with either a passive radar or a video camera with image broadcasting equipment and remote control, against the radars of Saudi Patriot air defense systems and have attacked the Al-Anad Air Base in Yemen, occupied by Arab coalition forces.

The Qasef-1 drone is built with a canard design and has a thin, elongated fuselage 2.9 meters long, a slightly swept-forward horizontal tail, and a wing with a wingspan of up to 3.25 meters. The fuselage and wing are made of composite materials. It has a piston engine of about 20 horsepower and, with a pusher propeller at the rear of the fuselage, it reaches speeds of about 200 km/h. The flight duration is 1.5 hours, and the range is at least 120 km. The ceiling reaches 3 km. A warhead weighing up to 40 kg is used to strike a target.

Qasef-1 Drone

There is no doubt that a remotely piloted aircraft with such characteristics could pose a serious threat to civilian ships.

The Samad-2 and Samad-3 drones have been used several times in the past to attack targets in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. On November 29, 2023, the American destroyer USS Carney (DDG-64) shot down a Samad-3 drone in the southern Red Sea, which had been launched from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen and was headed towards the USNS Supply (T-AOE-6) replenishment ship.

Samad-2 Drone

The Samad-2 drone is 2.8 meters long with a wingspan of 4.5 meters. It features a distinctive V-tail and is equipped with a pusher propeller driven by a 17.6 horsepower Chinese DLE 170 engine. Maximum speed – up to 200 km/h. Its flight range is about 1,200 km. The Samad-2 can carry both reconnaissance equipment and a warhead weighing 18 kg.

Samad-3 Drone

The Samad-3 drone differs from the previous model by having a conformal fuel tank mounted on top of the drone. With a flight range of up to 1,500 km, the mass of the explosive charge can reach 40 kg.

The Samad-4 is an attack drone capable of carrying unguided missiles and bombs. Previous Iranian Samad-type drones were intended for reconnaissance or had a warhead embedded in the body.

Samad-4 Drone

Open sources indicate that the Samad-4 has increased dimensions and a more powerful engine compared to previous models.

The Houthis also have a Shehab drone. Its exact specifications and purpose are unknown.

Shehab Drone

It is believed to be a reconnaissance drone with a range of up to 50 km, also capable of carrying a combat load and being used as a loitering munition.

The device bearing the Yemeni designation Waaed is none other than the Iranian Shahed-136.

Drone Waaed

The characteristics of this tailless kamikaze drone are well known. With a weight of about 200 kg, its flight range exceeds 1,000 km. Flight altitude: 50 to 4,000 m. Length – 3.5 m. Wingspan – 2.5 m. The two-stroke MADO MD 550 piston engine made in Iran offers a cruising speed of 150 to 170 km/h.

In 2021, the Houthis demonstrated the Khatif-1 tele-guided loitering munition, with a range of several tens of kilometers.


An enhanced modification, known as Khatif-2, appeared in 2022. The data of this remotely piloted kamikaze drone are not disclosed. Estimates suggest it would be equipped with a warhead weighing up to 10 kg.

Anti-ship cruise missiles 

During the Soviet era, the Yemeni Navy received a small missile boat, Project 1241.1 Molniya, and two missile boats, Project 205 Moskit. The Soviet MRK (small missile ship) and RK (missile boat) were armed with anti-ship missiles P-22 (export version of the P-15M) with a firing range of about 40 km.

Yemen also had several coastal missile systems equipped with Chinese anti-ship missiles S-201 (an evolution of the P-15), supplied by Iran. During the Iran-Iraq war, Iran acquired them from China. The anti-ship missiles, dubbed "Silk Warm" in the West, were actively used in combat operations. By the late 1980s, Iran had launched its production of S-201 missiles.

Today, the anti-ship cruise missiles P-22 and S-201, whose engines operate on liquid fuel and oxidizer, and whose lineage dates back to the anti-ship missile P-15 introduced in 1959, are archaic. Thanks to larger capacity tanks, the flight range of the Chinese S-201 has increased to 100 km. At the same time, the increase in fuel and oxidizer supply on board has led to an increase in the dimensions of the rocket and excludes the possibility of placing it on boats.

The missile carries a heavy highly explosive and penetrating warhead weighing 513 kg, but due to the subsonic flight speed and the low noise immunity of the active radar seeker, its effectiveness in modern conditions is low. Additionally, during missile refueling, the crew is required to work with protective suits and isolating gas masks.

C-201 anti-ship missiles

Despite its poor performance and operational issues, the Houthis regularly display the S-201 during parades, and military experts believe that this old anti-ship missile poses a certain danger to commercial fleets.

In 1995, China provided Yemen with three Type 037IG missile boats equipped with solid-fueled anti-ship missiles YJ-8 (export designation C-801), which have characteristics similar to early versions of Exocet anti-ship missiles.

The boats themselves were sunk following Saudi airstrikes, but the missiles were salvaged, and the Al-Mandab-1 coastal defense complex was built on their basis.


The maximum firing range of Al-Mandab-1 missiles when launched from a mobile coastal launcher does not exceed 40 km. The guidance system is an active radar. The flight speed of the anti-ship missiles is subsonic.

Despite all their advantages, solid-fueled missiles generally have a shorter launch range than missiles equipped with ramjet and turbojet engines. Therefore, by using the aerodynamic design and guidance system of the YJ-8, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has developed the YJ-82 (S-802) anti-ship missile equipped with a compact turbojet engine. The range of the new missile has more than doubled. The first C-802 anti-ship missiles arrived in Iran in the mid-1990s, along with Chinese-made missile-launching boats. Soon, Iran began assembling missiles independently. The Iranian version of the S-802 was called Noor.

RCC Noor

In terms of weight and size characteristics, range, and flight speed, the Nur anti-ship missile system is in many ways similar to the American Harpoon RGM-84, but it is not known to what extent the noise immunity and selectivity characteristics correspond to the American model.

A longer-range option is the Iranian Ghader anti-ship missile, created based on the Chinese C-803 with a firing range of up to 250 km.

Al-Mandab-2 Anti-Ship Missiles

This missile is equipped with a more economical turbojet engine, a larger fuel tank capacity, and a highly explosive penetrating warhead weighing 185 kg. The Houthis have given this anti-ship missile the name Al-Mandab-2.

In 2019, the Houthis showcased the Quds-1 cruise missile, which appears to be a modification of the Iranian Soumar missile. The creation of the Soumar missile launcher became possible after Ukraine sold the Soviet X-55 air-launched missile launcher to Iran.

Presumably, Quds-1 is a simplified version of the Soumar missile launcher, developed in Iran for wartime production. The Yemeni missile has a shorter flight range, and its wing is not foldable.

Quds-1 Cruise Missile

Reference works indicate that the Quds-1 missile launcher is primarily intended for attacks on fixed targets. Its range is 150 km. The rocket is powered by an unlicensed version of the compact TJ-100 turbojet engine developed by the Czech company PBS Velká Bíteš with a thrust of up to 1,250 N, which allows a speed of about 800 km/h. Length - 5.6 m. The diameter of the casing - 400 mm.

Quds-2 Anti-Ship Missiles

The Quds Z-0 missile, created based on a modified Quds-2 missile launcher (introduced in 2021), has received an electro-optical system and can be used against surface targets.

Quds Z-0 Anti-Ship Missiles

The latest modification, Quds-3, is believed to have a firing range of over 800 km, but the guidance system installed is not known for certain.

In 2022, the Houthis also unveiled a relatively compact anti-ship cruise missile called Sahil.

Experts believe it is an Iranian light anti-ship missile Fajr Darya, copied from the Chinese FL-6 missile. In turn, the FL-6 appeared after Chinese specialists had access to the Italian compact anti-ship missile system Si Killer. These relatively small and inexpensive anti-ship missiles are designed to combat "mosquito fleet" ships with a displacement of up to 1,000 tons and counter amphibious operations in the coastal area. Their firing range is about 40 km. Sahil missiles can be equipped with a TV or IR seeker. With a launch weight of 300 kg, the rocket carries a 60 kg warhead.

In the late 1980s, based on the American air-to-ground missile AGM-65 Maverick, the compact short-range anti-ship missile system YJ-7 (S-701) was created in China. But unlike the American prototype, the Chinese missile, in addition to helicopters and aircraft, can be used from portable launchers mounted on light boats and automobile chassis.

YJ-73 Drone

In 2008, at the 7th Zhuhai Airshow, the YJ-73 (S-703) anti-ship missile system with a millimeter-wave radar seeker was first showcased. After that, the YJ-74 (S-704) and YJ-75 (S-705) missiles appeared with a television guidance system and a new radar seeker with increased noise immunity. The launch range of these modifications reaches 35 km.

YJ-7 missiles were delivered to Iran, from where they fell into the hands of militants from various Islamist groups and gained a reputation as "guerrilla" missiles. During the 2006 Lebanon War, a Chinese-made YJ-7 missile attacked the Israeli corvette Hanit. The ship was damaged but remained afloat, and four crew members were killed. According to Western intelligence services, the Houthis also have these compact anti-ship missiles.
Missiles balistiques antinavires

alleged ballistic missiles ? 

In the territories captured by the Houthis, S-75M/M3 Volga air defense systems equipped with B-755 and B-759 missiles remained. In 2015, Al-Masirah TV aired a report showing Qaher-1 tactical missiles, converted from anti-aircraft missiles. It is reported that the conversion work of the anti-missile defense system was carried out by the military industry department of the army and the popular committees.

In 2022, the Houthis showcased an anti-ship ballistic missile Mohit, created based on a missile defense system, which, in the final stage of its flight, targets the thermal signature of the target. At the same time, searching for and capturing a large ship sailing with engines running is possible within an ellipse measuring 700 x 500 m.

The use of a missile, not much different from an anti-aircraft missile, within a naval tactical or anti-aircraft complex, reduces production and maintenance costs and facilitates personnel training. However, the effectiveness of these weapons is highly questionable.

The missile carries a relatively light warhead, which is not powerful enough to effectively hit hardened targets. The large dispersion from the aiming point justifies its use only against large-scale targets located on the front lines: airfields, transport centers, cities, and large industrial enterprises.

At the same time, the effectiveness of an anti-ship ballistic missile with an infrared seeker, which captures a moving target on the descending branch of the trajectory in a short period of time, raises serious doubts. The separation of the first stage of solid fuel during the launch of a rocket above the location of friendly troops can pose a danger.

Preparing a rocket equipped with a liquid propellant engine for combat use is a rather complex process. Transporting a fully fueled rocket over long distances being impossible, refueling with oxidizer is done in the immediate vicinity of the launch position. After which, the missile is transferred from the loading-transport vehicle to the launcher. It is clear that a missile battery, which contains conveyors and large tanks containing flammable fuel and caustic oxidizer that ignite flammable substances within the reach of enemy weapons, is a very vulnerable target.

Apparently, Iran and the leaders of the Ansar Allah group rely on high-speed anti-ship ballistic missiles, which allow them to launch surprise attacks on maritime targets appearing near the coast of Yemen.

In 2011, a towed launcher equipped with the Khalij Fars anti-ship missile was showcased in Baharestan Square in Tehran. It is known that the Khalij Fars missile, controlled in the final stage of flight, is designed based on the Fateh-110 ballistic SRBM.

The anti-ship ballistic missile, whose name translates to "Persian Gulf", has a firing range of about 200 km and is controlled by an inertial system for most of the flight. On the descending branch of the trajectory, guidance is performed by an infrared seeker that responds to the thermal signature of the ship or by a radio-television guidance-command system. Foreign observers indicate that these guidance systems are highly susceptible to organized interference and may be effective mainly against slow civilian ships.

In Yemen, Iranian Khalij Fars missiles, designated Aasif', were showcased during a military parade in 2022. Simultaneously with the Aasif anti-ship ballistic missile, the Tankil missile, created based on the Iranian Raad-500 SRBM with a firing range of up to 500 km, was presented. Five years ago, Iran tested the light anti-ship missile Fajr-4. Sources write that it was originally created to be launched from airborne carriers, but the Fajr-4CL modifiation, renamed Faleq-1 in Yemen, is intended to be used from coastal launchers. The missile equipped with an optoelectronic camera and a command guidance system is capable of hitting targets at a distance of about 50 km.

An efficient Methods ? 

In mid-February 2024, the Houthis had used several dozen kamikaze drones, cruise missiles, and anti-ship ballistic missiles against foreign ships.

On December 15, 2023, two container ships were hit by missiles in the Red Sea, resulting in a fire onboard. The ship Palatium III, owned by the Swiss company MSC, according to the U.S. military, was struck by an anti-ship ballistic missile. In this case, the Houthis were the first in the world to successfully launch a ballistic missile at a ship under real conditions.

However, the effectiveness of Yemeni drones and anti-ship missiles is low. Slow and cumbersome drones are very easy targets for onboard air defense systems. They are also successfully countered not only by the supersonic F/A-18C/D Super Hornet fighter jets but also by the subsonic AV-8B Harrier II attack aircraft of the Marine Corps, which are designated as targets by the ship's Aegis system. Foreign authors write that in a number of cases, drone control systems have been successfully jammed by the U.S. Navy's AN/SLQ-32 naval electronic warfare equipment.

As for the Houthi anti-ship cruise missiles, they are still subsonic and, in most cases, are quickly intercepted by RIM-156 (Standard-2ER Block IV), RIM-7P Sea Sparrow, and RIM-162 ESSM missiles. However, on January 31, 2024, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG-107) was forced to repel an attacking anti-ship missile system using a 20mm Mark 15 Phalanx CIWS close-in weapon system.

As already mentioned, the guidance systems of anti-ship ballistic missiles have a relatively narrow field of view and are only able to search for targets at the final stage of flight. Given that anti-ship ballistic missiles receive a target designation before launch and are controlled for most of the flight by an inertial system, whose error accumulates as the range increases, this reduces effectiveness when firing at rapidly moving targets. Most often, the target does not appear at the intended point. Furthermore, missiles flying along a ballistic trajectory, unlike low-altitude cruise anti-ship missiles, are usually detected by onboard surveillance radars immediately after launch, and their predictable trajectory facilitates interception.

The weakest link for the Houthis in countering maritime transport efforts since the United States and the United Kingdom began airstrikes in Yemen on January 12, 2024, is intelligence. Aviation cruise missiles and Tomahawks have destroyed or damaged control posts, communication centers, radars controlling the maritime zone, positions of coastal missile systems, drone bases, and control stations.

In most cases, reconnaissance attempts using drones were quickly thwarted before patrol drones had time to designate targets. The activation of "dormant" radars on the shore was recorded by RTR means, after which bombs and missiles were launched at them.

In the short term, a decrease in the number of missile attacks on tankers and container ships off the coast of Yemen can be expected, but as an alternative, the Houthis could start laying large-scale mines on shipping lanes.

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