Houthi Scud missiles pose limited threat to Saudi Arabia
BEIRUT // Yemen’s Houthi rebels and their allies showed they were able to launch missile attacks on Saudi Arabia when they fired a Scud at the airbase town of Khamis Mushait.
The Saudi military intercepted the missile before it reached its target, and while more Scuds could be coming across the border, the impact of the weapon is likely to be muted due to their clumsy nature and the kingdom’s existing defence system.
Yemen is believed to have several different types of Scud missiles of both North Korean and Soviet origin. During 1994’s civil war between southern separatists and the forces of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, both sides used Scuds.
In December 2002, Spanish naval vessels stopped an unflagged North Korean cargo ship in the Arabian Sea 950 kilometres off the Horn of Africa. Fifteen Hwasong ballistic missiles – a North Korean variant of the Scud that the country reverse engineered in the 1980s and early 1990s – were found hidden under bags of cement.
The Spanish handed the ship over to the US Navy, but it was eventually allowed to continue on its way after Yemen’s government said it had ordered the missiles for defensive purposes.
The suspicious packing of the vessel raised eyebrows internationally, but Yemeni officials at the time blamed the bootleg-style transfer on the North Korean suppliers.
The North Korean Hwasong-6 missile is said to have a range of between 500 and 700 kilometres, though most sources estimate it at 500km, and can carry a payload of 800kg. The earlier Hwasong-5 has a range of about 300km and can carry a warhead of up to 1,000kg.
On Saturday, the kingdom’s state-run Saudi Press Agency said that the missile targeting Khamis Mushait was launched from the Houthi stronghold of Saada in northern Yemen. Just 185km away from Saada, Khamis Mushait is within reach of all versions of Scud missiles in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s largest cities – the capital Riyadh, the western port of Jeddah and the holy city of Mecca – as well as the oil-rich eastern province appear to be out of range of Houthi missiles. But southern cities such as Abha, Khamis Mushait, Najran and Jizan – the last two representing Saudi Arabia’s frontline against Houthi assaults on the kingdom – remain in danger.
It is not clear how many missiles Houthi forces currently have in their arsenal. Yemen’s military was believed to have had 300 Scud missiles when the conflict began – most of which fell under control of Houthi rebels and allied troops loyal to Mr Saleh, the former president.
On March 28, two days after the Saudi-led bombardment on Yemen began, coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Assiri said the bombing campaign had destroyed “most” of the rebels’ missile capabilities. On Saturday, Brig Gen Assiri asserted that 80 per cent of Yemen’s 300 or so missiles had been destroyed.
Some previous estimates of Yemen’s missile arsenal from defence analysis groups were much smaller.
On April 20, a coalition strike targeted a Scud missile base in Sanaa, killing 25.
But that still did not eliminate the Houthi’s missile capabilities.
In mid-May, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly noted a video that appeared to show a portable Scud missile launcher being transported under a tarpaulin in Amran province.
While the attempted use of a Scud against a Saudi town was clearly an escalation in the war, the infamously inaccurate and ineffective ballistic missiles are not likely to change the military balance.
In the past, Scuds have mostly served as a source of terror for civilian populations as opposed to a useful battlefield tool.
The last major, sustained use of Scud missiles came during the Gulf War as Iraq attempted to pelt Israel and Saudi Arabia. Forty-six Scuds were fired at targets in Saudi Arabia and 42 were sent towards Israel over the course of the war. A total of 31 people were killed in the Scud attacks, though 28 of those fatalities came when a Scud scored a direct hit on a US troops barracks in Dhahran.
More Israelis died from stress-induced heart attacks or from suffocating in faulty or improperly worn gas masks during the strikes than from the missiles.
Some Scuds missed their mark by dozens of kilometres, falling harmlessly into the empty desert or into the sea. Others broke up on re-entering the atmosphere.
Scuds were more damaging in the Iran-Iraq war when the countries bombarded one another’s cities with the missiles. Between 1987 and 1988, Iraq launched 200 Scud variants at Tehran, Qom and Isfahan. Without adequate means to defend against the torrent of missiles, up to 2,000 Iranians are believed to have been killed by Iraqi Scuds.
Patriot missiles, produced by the US defence contracting firm Raytheon, were employed by the Saudis to defend against Scuds during the Gulf War and batteries remain in place around Saudi cities and military installations today. The Saudis credit a Patriot missile battery with destroying the Scud bound for Khamis Mushait early on Saturday.
Initially hailed as a silver bullet against ballistic missiles by the US government, their effectiveness was called into question after the Gulf War ended. Though combined with the clumsy nature of the Scud and upgrades to the Patriot since the Gulf War, they have been seen as an adequate defence.
Updated: June 7, 2015 04:00 AM