The Missile War in Yemen is the first comprehensive review of missile and missile defense activity in the ongoing Yemen conflict. It reviews the events and trends that have shaped this part of the war, the strategy behind Houthi missile attacks, and how Houthi militants have acquired these weapons. It furthermore examines the ways the Arab coalition has countered the Houthi missile campaign, including its employment of Patriot missile defenses, efforts to close missile proliferation networks, and the efficacy of its attempts to destroy Houthi missile capabilities from the air.
The civil war in Yemen between the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Houthi movement is a conflict deeply rooted in the country’s decades-old political divides. Yet since the Saudi-led intervention in 2015 to support the Hadi government, the war has broadened to become an arena of competition between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The involvement of these parties has protracted the fighting and prompted a major humanitarian crisis. The influx of foreign involvement has also evolved the conflict into a modern war, one that may portend aspects of future wars.
One such aspect has been the extensive use of ballistic missiles, far more than any other conflict in recent history. With the assistance of Iran, Yemen’s Houthi rebels have fired hundreds of ballistic missiles to strike Arab coalition bases, population centers, and infrastructure. They have also launched nearly a dozen antiship cruise missiles against coalition and U.S. Navy warships as well as nearby shipping vessels and oil tankers. The Houthis have furthermore struck scores of targets with unguided artillery rockets. They have used armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to harass and assassinate coalition forces and attack economic targets in Saudi Arabia. Their increasingly capable surface-to-air missiles, furthermore, have downed a number of coalition aircraft and at least three U.S. drones.
The Saudi-led Arab coalition has countered the missile campaign with a three-pronged strategy. The coalition has launched hundreds of airstrikes to destroy Houthi missiles on the ground “left of launch.” The coalition has also imposed strict air and sea restrictions to block the flow of weaponry from Iran into Yemen and set up numerous checkpoints to interdict shipments over land. Finally, the coalition has relied on active air and missile defenses—primarily the Patriot system—to defend against Houthi launches. The conflict in Yemen has the unique distinction of featuring by far the greatest use of ballistic missile defenses of any conflict in history.
While parties have taken some steps toward ending the violence, continued Houthi possession and use of long-range missiles and drones complicates prospects for restoring stability. The presence of a hostile actor on its southern flank with long-range projectiles significantly raises the stakes for Saudi Arabia, making Riyadh less willing to accept a robust Houthi role in a future Yemeni government. If unchecked, moreover, Houthi missile activity could inadvertently widen the conflict, possibly pulling in the United States or bringing the United States into direct conflict with Iran. Mitigating the Houthi missile threat, as such, will be a necessary component of any lasting peace.