Houthis increase use of suicide drone boats in recent weeks

Photo released by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen on Mar. 4 showing the new fishing boat design for the Houthi suicide drone boat program.

Over the last few weeks, Yemen’s Houthi rebels have increased their usage of explosive-laden drone boats. The geographic scope of this threat has also expanded as the Houthis have recently exported the tactic to the Arabian Sea.

Beginning on Feb. 23, the Saudi-led coalition reported that its ships in the Red Sea intercepted an explosive-laden drone boat (or ‘suicide’ drone boat) attempting to target an unspecified ship near Hodeidah.

A few weeks later on Mar. 3, the Saudi coalition reported the interception of a pack of suicide drone boats attempting to target an oil tanker near the port town of Nishtun in the Arabian Sea. While the attack failed, it represented several shifts in this tactic.

The failed attack represents the first known instance of the tactic being used by the Houthis outside of the Red Sea. Given the distance from Houthi-controlled territory, it is not immediately clear where the boats were launched from.

Additionally, the Mar. 3 attempt also marked the first use of a new design in the Houthi drone boat program. As H.I Sutton notes in Forbes, the new design largely resembles normal fishing boats. This is a change from prior types where in the Houthis utilized fast-moving craft like the so-called “blow fish” design.

Out of the four drone boats that approached the oil tanker, only one reportedly contained explosives. By utilizing a pack of these drones disguised as fishing boats, this makes it harder for ships to detect a threat.

Moreover, hiding the explosives in just one drone may make it harder to determine which boat poses the most danger.

And on Mar. 7, the Saudi coalition stated it destroyed six suicide drone boats in the harbor of as-Salif in several airstrikes. As part of a wider campaign in the region, the Saudis also claimed to have destroyed drone boat and naval mine assembly plants in the vicinity.

This is not the first time the Saudis have reported airstrikes on Houthi boats in the town. Last June, the coalition reported it destroyed 9 suicide drone boats in the waters off of as-Salif. Saudi officials commented that the boats “intended to target international shipping.”

Houthi naval mines

Houthis are not only employing the use of suicide drone boats in the Red Sea. Late last month, several naval mines were also intercepted and destroyed. On Feb. 11, Yemeni forces dismantled 7 naval mines off the coast of Yemen’s Hajjah Governorate. On Feb. 23, three mines were destroyed in the Bab al Mandeb strait.

Houthi-placed naval mines are a common tactic used by the insurgent group in the Red Sea. Earlier last month, three Egyptian fisherman were killed by one of these mines.

As of Feb. 23, at least 150 naval mines have been dismantled in the Red Sea according to the Saudi coalition.

Despite being a lesser focus of the Houthi military apparatus, and underreported in the media, naval attacks conducted by the insurgent movement constitute a real threat to shipping in the southern Red Sea and now potentially the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

Caleb Weiss is a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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