The Yemeni Houthi movement declared war on Israel on October 31, and the Iran-supplied and -funded Houthi missile threat to Israel is destined to become a permanent feature of Israel’s missile threat environment. The Houthi missile threat is now as tangible and dangerous to Israel as the missile threats from Gaza and Lebanon.
The ongoing Israel-Hamas War (dubbed by Israel the Swords of Iron War) has seen the materializing of what has been until now a vague and somewhat imaginary-seeming threat from the Yemeni Houthi regime. The Houthis (or, more precisely, the Houthi movement, which was named after its founder, Hussein Al Houthi) is an extremist Shia Islamist movement that wrested control of the mountainous region of Yemen from the previous pro-Western government by capturing the capital city of Sana’a in 2015. Following this coup, the Houthi movement proclaimed itself the legal government of the entire country. Like Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the movement has a civilian arm that deals with civil affairs and welfare, as well as a military arm – one that is now indistinguishable from a regular army.
The Houthis practice Yazidi Islam, which is a branch of global Shia Islam. Yazidi Muslims ruled Yemen for nearly a millennium until they were deposed in 1962 by a revolt by an Arab nationalist faction. Thus, the capture of Sana’a by the Houthis and reestablishment of Yazidi control over part of the country can be viewed as a counterrevolution that restored Yemeni Shias to their former position. Yemeni Shias constitute about 65% of the population of northern Yemen.
The extremism of the Houthi movement is reflected in its flag, which, true to its faith, bears no graven images. Instead, it features a five-line slogan: “God is great, Death to America, Death to Israel, A Curse Upon the Jews, Victory to Islam.” It is hardly surprising that the ayatollahs of the Islamic Republic of Iran embraced the Houthi movement from the day of its establishment in 2004 and have supported it ever since with ample funds and arms.
Soon after the capture of Sana’a in 2015, a Sunni Arab coalition of nations headed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates embarked on a military campaign to oust the Houthi regime and reinstate the previous, internationally recognized Government of Yemen (which still controls parts of southern Yemen). The Arab coalition military campaign against the Houthi regime continued until a temporary ceasefire was achieved in April 2022.
During the seven years of warfare, Iran supported the Houthi regime to the hilt, copiously supplying it with money, arms, and military expertise and training by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Lebanese Hezbollah. Circumventing the UN Security Council embargo on arming the Houthi regime, the Revolutionary Guards flooded their protégés with light arms, ammunition, rockets, missiles and UAVs. Moreover, the Iranians delivered machinery and know-how to the Houthi regime to help it establish local defense industries that now provide the Houthi armed forces with some of its equipment, including UAVs and possibly some types of missiles and rockets.
Iran used the Yemen war to test its indigenously designed weapons systems – but at the same time showed sensitivity to the UN embargo. This is shown by the lengths to which the Iranian regime went to dissociate itself from its arms supply to the Houthi regime. To this effect, they made efforts to disguise the Iranian origin of their supplied armaments. In some cases, the effort was superficial, like painting Houthi-destined ballistic missiles different colours from the Iranian originals. More frequently, the effort was significant and profound.
The prime example of a sophisticated dissociation effort was the development by Iran of UAVs and rockets tailored specifically for Houthi use – that is, not to be used by Iran’s own armed forces (at least at first). The claim was made that these weapons were indigenous Yemeni designs. A case in point is the rudimentary cruise missile Quds 1, first unveiled at a Sana’a arms expo in July 2019. There is clear evidence that the missile was designed and developed in Iran, but the Houthi regime bragged that the weapon had been indigenously designed and produced in Yemen. The Iranians, meanwhile, surreptitiously used the weapon operationally to attack the Saudi oil industry while avoiding displaying it at their own military parades and expos until 2023, when they finally featured it under a different name.
The Iranians continue to maintain the fiction that they are complying with the UN embargo, and that the modern and deadly UAVs and missiles used by the Houthis were indigenously designed and built in Yemen by Yemeni scientists and engineers.
During the seven-year war in Yemen, the Houthis launched a significant campaign against Saudi Arabia that included attacks by rockets, ballistic missiles and UAVs on population centres, military bases, industrial plants and state symbols. Most of the attacks targeted the southern provinces of Saudi Arabia that border Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s hinterland also came under attack, and its capital city of Riyadh was hit at least eight times by Iran-supplied, Houthi-operated ballistic missiles and UAVs. Oil installations deep within Saudi territory were also subjected to mainly long-range UAV and cruise missile attacks, including the oil terminals at the port of Jeddah, the oil pipeline that connects the oil fields of northern Saudi Arabia to the Red Sea ports and to oil fields like Shaiba in the eastern part of the Kingdom.
The United Arab Emirates, too, was a victim of several missile and UAV attacks from Houthi-controlled Yemen. These attacks targeted the construction site of the UAE’s nuclear power reactor and Abu Dhabi as well as the Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports.
In the most recent attack in January 2022, Houthi-launched UAVs and missiles caused several casualties in an Abu Dhabi suburb. The Saudi Armed Forces spokesperson disclosed in December 2021 that a total of 851 UAVs and 430 rockets and ballistic missiles had been launched by the Houthis against Saudi targets since the start of the Yemen war in 2015.
The longest range reached by Houthi missiles during the Yemen war was about 1,200 km. How far their UAVs and cruise missiles struck is not precisely known, but it seems that their maximum range was about 1,000 km. At the time of the ceasefire, the Houthi regime had in its possession a significant arsenal of long-range weapons that could threaten the entire territory of Saudi Arabia. Their range was not, however, sufficient to hit Israel, the southernmost point of which is about 1,700 km away from the nearest point in Yemen.
Several Israeli analysts foresaw that once the war with Saudi Arabia abated, the Houthi regime would turn its long-range capabilities against Israel. One clear warning of Houthi intentions was provided by a video clip released by the Houthi regime in 2019 that featured the newly unveiled Quds 1 cruise missile. This propaganda video had Hebrew subtitles threatening Israel, ending with the words – in Hebrew – “In the future, many more (missiles).” It was clear that the range gap could be bridged by extending the reach of the cruise missile and introducing heavier ballistic missiles.
As predicted, extended-range missiles were unveiled at a military parade held in Sana’a on September 22, 2023, barely two weeks before the Hamas attack on Israel and subsequent outbreak of the Israel-Hamas War. At the parade, the Houthis unveiled two new missile types: the Quds 4 cruise missile, which has a longer range than earlier variants (the exact range was not specified); and a new, larger ballistic missile dubbed the “Toufan” that was clearly the 1,900 km Iranian Ghader F – an extended-range version of the liquid propellant Shahab 3. Since the Houthis don’t need missiles with ranges beyond 1,200 km to threaten Saudi Arabia, it was clear that the intended target of the two new missiles was Israel.
This threat first materialized on October 19, 2023, when a salvo of UAVs was launched from Yemen towards Israel. This salvo was apparently intercepted and destroyed by US warships stationed in the Red Sea. In another attack on October 27, some Yemeni-launched UAVs reached the Gulf of Aqaba. Two of them struck towns in Egyptian Sinai and others were shot down by Israel Air Force (IAF) fighter aircraft.
Four days later, a Houthi-launched ballistic missile that targeted Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, was intercepted and destroyed by the Arrow anti-missile system. Subsequently, two more Houthi-launched ballistic missiles were destroyed by Arrow interceptors well before they could hit Eilat. Further UAV attacks were foiled by the IAF, and from video footage released by the IAF of these interceptions, it seems the intercepted threats were Quds 4 cruise missiles. According to media reports, some of the UAVs launched against Israel were intercepted and destroyed by Saudi Air Defence command.
The impression is that while the nominal range of the Quds 4 cruise missile covers southern Israel, including Eilat and points north, in real life its range is only marginally sufficient to reach Eilat. One clue suggesting this to be true is the debris of a Houthi cruise missile found in the deserts of southern Jordan, about 200 km short of Eilat. It might have failed to reach Eilat because of a technical glitch, but it also might have run out of fuel earlier than anticipated.
It appears that Israel’s Air Defence Command prepared in time to face potential missile threats from Houthi Yemen. This has enabled it (with the help of the US Navy) to parry all Houthi-launched cruise and ballistic missile attacks up to now. At the same time, there is little doubt that the Houthis, aided by their Iranian patrons, will make further efforts to improve their performance and break through the defensive arrays of the US Navy and Israel’s Air Defence Command (and probably that of Saudi Arabia’s air defence too). The Houthi regime formally declared war on Israel on October 31, 2023, so it stands to reason that it will persist in its efforts to hit Israel with its missiles, both to show solidarity with Hamas, a fellow Iranian proxy, and to dilute Israel’s air defences against the rockets, missiles and UAVs of Hamas and Hezbollah.
The Houthi missile threat is clearly destined to become a permanent feature of Israel’s missile threat environment. Israel’s Air Defense Command will probably redeploy its assets for instant readiness against the threat from the south, a threat that has now became as tangible and dangerous as the missile threats from Gaza and Lebanon.
Written by Dr. Uzi Rubin
Dr. Uzi Rubin, a senior researcher at the BESA Center, is a former founder and director of the Arrow project in the Defence Ministry and an expert on missile defence systems.
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