Yemen’s Houthi rebels fired several missiles into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Sunday. The attack came on the eve of the third anniversary of Operation Decisive Storm (March 26, 2015), when a coalition of states – led by Saudi Arabia – commenced military operations against the Houthis. But the launch also took place as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is touring the United States, sending a strong political signal about Houthi resolve to continue the war.
Pro-Houthi media outlets like Yemen News Agency (SABA) reported that at least three types of projectiles were fired into Saudi Arabia. They included the Burkan-2H, the Qaher-2M, and the Badr-1. Both the Burkan and the Qaher have been used multiple times in the Yemeni theater, while the Badr was only unveiled last week. While there is no exact tally of each type of missile launched, video footage does exist.
According to SABA, as well as the Arabic-language captions in a video of the purported launches, each projectile had a different target. The pro-Houthi outlet noted that the longest-range missile in the Houthi arsenal, the Burkan-2H, was fired at King Khalid airport in Riyadh, while the Qaher-2M was used against Abha airport in ‘Asir province, and the Badr was fired at neighboring Jizan.
The Burkan-2H is the Houthi name given to the Qiam-1, an Iranian surface-to-surface missile (SSM) that was illicitly transferred to the rebels. The Qiam is an Iranian extended-range variant of the Shahab-2 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) featuring a triconic warhead and finless body. The Shahab-2 is an Iranian copy of the liquid-fueled Scud-C missile. Reportedly, the Qiam can fly an estimated 600-800 km while carrying a separating warhead that weighs up to 750 kilograms. These range and payload specifications mean that the Qiam (and the Burkan) can carry a nuclear payload.
A January UN Panel of Experts report on Yemen “identified strong indicators of the supply of arms-related material manufactured in, or emanating from, the Islamic Republic of Iran subsequent to the establishment of the targeted arms embargo on 14 April 2015, particularly in the area of short-range ballistic missile technology.” That builds on a Jan. 2017 UN report on Yemen which put forth the hypothesis of foreign support to the Houthi missile program.
Conversely, the Qaher-2M is not originally an SSM. It is based off a surface-to-air missile (SAM) that has been reconfigured as an SSM. Specifically, the Qaher modifies the Soviet SA-2 (S-75) SAM system, which contains a two-stage missile. In Yemen, the SA-2 is used in an unguided fashion against its targets. An earlier version of the Qaher-2M, the Qaher-1, could fly a reported 300 km while carrying a 200 kg payload. That has now been extended in the Qaher-2M model which can allegedly travel up to 400 km while carrying a 350 kg payload.
Despite Iran’s track record of weapons proliferation throughout the Middle East, more information is needed to fully ascertain the connection between Iran’s SA-2 missile variant and Yemen’s Qaher platform. Warzones – particularly those littered with weaponry like Yemen – are prime locales for both innovative uses of weapons systems and engineering. However, long before the current war in Yemen, Iran procured the Chinese CSS-8 SRBM, which is based on the SA-2 SAM. The Islamic Republic called the missile Tondar-69. At the very least, this fact, coupled with Iran’s history of reverse engineering makes the theory of Iranian expertise/support to turn a SAM into an SSM plausible. Prior to the start of Operation Decisive Storm, it is generally believed that the Houthis possessed no known capability to convert a SAM into an SSM.
Lastly, there is the newly developed Badr-1. Late last week, the Badr was allegedly fired at a Saudi ARAMCO facility in Najran. To date, there are no range or payload specifications publicly available in Arabic or Persian on the Badr. While an English-language Iranian outlet called the Badr an SRBM, it is likely that the Badr is actually a rocket. Moreover, there is no public information on any guidance system for the Badr. While the Badr somewhat resembles the solid-fueled Fajr-3 and Fajr-5, which are among Iran’s most famous (and widely proliferated) rockets, Yemen has birthed many indigenous rockets, like the Somoud, since the start of the conflict.
Saudi authorities have put the total number of launches at seven, claiming to have intercepted each one. However, multiple sources have cast doubt over the ability of Saudi Arabia’s US-supplied Patriot ballistic missile defense system to effectively intercept these missiles, even if fired properly.
Out of the above three projectiles, the Burkan-2H is the one that can most easily be traced back to Iran, while the Qaher-2M and (less so the) Badr-1 only hint at the theory of Iranian technical assistance or technology transfer. Nonetheless, the Islamic Republic continues to play an outsized role in the Yemeni conflict through its formula of covert weapons supply and overt political support. In response to the most recent missile attacks on Riyadh, a Saudi military spokesperson said the Kingdom, “reserve[d] the right to respond against Iran at the right time and right place.” With the war in the Arabian Peninsula now entering its fourth year, analysts and policymakers can no longer afford to treat such commentary as mere bluster.
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