Examining Yemen Carries Out Missile Strikes Against Saudi Arabia
The aggressive war waged by Saudi Arabia against Yemen took a new turn this week, when Yemenis launched a Burkan H-2 missile at the royal palace in Riyadh. According to reports, a Saudi Patriot Missile battery shot it down before it hit the palace.
This was not the first attack. Nor was it the first that came close to hitting its target – something very worrying to nations in the region since the typical Scud missile used in the region is notoriously inaccurate. On November 4, it was reported by Saudis that a Patriot missile intercepted an Iranian-manufactured Burkan H-2 missile as its reentry vehicle plunged toward the international airport outside Riyadh.
International reaction was varying. Though the missile was launched from Yemen, Saudi leaders called the attack an act of “aggression” by Iran. The US (who is militarily involved in Yemen) joined the Saudis by denouncing it. A human rights organization said the “indiscriminate” missile attack was “an apparent war crime.” But Iran denied that it was involved.
The missile attack signals that war of words between Saudi Arabia and Iran is escalating and more western observers are sounding alarms of what they are labeling a proxy war in Yemen that will become more intense.
But, the problem isn’t just limited to potential escalation. American foreign policy over the past 6 years encouraged what was to happen according to Saudi apologists who concluded that the Iranian leaders are benefitting since 2011 “Arab Spring revolts “and the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011 that created a regional power vacuum. To them, this encouraged Iranian involvement in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.
They are claiming that “Arab Spring” chaos in Yemen presented Iran with a target of opportunity. In 2011 a revolt forced Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh to cede power in early 2012. Vice-president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi replaced him. In 2014, Houthi fighters seized the capital, Sanaa. In 2015, they took over Yemen’s government. Hadi then went into exile in Saudi Arabia.
When Hadi went into exile, Saudi Arabia began its aggression and airstrikes on Yemen. In the meantime, the Houthi rebels have accused Hadi of treason and sentenced him to death in absentia.
Although the Houthi aren’t totally in line with the Iranian leadership, it is perceived by Saudi and their allies that Iran is providing the rebels with arms, intelligence, and expertise.
From the Saudi point of view, if the Houthis dominate Yemen, Iran will have a generally unpopulated and unguarded land frontier with Saudi Arabia that they can infiltrate to destabilize the House of Saud. With the aid of the U.S., the Saudis formed a coalition to support Hadi government under their control.
So far this criminal war on Yemen of more than 1000 days has killed some 9,000 Yemenis and injured 60,000. 18 million displaced people need food and medical assistance. This is an international catastrophe since Yemen’s total population is only 28.5 million.
Since the Saudis conduct indiscriminate air strikes on Yemenis inflicting enormous loss of innocent lives and destruction, the Houthis portray the missile attacks as legitimate retaliatory measures. The Saudis, however, are certain that the November 4th and December 19th missiles were fired with the help of Iran.
Iran denies the charge and others disagree with the Saudi analysis. Some say Hezbollah is responsible since they have considerable missile experience. There are also claims that the missiles came from North Korea, which has shipped Scud type missiles to Yemen in the past.
In order to determine the source of the missiles that struck Saudi Arabia, we need to look at what is known about Hezbollah, Iran, and North Korea’s missile technology. Then we need to look at the wreckage, which has been photographed by private citizens in Riyadh and official presentations by both the Saudis and Americans.
Yemen’s Missile Origins
It appears that the missiles are Burkan H-2 missiles, which are a variation of the Scud liquid fueled missile originally designed by the Soviets in the 1950s.
Of the three accused groups – Hezbollah, Iran, and North Korea – only two – North Korea and Iran – have the capability to build a Scud type missile. Hezbollah has built smaller solid fuel missiles and reportedly have received Scud variant missiles from Syria. However, the ability to master the variety of skills and technology to build a liquid fueled missile with a range of hundreds of miles is not known or yet reported capabilities of Hezbollah.
This leaves Iran and North Korea as possible sources of the Burkan H-2. Both have the industrial capability and expertise. In addition, they have collaborated with each other in order to improve their missile capability.
This week, the US made it clear that they considered the missiles that hit Saudi Arabia came from Iran. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the attack on the Riyadh bore “all the hallmarks of previous attacks using Iranian-provided weapons.”
The most critical piece of evidence was that the missile didn’t have external fins. Fins give the missile stability, but add weight and increase drag. Removing the fins, however, does increase the range. However, there is only one short range, liquid fueled ballistic missile that doesn’t have external fins, that relies totally on graphite vanes located in the exhaust plume, and that is the Iranian Qiam missile (which is the basis of the Burkan missile).
Removing the external fins isn’t easy because it requires a more sophisticated guidance technology. Consequently, it isn’t something that either the North Koreans or the Yemenis are perceived to do at this point.
Additional proof was claims that the Iranian markings found on structural components and engine parts. In addition, the circuit boards in the guidance system were also claimed to be of Iranian origin.
Although an analysis of the wreckage showed that it is closely related to the Scud missile type, Iran has made some changes in order to increase range. The missile has more aluminum, which makes it lighter. Close-ups of the engine wreckage show that the engine itself is a Scud variant, but of lower quality.
Another quality issue was some of the welding. While some of the welding was professional and probably done at the plant manufacturing the missile, other weld seams were very amateurish. These poor welds are more likely to fail in flight.
Experts think the reason for the amateurish welds was to reassemble the missile after being smuggled through the Saudi blockade. Since the missile is less than a meter in diameter, disassembling the missile would make it easy to hide in other shipments.
There were other differences in addition to the lack of external fins. There is a reentry vehicle that can detach from the missile during reentry. There is also a more sophisticated guidance system than that found in the original Scud Missile.
The original Scud guidance system was an analog device based on gyros and clockwork that determined the engine burn time and angle of flight. The gyros would detect any deviation and send electrical signals to the graphite vanes to correct the course. This system would also be immune to damage from a nearby nuclear blast, which would damage electronic systems.
The Burkan missile’s guidance system is electronic and more accurate. And, since there appear to be antennae attached on the outside of the missile, it appears to have a manual override. This is why the missile has a more accurate CEP (circle error probability) of half a kilometer.
The other notable modification is a reentry vehicle with a blunt nose that slows the speed of reentry. It shifts the missile balance backwards, which improves flight stability and lessens the need for external fins. However, by slowing the reentry vehicle it makes interception easier and makes the vehicle more susceptible to wind drift.
Are Burkan Missiles Invulnerable to Patriot Missiles?
Based on a report by the New York Times, there has been some question if the Saudi Patriot missile battery actually intercepted and destroyed the Yemeni missile.
A forensic analysis of photos and video of the Burkan missile wreckage displayed by the US indicates that it was probably hit by a Patriot missile. The wreckage showed considerable scorching and damage just above the engine, which may be the damage from the Patriot missile.
Whether the Patriot hit the missile before the reentry vehicle separated is classified. However, forensic evidence from the wreckage indicates that the reentry vehicle broke up – either from the Patriot missile hit or dynamic forces of reentry.
There were three types of damage to the reentry vehicle that indicates it broke up into two or three parts before hitting the ground.
The rear part of the re-entry vehicle, where the explosives were placed, show scorching and fragmentation indicative of an explosion. This tends to confirm reports of an explosion in Riyadh. However, it doesn’t indicate if the warhead properly exploded in or around the airport, or the amount of damage it caused.
The middle part of the reentry vehicle has broken up, but shows no sign of scorching. Some parts show bending, which indicates that it may have been ripped apart by dynamic forces during reentry. Since there is no scorching, this part of the reentry vehicle probably was torn away from the lower part of the reentry vehicle before the explosion took place.
Fragments from the tip of the reentry vehicle show signs of melting. This indicates that the reentry vehicle hit the atmosphere at a higher speed than it was designed for. The melting would have weakened the vehicle structure and radically changed the aerodynamics. This, in turn, would have caused the vehicle to start to tumble and tear apart.
Given the wreckage, it is not conclusive that a Patriot missile did hit the Burkan missile. Without the confidential radar data, we don’t know if the hit was before or after the reentry vehicle had separated. However, the reentry vehicle did separate from the rest of the missile and then broke apart from poor design, dynamic forces, or a patriot missile hit. No matter what, it was enough to prevent a completely successful hit. It is highly possible that Yemenis were able to locally master manufacturing and modifying Scud missiles to be able to lunch such missiles.
Needless to say, much that is written about the missile attack depends on the preconceived notions of the writers. Those who insist that anti-missile systems are relatively worthless like those who wrote the New York Times piece will insist that these attacks prove that anti-missile systems are incapable of reliably hitting missiles.
On the other hand, advocates of anti-missile systems like the Patriot will look at the interception rate and insist that they are worthwhile.
But, missiles and anti-missile systems aside, how will they impact this war that doesn’t seem to have any chance of ending?
Does Saudi Arabia have the power to continue this war on Yemen? Not by itself. It has the assets as long as the US continues to sell weapons to it. Its anti-Iran coalition could extend the war beyond Yemen, but it would be an indecisive war. Without the participation of U.S. forces, or toppling the Iranian regime by military means which is an adventure no one dares to pursue and a mission impossible.
This raises the possibility that Trump may authorize a secret campaign aiming to destabilize the Iranian regime and likely will be doomed to fail.
Of course, the US is already involved in Yemen. The Defense Department on Wednesday acknowledged for the first time “multiple ground operations” in Yemen, while noting that ISIS has doubled in size in the war-torn country.
“U.S. forces have conducted multiple ground operations and more than 120 strikes in 2017,” said a statement from the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida.
The goal is to “disrupt the ability of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS-Yemen to use ungoverned spaces in Yemen as a hub for terrorist recruiting, training and base of operations to export terror worldwide.”
But, there is another problem in the strategy to pushback against Iran. Iran remains capable to obtaining nuclear weapons if it wishes or pushed in that direction, and the timing isn’t if, but when.
The Saudis have ballistic missiles and the cash to buy or build nukes. Moreover, they now have the support of a new American administration that says it won’t permit a nuclear armed Iran.
But, the current Saudi air war against Yemen, or the Houthi missile attacks against the Saudis will not win this war. As we have mentioned in the past, history shows that air wars without ground soldiers – from the Battle of Britain to the American air war against ISIS – will not succeed.
With the naval blockade, the Houthi will not be able to bring in whole Burkan missiles from Iran if they wish, which means the possibility of resorting to smuggling in the parts and welding them together.
Saudi Arabia and its allies can’t win the war with air strikes and a limited military presence in Yemen. They have to commit to a ground war and the military forces necessary to wage such an operation.
In the end, the decision will be made in Riyadh. Crown Prince Salman will have to decide how long he can continue tis risky adventure to challenge Iran instead of seeking mutual respect and understanding. If it is the prime foreign policy objective of Saudi Arabia, we can expect the conflict to continue and escalate.