The Houthis’ Do-It-Yourself Air Defenses

When a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015, these air-defense units found themselves on the receiving end of a major suppression-of-enemy-air-defenses campaign. Deploying some of most advanced U.S.- and European-made fighter-bombers and associated armament, the Saudis and allies systematically tracked down and destroyed not only most of the Houthis’ radars, but also most of their launchers and support equipment.

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The Houthis’ Do-It-Yourself Air Defenses

On the evening of Jan. 7, 2018, the coalition of the Houthi insurgency and Yemeni military units that sided with the Houthis claimed to have shot down a Saudi Tornado fighter-bomber.

A day later, Houthi and allied forces claimed to have shot down a Saudi F-15 fighter. In support of their claim, they published a dramatic video depicting what they said was the shoot-down.

For a while at least, it appeared the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis and their allies was on the verge of losing its total control of Yemeni air space.

It is impossible to sufficiently emphasize the importance of this development. Although its troops are far better equipped and trained than the Houthis’ own forces are, the Saudi-led coalition has fewer troops on the battlefield. Complete control of the air is thus of crucial importance to the Saudis.

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The origins of the Houthis’ air defenses can be traced back to the early 1970s. At the time there were two Yemens. North Yemen received some support from Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union. Still, North Yemen was militarily weak.

South Yemen, a former British protectorate, gained independence in 1967 and enjoyed the support of the Soviet Union and Cuba. Working methodically, the Soviets and Cubans helped the South Yemenis gradually develop a small but effective air force and a strong ground-based air defense.

In 1977, the latter was equipped with four S-75/SA-2 surface-to-air systems and 136 associated V-755 missiles. All the officers in command of these systems were trained in the USSR, while other personnel were trained by Cuban advisors in South Yemen.

The South Yemeni air force and air defenses played a small but important role in the short but bitter war between two Yemens in early 1979. The conflict ended with the North’s defeat. Immediately after the ceasefire, supporters of each side scrambled to bolster the Yemens’ defenses.

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With the Saudis keen to keep the United States out of North Yemen – which they consider to be within their sphere of influence – Washington showed no interest in providing surface-to-air missiles to the government in Sana’a. The Saudis went as far as to consent to North Yemen purchasing Soviet weapons, instead.

Therefore, the government in Sana’a placed an order for 12 S-75M and four S-75M2 SAM systems and a total of 752 associated V-755 missiles from the Soviet Union. Personnel were trained by Soviet advisors in North Yemen.

While always welcoming the income from arms exports, Moscow could not ignore the defense requirements of what was then its most important ally on the Arabian Peninsula — South Yemen. Correspondingly, the USSR delivered three additional S-75 SAM sites to Aden, too.

By the end of 1979, the Soviets added two 2K12/SA-6 and four 9K31/SA-9 SAM systems to the South Yemeni arsenal.

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In a similar action a few years later, Moscow granted permission for the export of a further air-defense systems to both Yemens. South Yemen received three S-125/SA-3 SAM systems and 108 associated V-601 missiles in 1985. North Yemen received three systems and 148 V-601 missiles in 1986.

All of these air-defense weapons saw significant action during the bitter Yemeni civil war in 1994, in the course of which the South was defeated and Yemen united into one country under the control of the government in Sana’a.

During the late 1990s and for most of the first decade of the 21st century, the air defenses of the united Yemeni military were barely operational. It was only in 2012 that Sana’a contracted the Ukrainian arms exporter Ukrobronservice to overhaul several of the remaining systems.

How much of that project was actually realized remains unclear. There were multiple reports that Ukraine upgraded of all of Yemen’s S-125s to a standard similar to the Russian-made Pechora-2M, but no evidence of the work ever emerged.

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Part two

As of 2014, Yemeni air defenses were grouped into nine air-defense brigades, each operating a mix of surface-to-air missile sites equipped with S-75/SA-2, S-125/SA-3, 2K12/SA-6 and 9K31/SA-9 missile systems.

By the time Houthi insurgents descended from the mountains of northern Yemen and brought Sana’a under their control in September 2014, the Yemeni military was already suffering deep internal divisions.

A few units – foremost those operating aircraft – sided with the legitimate president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, but most of those disintegrated by February 2015.

The majority of the military sided with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. One of the first military units to publicly follow Saleh and side with the Houthis was the 101st Air Defense Brigade of the Yemeni air force.

Also known as the Radar Brigade, this unit operated around a dozen early-warning radars of Soviet origin, and exercised control over three other air-defense brigades based in the Sana’a area. Thus, it was in control of the only element of Yemen’s air defenses that can be described as “integrated.”

Unsurprisingly, while most of top commanders and nearly all of the flying personnel of the Yemeni air rorce refused to obey orders from the Houthis, the personnel of the 110th Air Defense Brigade – responsible for the defense of Daylami air base at Sana’a International — followed the example of the 101st and joined the insurgency.

Two other air-defense brigades – the 140th and the 160th – were responsible for the defense of the Yemeni capital. Most of their personnel had sided with the Houthis by January 2015.

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Similar scenes occurred in central and western Yemen. Personnel of the 150th Air Defense Brigade in Hodeida, and of the 180th Air Defense Brigade responsible for the area around Ma’rib, joined the Houthis.

The 170th Air Defense Brigade protecting the strategically important Bab Al Mandab Strait joined the Houthis in mid-March 2015.

Farther south and east, the situation was entirely different, primarily because the Houthis never managed to reach the relevant bases. The 120th Air Defense Brigade – which used to be responsible for Aden – fell apart during the chaos of March 2015, and was never re-established.

In eastern Yemen, the 190th Air Defense Brigade, based at Riyan air base near the port of Mukalla, was overrun by Al Qaeda. As far as is known, the jihadists massacred some of its officers. The rest of the personnel disappeared.

By late March 2015, the Houthis and allied Yemeni military units had taken over most of air-defense assets of the former Yemeni air force. In this way, they found themselves in possession of at least six S-75/SA-2 systems, five or six S-125/SA-3s, two 2K12/SA-6s and four 9K31/SA-9s, organized into seven air-defense brigades.

When a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015, these air-defense units found themselves on the receiving end of a major suppression-of-enemy-air-defenses campaign. Deploying some of most advanced U.S.- and European-made fighter-bombers and associated armament, the Saudis and allies systematically tracked down and destroyed not only most of the Houthis’ radars, but also most of their launchers and support equipment.

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The Yemenis fought back, firing as many as 40 surface-to-air missiles. They claimed to have shot down two Saudi warplanes, two Emirati ones and at least one Sudanese plane. In fact, the Houthis shot down nothing.

By April 2015, the 101st, 110th, 140th, 160th and 180th Air Defense Brigades were largely neutralized. Only the 150th and 170th Air Defense Brigades managed to recover and hide most of their equipment.

In comparison, various shoulder-launched air-defense missiles and guns belonging to Houthi-allied Yemeni army units proved far more effective during the first phase of the conflict. By the end of 2015, these were responsible for destroying one Moroccan F-16C, a Bahraini F-16C, two Saudi AH-64As and up to a dozen drones.

Once it became clear that the war would last longer, in May 2015 most of the surviving air-defense equipment was taken over by the Houthis’ new Missile Force. Consisting of officers with decades of experience operating various missile systems and equipped with whatever armament and tools were left after the first few weeks of air strikes, this force established its own research division — the Missile Research & Development Center.

The MRDC became responsible for converting a stock of around 200 V-755 SAMs from the S-75/SA-2 system into ballistic missiles. Deployed under the designations Qaher-1, Qaher-2 and Qaher-2M, dozens of these were fired at different targets in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

What exactly happened to the other heavy air-defense missiles remains unclear. The disappearance of systems such as the S-125/SA-3 and 2K12/SA-6 from the battlefields of the Yemen war seems to indicate their near-complete destruction. Under constant stream of air strikes, by 2016 the Houthi coalition was thus in urgent need of other means of air-defense.

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Part three

When the Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015, it quickly neutralized most of the Houthis’ air defenses. Nearly all of the radars and launchers belonging to the Houthis’ five air-defense brigades were destroyed by mid-April 2015.

Elements of two air-defense brigades managed to recover and hide most of their equipment. Correspondingly, the air defenses of the Houthi-dominated coalition were limited to a miscellany of man-portable air-defense systems, light anti-aircraft cannons including U.S.-made Vulcan guns and various heavy machine guns.

Through 2015, such weapons were responsible for the losses of one Moroccan and one Bahraini F-16C, two Saudi AH-64As and up to a dozen various UAVs. However, the longer the war went on, the clearer it became that they weren’t enough to defend Houthi forces from the Saudis and their allies.

Indeed, the aircraft loss rate for the Saudi-led coalition decreased by an order of magnitude in 2016. While two different Saudi helicopters were written off during combat operations over Yemen, Houthi air defenses were responsible for the downing just one CH-4 Wing Loong UAV.

Understanding that more efficient measures were required, Yemeni engineers with the Missile Development & Research Command worked feverishly on repairing available air-defense equipment and improvising new ones. In January 2017, they announced they had repaired one S-75/SA-2 surface-to-air missile system.

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And on Jan. 20, they went as far as to claim the downing of a Saudi F-15 over Sana’a. Actually, they achieved nothing, and the system in question was soon tracked down and destroyed by the Saudi-led coalition.

One of solutions developed by the MRDC was to take air-to-air missiles from stocks of the former Yemeni air force and attempt deploying them for air-defense purposes. This idea is not new. Back in 1999, the Serbs adapted Russian-made R-60/AA-8 and R-73/AA-1 air-to-air missiles for surface-to-air missions.

Furthermore, the Houthi-led coalition has enough experienced and skilled personnel to undertake such an adaptation on its own – and it’s in possession of significant stocks of air-to-air munitions at bases of the former Yemeni air force.

Yemen acquired a stock of Soviet-made R-60MK/AA-8 missiles back in 1980, together with MiG-21bis and Su-22 fighter-bombers. A small batch of R-73/AA-11 missiles was acquired by the former South Yemen in 1994 for deployment with MiG-29 interceptors. An even larger number of R-27/AA-10, R-73s, and R-77/AA-12s were acquired by Sana’a after 2001 together with up to 36 MiG-29SMs and UBs.

The challenge was adapting such weapons for deployment from the ground, and without the support of the fire-control systems in the aircraft that usually carry them.

Active radar-homing missiles such as the R-77 and semi-active radar-homing missiles such as the R-27R would require the adaptation of at least one of the N019MP radars and related fire-control systems delivered to Yemen together with the MiG-29SMs.

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Not only was this a complex undertaking, but most of the necessary systems were destroyed early during the war when the Saudi-led coalition systematically tracked down and knocked out every single MiG it could find.

Instead, engineers at the MRDC opted to adapt infrared homing missiles as SAMs. That effort required the adaptation of APU-60 and P-12 launch rails — for the R-60 and R-73, respectively — on supports mounted on pick-up trucks plus a reliable supply of electric power and liquid nitrogen to cool the seeker heads.

The first such improvisations were deployed in combat in February 2017, and by June the Houthi-dominated coalition claimed the downing of five fighter-bombers, one helicopter and one UAV.

Whether any of the missiles actually scored a hit remains unclear. What is certain is that a Jordanian F-16AM crashed over southern Saudi Arabia while returning from a combat sortie over Yemen on Feb. 24, 2017.

The situation remains the same in early 2018. The reality is that air-to-air missiles are designed to be fired from fast-moving aircraft that are already airborne. The motors of air-to-air missiles are relatively small and light in comparison to the motors of surface-to-air missiles. The latter are big, heavy and far more powerful.

For example, the rocket motor of the Patriot PAC-2 weights 1,200 pounds and develops more than 20,000 pounds of thrust in order to accelerate the missile to speeds in excess of Mach 4.

Without such motors, the effective range of air-to-air missiles fired from the ground is dramatically shorter than if they are fired from the air. Even an R-27 is unlikely to reach a target more than five miles away.

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At least as important is the issue of fire-control. It’s not enough to point a guided missile in the direction of its target and fire. All anti-aircraft missiles function better if locked-on at their target before launch.

Engineers at the MRDC found a solution by coupling one of three U.S.-made Flir Systems ULTRA 8500 turrets – delivered to Yemen back in 2008 – with makeshift controls for their “new” SAMs. One such SAM enabled them to fire the R-27T that narrowly missed a Saudi F-15 over Sana’a on Jan. 7, 2018.

Ironically, while the first related reports only cited the firing of the missile, the Houthi-controlled media in Yemen and all Iranian media outlets were quick to convert that report into a claim that the targeted F-15 was shot down.

Actually, the F-15SA in question came away with minor damage. F-15SAs are equipped with digital electronic warfare systems and common missile warning systems made by BAE Systems and  designed not only to recognize missile attacks, but also to warn the crew and automaticallydeploy countermeasures.

The same is true of the Tornado IDS the Houthis claimed to have shot down over northern Sa’ada province on the same day. Actually, the aircraft in question suffered a failure of its oxygen system that caused a fire inside its cockpit and prompted the crew to eject.

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While Houthi and Iranian media associated these two claims with the deployment of a new surface-to-air missile, the adaptation of R-73s and R-27s as SAMs — supported by ULTRA 8500 turrets — hardly qualifies as new. It’s also not as effective as the Houthis claim. The missile that targeted the Saudi F-15SA over Sana’a on Jan. 7, 2018 was the first ever to get that close to its target.

Deployment of such weapons didn’t escape the attention of Saudi and allied air forces and intelligence agencies. On the contrary, representatives of the Saudi-led coalition confirmed their appearance during one of their regular briefings for the press in early November 2017.

They also published two photographs showing installations of R-27T and R-73 missiles on pick-up trucks operated by the Houthi coalition. Ironically, the Iranians – the party said to be supporting the Houthis – seem to have learned about the appearance of such SAMs from Saudi media.

In comparison, MRDC’s work on repairing some of the coalition’s SA-9 vehicles proved at least slightly more effective. One of these has managed to shot down a U.S.-operated MQ-9 Predator UAV over Sana’a on Oct. 1, 2017.

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