Attack on Saudi Frigate off Yemen Was Made by Drone Boat

Just another ominous reminder that weaponized unmanned systems are increasingly the weapon of choice of non-state actors and militant groups. 

The successful swarming boat attack on the Saudi Frigate al Madinah in the southern Red Sea last January was thought to have been the result suicide bomber. Now, the US Navy claims that the boat that exploded at the stern of the frigate, killing two sailors and wounding three more, was remotely controlled.

Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan, commander of the Fifth Fleet and head of US Naval Forces Central Command, told Defense News this weekend, “Our assessment is that it was an unmanned, remote-controlled boat of some kind.” He went on to describe why this is a troubling realization:

“First that it is in the hands of someone like the Houthis. That’s not an easy thing to develop. There have been many terrorist groups that have tried to develop that, it’s not something that was just invented by the Houthis. There’s clearly support there coming from others, so that’s problematic. The second is the explosive boat piece—you don’t need suicide attackers to do a suicide-like attack. There are certain terrorists that do things and they get martyrs to go and do it. But there are many others that don’t want to martyr themselves in making attacks like that and that’s pretty much where the Houthis are. So it makes that kind of weaponry, which would normally take someone suicidal to use, now able to be used by someone who’s not going to martyr themselves.” 

Admiral Donegan talking naval warfare (AP photo).

Admiral Donegan also noted that he was not certain that the boat was built by the Iranians, who back Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, but he thinks its production is supported by Iran in some way. His conclusion comes as the result of examining reports detailing multiple shipments of interdicted arms and materiel sent from Iran to Houthi rebels. The admiral states:

“So we know that weapons were shipped from Iran to Yemen. The question is at what level and how many, etc. We know what was in the weapon inventory of Yemen before the conflict started, and the Yemenis didn’t have a weapon that could range Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. That’s an 800-kilometer ballistic missile shot, whereas the Scud missile, about 200 kilometers is what it can do. They had a rudimentary coastal defense missile. But most of their systems had atrophied. So they’re being supported by Iran. Maybe there’s others supporting them, I don’t know. But for certain these things aren’t indigenous, there are parts and components that need to be coming from other places to make them effective like this... My biggest concern now is you’ve got nation-state-like weapons in the hands of non-nation-states. It’s not in the hands of the duly-elected government of Yemen. Some of them because they were able to pick up inventories of other weapons, and some because they’ve been augmented.” 

Video showing the attack from the rear flight-deck of the Saudi frigate, read all about it here. 

His fear is that these weapons will be turned against shipping through the critical Mandeb Strait, which could severely affect world commerce and the stability of an already unstable region. Roughly 65 vessels transit the strait on any given day. He also notes that over the last 15 years the US fighting conflicts in the region, this is the first time insurgent or rebel groups have moved a conflict into the naval realm (partially accurate), and that makes the idea that non-state actors have such capable weapons that much more concerning. 

“We’ve often talked in the past about the Strait of Hormuz being closed up. But the Bab al Mandeb and the Red Sea are so important for a couple of reasons. For one you have this flow of commerce that goes up to the Suez Canal. Anything going through the Suez Canal is feeding the Egyptian economy. We really can’t afford to have a reduction to the Egyptian economy. It’s fragile and we can’t have that. The other piece that happens is, diverting around the Red Sea and Bab al Mandeb is something potentially that the oil industry may be able to accommodate with some initial cost, but industries like liquid natural gas, there is no excess capacity in the transporting of it, nor is there excess storage capacity at the destinations. So any kind of slowdown in traffic through the Bab al Mandeb is going to have a pretty quick impact on both the region but also on the global supply of energy. Because of that just-in-time liquid natural gas piece, there’ll be a delay before the oil will be able to move in a different direction, and then you’ll have the impact on the local economies that are getting their money—especially Egypt.”

I warned of the possibility of Iranian-backed Houthi rebels closing the strait two years ago just as the conflict emerged. I also described how the Iranian factor makes the situation far more ominous, as it’s possible they could act to close both the Strait of Hormuz and the Mandeb Strait simultaneously. The repercussions of such an act would be massive on a military, fiscal, and even humanitarian level. 

Iran is well known for their swarming fast-boat tactics and for their focus on pursuing unmanned technology, including remotely controlled surface vessels. The development of unmanned surface vessels is accelerating in the US and around the globe, but using them as guided munitions themselves is a development unique to the Middle East (AP photo). 

The fact that Houthi rebels are now fielding drone boats that can deliver deadly payloads by remote control is just another reminder of how improvised unmanned weapon systems are becoming the weapon of choice for traditionally low-tech insurgent and terror groups in the Middle East. A problem that is now moving from the air to the sea, which could wreak havoc on international shipping and the world economy. Just like the weaponization of hobby drones, this know-how will eventually spread to other parts of the globe and will represent serious security challenges for years to come.  

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com