Houthi attacks from Yemen show need for controls on advanced missile technology proliferation

By James Brady | January 12, 2024

A US guided-missile destroyer engages Houthi missiles and drones in the Red Sea in October 2023. (Credit: US Navy / Aaron Lau)

Since the conflict between Israel and Gaza escalated after the October 7 Hamas attacks, tensions rose in other parts of the Middle East, particularly in Yemen. Since November, Houthi rebels—an Iran-backed armed group operating from western Yemen—have engaged in an extensive campaign, using advanced missile technology to attack targets in the Red Sea and beyond; the group has said the attacks are in solidarity with Palestinians under Israeli bombardment in Gaza. That a non-state armed group possesses such strike capability marks a new era in the proliferation of these advanced missile technology.

Houthi rebels are reportedly the first belligerent to deploy anti-ship ballistic missiles in conflict. While initial missile attacks did not hit any vessels (perhaps deliberately), the US Central Command later said that a Liberian-flagged container vessel, the MV Platinum 3, was struck by one of these missiles. In another episode indicative of the Houthi’s current missile capabilities, Israel reportedly shot down in November a ballistic missile using, for the first time, its new Arrow-3 interceptor. The ballistic missile was fired from the direction of Yemen, giving a strong presumption that it was launched by Houthi rebels.

In December, after French and US naval vessels shot down numerous systems off the Yemeni coast, a spokesperson for the Houthis claimed responsibility for an attack on a Norwegian-owned chemical tanker which was hit with a cruise missile. Finally this week, in an escalatory step, a US- and UK-led coalition conducted strikes on Houthi bases inside Yemen to halt its missile attacks. The retaliatory strikes came a day after US and UK warships intercepted 21 drones and missiles fired from Yemen and aimed at ships in the Red Sea—the largest attack by Houthi rebels to date.

While the use of long-range ballistic and cruise missiles in the Middle East has surged in recent weeks, it’s a trend that has been building for years. Non-state armed groups in multiple conflict zones have acquired new missile systems with long-range capabilities that could cause a shift in strategic considerations. These new proliferation pathways for non-state armed groups to advanced missile capabilities pose challenges about how states should respond.

Strategic capabilities. Since at least 2018, experts appointed by the United Nations to monitor the conflict in Yemen have documented the use of a range of missiles by Houthi forces. They’ve identified the use of old stockpiles of Chinese-supplied anti-ship C-802 cruise missiles to attack shipping in the Red Sea as well as other cruise missiles of unconfirmed origin to attack oil storage facilities in Saudi Arabia.

The UN’s Yemen panel also identified a modified ballistic missile, the Borkan-2H, which their reporting suggests was built with a suite of components that appear to have originated from Iranian manufacturers. These components were likely smuggled into Yemen in parts and then assembled locally.

The range and accuracy of these systems is significant. When targeted correctly the C-802 anti-ship missiles can be used to hit targets out as far as 120 kilometers. The same report says that the Borkan-2H—which includes modified components to reduce its weight and increase its range—has been used to attack targets at more than 800 kilometers and up to 1,000 kilometers.

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In Libya, forces aligned with General Haftar in the east of the country acquired a stockpile of old SCUD missiles from the Gaddafi era and conducted demonstration launches, indicating they’ve managed to get some of them back to working order. While the utility of missiles on the battlefield might be lower in comparison to drones seen recently in the Azerbaijan-Armenia and Russia-Ukraine conflicts, high-payload, long-range missile systems pose a threat to airports, civilian infrastructure, and large troop formations in Libyan government-controlled territory.

Despite being all conventionally armed, these systems’ accuracy and range are increasingly relevant to strategic considerations due to their ability to threaten national infrastructure such as oil refineries or nuclear reactors, strangle maritime trade routes, and shut down international airspace. (Lest it be forgotten that a Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missile was used to shoot down the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in 2014 while flying over Ukraine, murdering all 298 people on board.)

In both Libya and Yemen, non-state armed groups can acquire such destabilizing weapon systems through multiple pathways: Missiles can either be refurbished from captured stockpiles, transferred from sponsor states, or even assembled in artisanal factories with parts purchased on the open-market. These pathways currently pose major non-proliferation challenges for states as an increasing number of people learn the skills and tactics required for developing, manufacturing, and deploying these weapons.

A further destabilizing feature of the spread of these long-range missile systems to non-state actors relates to these actors’ status on the political scene. Possessing such capabilities may give non-state actors more leverage at the international level, be less willing or able to negotiate than state actors, or may view themselves as severely pressured into using their newfound capabilities in a “use-it-or-lose-it” type dynamic. State sponsors of such proxy forces might have limited capacity to curtail the onward transfer of missile technology or be indifferent to the fate of such newfound tacit knowledge. Either way, negotiating with these emboldened non-state groups is a bitter prospect.

Export controls and missile components. Existing international measures, such as the Missile Technology Control Regime, which restricts transfers or sale of weapons with ranges above 300 kilometers and payloads above 500 kilograms by member states—as well as a range of equipment useful for their production—already attempt to curtail the spread of advanced missile capabilities. (The Missile Technology Control Regime was established in 1987 by the Group of Seven (G7) seeking to restrict the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It is now signed by 35 member states.)

As the global economy has developed, however, new supply chains have opened for potential missile manufacturers.

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Many of the missile components which have been picked over by the UN Panels of Experts or groups conducting investigations in the field—such as Conflict Armament Research or the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies—indicate that current missile threats no longer need to rely on controlled items to have strategic significance. The range of components that are needed for guidance systems, flight control systems, or mechanical parts are obtained through convoluted supply routes and are paid for through financial institutions which may be still coming to terms with their role in facilitating the development of unrecognized missile threats.

As non-state actors increasingly possess sophisticated missile capabilities, the barriers to entry for an aspiring missile force are falling dramatically. Financial institutions which are facilitating the flow of funds for the procurement of components found in such missile systems should be aware of an increasing level of scrutiny as states come to terms with the strategic implications of these new weapons programs.

Building awareness and financial investigations. Under the Financial Action Task Force (another international organization founded by the Group of Seven that promotes international financial standards to combat money laundering and terrorism financing), states are now required to conduct risk assessments focused on proliferation financing. But to conduct these assessments, national authorities will need to gain a better understanding of the cross-over between nuclear proliferation threats and the new missile threats. In fact, the typologies of illicit procurement of missile technology share many of the same characteristics of the illicit trade associated with nuclear programs: the evasion of export controls and the pursuit of technology from willing suppliers or from unwitting partners.

States could reduce the risks of further destabilizing proliferation of high-profile missile systems by raising awareness among export control agencies and financial authorities of procurement pathways of below-threshold items and how they’re used in missile technology. In particular, component manufacturers and financial institutions alike would do well to begin analyzing their risk exposure to the supply chains involved in missile proliferation. Because with high demand come high profits.

Profit incentives for brokers and resellers will be high as the market for components in missile capabilities is expected to grow in the coming years. Financial institutions should pay attention to this market by reviewing their customers with any potential linkages to groups armed with these systems. They could also review logistics companies engaged in unusual deliveries of missile-relevant technology into the porous border regions of nearby states.

More cooperation between the public and private sectors internationally is needed to tackle the spread of strategically destabilizing missile systems. Surely, countering the proliferation of such weapon systems or decommissioning them using non-violent actions will be difficult, but it is a challenge worth rising to.

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Charles Forsberg
Charles Forsberg
5 months ago

The Houthi control about half the population of Yemen. Whether we like it or not, they are way beyond some rebel group. Our Saudi friends invaded Yemen with U.S. weapons about 9 years ago to put down this rebellion and are now trying to get a peace treaty with them. Like the Roman Empire about 2000 years ago that sent in the legion, things did not turn out well. Would not claim to have solutions–but must start with reality on the ground and that history..