Low-Tech, High Reward: The Houthi Drone Attack

Low-Tech, High Reward: The Houthi Drone Attack

By Aaron Stein

A recent drone attack in Yemen hasn’t received much attention outside the small circle of experts that pay attention to the conflict in Yemen or the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV or drones), but it will likely be a historical footnote in the proliferation of unmanned technology to sub-state militants.

On January 10, a weaponized unmanned aerial vehicle exploded above a number of senior officers, killing at least 6 members of the Saudi-backed Yemeni forces gathered at an army parade near the al-Anad airbase, just outside the Saudi- and Emirate-controlled port city of Aden.

Image result for the houthis drone explosion

Imagery of the attack and drone wreckage suggests the vehicle in question was an Iranian Ababil-T from the Ababil II family of drones. Iran is a documented supplier of weapons to the Houthi movement and has used the Ababil drone, redubbed “Qasef-1,” in at least 12 attacks throughout the country.

In the short term, the attack is likely to increase tensions and could result in the Saudi-backed coalition renewing plans to oust the Houthi-allied force from Hodeidah, a key port on the Red Sea, as part of a broader effort to place the north under siege. The attack is also certain to undermine a fragile ceasefire, intended to halt fighting in Hodeidah and to arrange for the transfer of authority over the port city to mutually agreed on administrators. The civil war remains at a stalemate, with the civilian population bearing the brunt of the fighting. According to the United Nations, 14 million people are at risk of starvation, and up to 85,000 children may have already died of hunger.

Beyond the human suffering, the drone attack underscores how insurgents are now routinely using low-tech, off-the-shelf tools to conduct autonomous attacks that challenge technologically superior states. The use of cheap drones for armed attack is a growing trend in the region’s myriad of conflicts, dating back to Hezbollah’s use of unmanned vehicles in 2006, and continuing in SyriaTurkeyIraq, and Yemen. The trend shows how non-state actors are developing relatively accurate, stand-off weapons capable of precision strikes far from insurgent strongholds. The attacks are more a military nuisance for the defenders, but it demonstrates a clever use of low-cost technologies to conduct asymmetric attacks on expensive equipment and can kill small numbers of soldiers.

In that sense, the attack is reminiscent of an earlier incident involving an explosive-armed Iranian drone: Israel’s 2006 war with Lebanon. At the outset of the air war, Israeli planners tasked F-15 and F-16 aircraft to fly combat air patrols off the Lebanese coast to track and engage any Hezbollah-operated Ababil drones.

You can read the full opinion article at Foreign Policy Research Institute here.

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