What are the Houthi ballistic missiles and how do militias obtain them?

Iran is supplying the fighters with a growing arsenal of increasingly accurate projectiles

Yemen's Houthi rebels have carried out a series of bloody attacks in recent weeks, including a Sunday night rocket strike on a mosque and religious school in Marib that killed 29 civilians, including women and children.

The northern Yemeni militia has, over the past seven years, developed an increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile arsenal, despite a UN arms embargo on the country.

What ballistic missiles do the Houthis in Yemen have and from where did they obtain them?

On October 13, another missile struck a petrol station near the contested city, killing “dozens”, one of several similar attacks this year. On Friday, a missile struck a tribal meeting, killing at least 13 people before Sunday's missile attack on the mosque in Marib.

The strikes may seem random but Yemeni government officials say they are aimed at influential local leaders and vital economic infrastructure, breaking international humanitarian law – the Geneva Conventions, for example, prohibits the targeting of civilian infrastructure, or "civilian objects".

Numerous reports, including a comprehensive UN Panel of Experts investigation in 2020, show strong links between the Houthi missile programme and weapons designed and supplied by Iran. Tehran has long displayed expertise in building ballistic missiles but in recent years it has improved their accuracy dramatically.

So, too, have the Houthi rebels, who have gone from firing relatively unreliable projectiles blindly towards government-held areas. to be able to strike with a worrying level of accuracy, as seen in the homing in on specific targets around the government’s last northern stronghold of Marib.

The Houthis' missile arsenal

UN weapons inspectors, ballistics experts and the Saudi Arabia-led coalition have analysed evidence, including debris left after strikes and the Yemeni rebels regular displays of projectiles in propaganda videos, to gain a fair picture of the situation.

During the opening phases of the war in 2014 and 2015 as the rebels seized Sanaa and the international coalition intervened at the request of the government of Yemen, much of the group's weapons systems came from raided military stockpiles and modifications to the plentiful munitions on the battlefield.

However, that has changed over time and experts have increasingly spoken of Iran's hand in helping the Yemeni rebel group to develop and build increasingly sophisticated missiles.

The bulk of the Houthis' arsenal today appears to be made up of the Burkan-3 for longer-range strikes up to 1,200 kilometres, the shorter range Badr P-1 rockets, with a 150km range and the Soviet-era Frog-7, which Houthis call the Zelzal, with a 65km range.

The Burkan-3 missile — a modified Iranian Qiam missile, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, can hit targets 1,200km away, based on analysis by Ralph Savelsberg, ballistic missile expert at the Netherlands Defence Academy.

It is the rebels' longest-range missile but is also inaccurate. It is more often used in rocket attacks across the border at targets in Saudi Arabia.

Most of the Houthis' ballistic missiles are powerful enough to completely destroy a house or mosque. Experts say these are modelled on known Iranian weapons and were most likely made in Iran in pieces, smuggled by boat into Yemen then reassembled.

This was confirmed by a US briefing in February 2020 on the seizure of a dhow, which was loaded with missile components bound for Yemen.

"Several components in the interdicted SAMs include the air data computer, the INS, and the vertical gyro, which have all been identified on other Iranian weapons systems," said Centcom, the US general headquarters for the Middle East.

The Burkan is based on a Soviet-era Scud C missile, once feared by US-led coalition forces during the First Gulf War but increasingly vulnerable to modern missile defences.

It is designed to be hard to intercept as it flies towards its target at a steep angle at extremely high speed. However, US-made Patriot Air Defence systems in Saudi Arabia are more than capable of intercepting such rockets.

The rockets fired at Marib, however, are likely to be much shorter range given that the area is on the front lines between government and rebel forces.

The Frog-7, or Zelzal, is a fast, short-range missile with a top speed of Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound and a range of only 65km. It is, however, extremely inaccurate. Some sources indicate that on average it will hit within 400 metres of the intended target.

That makes it more dangerous in populated areas where it could easily hit civilians but also less likely to be used in targeted strikes against tribal meetings, for example, that require a more accurate projectile.

How the Houthis are aiming to acquire more accurate missiles

There is evidence that Iranian advisers in Lebanon have fitted a variant of the Zelzal, the Zelzal-2, with a GPS guidance kit that makes the crude-but-fast missile far more accurate.

It is possible that the Yemeni militia is also using such a modified missile to hit specific targets at shorter range.

The Houthis also have the shorter range Badr P-1 missile with a range of 150km. In 2018, the rebels claimed it was far more accurate than any previous missile in its inventory, able to hit a target as small as 3m in diameter.

Analysis of a 2018 Badr P-1 missile attack in Yemen by The Atlantic Council think tank concluded that the missile was highly accurate and almost certainly fired by the Houthis with Iranian assistance.

Such claims are impossible to verify without independent testing, however.

Updated: November 1st 2021, 12:14 PM