A Burkan-2H (Volcano) ballistic missile was launched toward Riyadh by Houthi forces in Yemen and intercepted by a U.S.-supplied Patriot defense system on November 4th. On the outskirts of King Khalid International Airport, wreckage from the missile fell on the northern edge of the Saudi capital, indicating that it overflew the densely populated city.
Previously on May 19, the Houthis fired a Burkan-2 variant at the city just hours before President Trump touched down for a visit. However, this latest strike follows the U.S.
Announcement of a new “pushback” strategy against the Iranian regime and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Responding to the attack, the US President stated, “A shot was taken by Iran, in my opinion, at Saudi Arabia.” The Saudi government also blamed “the Iranian regime” and said the strike could “be considered an act of war.”
Iran’s Kayhan newspaper, affiliated with the IRGC and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, reported the strike under the headline, “Ansar Allah Missile Attack on Riyadh. Next Target: Dubai,” thereby using the official name for the militant arm of the Houthi movement. Statements like these from both sides set up an intensified U.S. effort to expose Iran’s involvement with the Houthi missile development program.
In an article, Michael Knights, a Lafer Fellow with The Washington Institute, writes, “Since the Saudi-led intervention began in March 2015, Houthi rebels have fired hundreds of short-range tactical rockets and missiles into Saudi Arabia, along with at least thirty longer-range ballistic missiles. The vast majority of these strikes have involved BM-27 multiple rocket launchers and SS-21 Scarab B tactical ballistic missile systems targeting Saudi border towns and military bases, resulting in thousands of civilians wounded or displaced.”
Knights describes other types of systems that have been used, including the unguided Qaher-1 (Conqueror) free-flight missiles launched at targets up to 250 km inside Saudi Arabia, particularly King Khaled Air Base and the adjacent Khamis Mushait Military City, and the Qaher, a conversion of the V75 missile used in the SA-2 surface-to-air missile system, which Yemen received from the Soviet Union in large quantities from the 1970s onward.
He goes on to describe their development and use of short-range ballistic missile systems:
- Extended range.A March 28 attack involved a Qaher-M2 variant with a longer claimed range of 400 km and a larger warhead (350 kg of explosive compared to 195 kg in the Qaher-1).
- Saturation attacks.The March 28 attack also saw the use of a multi-missile salvo in an apparent effort to overwhelm Patriot batteries at Khamis Mushait. In addition, the monitoring organization Conflict Armament Research reported that the Houthis crashed indigenously developed Qasef-1 drones into Patriot radars to facilitate their missile attacks.
- Conservation of longer-range systems.On May 26, the rebels unveiled al-Najim al-Thaqib (Piercing Star-2), an indigenously assembled 75 km tactical rocket system with a 75 kg warhead. Similar in design to the M-75 fielded by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, this system allows the rebels to conserve their Qaher missiles for medium-range targets.
He says that the rebels have also developed longer-range ballistic systems.
Rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi recently added another target, apart from the Saudis, to his potential hit list — the United Arab Emirates. When he spoke with Houthi-controlled Al Masirah television on September 14th, he warned that the UAE was “now within range of our missiles. The companies that have been set up or have investments in the UAE should no longer consider it a safe country.”
Last April, Iranian defense minister Hossein Dehghan denied U.S. claims that Tehran was supporting the Houthi missile program, yet many experts claim that the Houthis and their Yemeni military allies are not working alone. A State Department official noted in October of 2016, that “Iran has provided critical capability and assistance to the Houthis in their campaign to attack Saudi Arabian territory with ballistic missiles and rockets.”
As well, in January 2017, the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen concluded that the Houthi-led alliance’s claims of manufacturing new missile types locally “are highly unlikely.”
Iran has previously helped foreign militant allies with missile programs, such as providing Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad with expert support operatives and a series of rocket/missile systems ranging from the 300 km Zelzal-2 to the 75 km M-75. It has also been converting SA-2 missiles into Tondar-69 ballistic missiles since the 1990s, much like the Houthis arrived at their equivalent variant, the Qaher-1.
Additionally, Iran has openly acknowledged its military assistance to the Houthis. IRGC Qods Force deputy commander Esmail Ghani stated on May 23, 2015, “Those defending Yemen have been trained under the flag of the Islamic Republic.” In April 2017, Mehdi Taeb, who is brother of the IRGC’s intelligence chief, boasted that “Iran’s catering of missiles to the Houthis was carried out in stages by the Revolutionary Guards with the support and assistance of the Iranian navy.”
Currently, Houthi long-range missiles have clear limitations. They are few in number and are likely to remain so. They are also not very effective. Still, they are geopolitically important for a number of reasons.
Knights outlines these reasons, “For Iran, providing missile and other military support to the Houthis is a no-brainer. At very little cost, the IRGC can strengthen ties with a regional ally and demonstrate its ability to threaten Saudi Arabia, and perhaps the UAE and Qatar as well, where vital U.S. bases lay just outside the current range of Houthi missiles. And if the rebels manage to hit a crucial U.S. or allied target, the Iranians are confident that the Houthis will pay the price, not them. At the tactical level, the IRGC is well aware that every missile attack drains Saudi capabilities, since a Houthi missile costing at most $1 million must be intercepted by Patriot missiles costing $2-3 million each.”
He adds, “Continued attacks could even force the Saudis to develop another axis of expensive missile defenses in addition to the set required to defend against Iran across the Persian Gulf. The IRGC is also learning valuable lessons about how its own missiles might perform against U.S.-provided defenses. For all these reasons, the missile war needs to stop.”
Tehran’s response to the November 4th attack on Riyadh shows that the regime will continue to test President Trump’s resolve to implement his pushback strategy.
Knights writes, “A smart peace process would first draw the elite Saleh-aligned missile forces away from the Houthis, and later splinter the Houthis themselves from Tehran, whose military help they will no longer need once the war ends. Saleh loyalists could be useful sources of evidence to prove that Iran is violating international sanctions and arms embargos; this proof could then be brought to the UN and the Joint Commission that oversees the P5+1 nuclear deal.”
He also believes that as a measure to prevent the transfer of missile parts, “the United States should maintain its commitment to the arms blockade, extend more intelligence and special operations support to block overland smuggling routes from Oman, and ensure strong multinational support for a tight but humane maritime interdiction effort.”
Saudi economic centers such as Jizan, Abha, and Khamis Mushait, that have large populations, cannot remain under threat of regular missile attacks. Continuing under the current situation makes a catastrophe inevitable.
Knights says, “The U.S. military should therefore provide direct intelligence support, perhaps even deploying U.S. air or missile assets to intervene quickly when Houthi launch vehicles are detected. Washington has already signaled that it will protect civilian shipping from Houthi missile attacks, so why not make the same pledge regarding civilian and economic infrastructure on land? Such a declaratory position could deter Houthi missile attacks on Saudi cities, just as past White House statements and U.S. strikes on Houthi missile units have seemingly deterred further missile attacks on shipping in the Bab al-Mandab Strait.”