Are Yemen’s Houthis the Future of War?

They're kicking ass — on the cheap

If you want to see the future of war, look closely at the fighting in Yemen.

There, the Houthis, a rebel group based in the country’s northwest, have fought the lavishly funded and equipped militaries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to a standstill. They have even proven capable of launching attacks deep inside Saudi Arabia. How did this poor, lightly equipped and armed rebel group do it? And what does it mean for the United States, which continues to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in complex, costly, and vulnerable weapons systems?

First, the Houthis have grasped the algebra of insurgency. In an article penned in 1920, T.E. Lawrence argued that insurgents would be victorious if they understood and applied a set of “algebraical factors.” He listed these as mobility, force security, and respect for the populace. The Houthis have refined and applied all three to varying degrees over the last decade.

The Houthi forces are small and highly mobile, and this, combined with Yemen’s mountainous terrain, provides them with force security. Most critically, they and their allies have respected the local populace by providing—at least relative to southern Yemen—high levels of security and predictability.

Sana’a, the capital of Yemen and a city of at least five million, is relatively crime- and al-Qaeda-free, and some basic public services continue to be provided despite a four-year-long blockade, ongoing aerial bombardment, and no electricity. Sana’a is, by necessity, the first capital city to be almost entirely dependent on solar power.

(This is not to say, however, that the Houthis and their allies are not guilty of corruption, human rights violations, even war crimes—they are. All sides in the Yemen conflict have committed such violations.)

Second, the Houthis have enthusiastically embraced the use of drones. They have no air force, no consistent means of defense against the Saudi and Emirati aircraft that have controlled Yemen’s airspace for four years. Yet with the use of cheap and relatively easily manufactured drones, they have conducted aerial surveillance and launched attacks on targets, including ones in Saudi Arabia. Drones, even more than the missiles the Houthis build and launch, have been a game changer, and have been seamlessly integrated into the Houthis’ already mobile and capable forces.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE (the latter of which is now shifting most of its forces out of Yemenhave been largely caught off guard by the Houthis’ use of drones and have struggled to defend their forces and those of their proxies. The Houthis have used seaborne drones to attack ships and aerial drones to guide artillery and missile fire, attack and confuse U.S.-supplied Patriot missile defense systems, and even target ranking officers at a military parade.

Even apart from the artificial intelligence that drives them and can already make them wholly autonomous, drones are the most disruptive military technology yet conceived. They are cheap, deniable, and will only become more capable—especially in the hands of committed and creative rebel groups. Iran was one of the first countries to recognize this and early on it supplied drones and technical advice to its ally Hezbollah. Tehran saw the same opportunity with the Houthis: a rebel group that knew how to apply the algebra of insurgency and was in a position to take on Iran’s regional foes.

While there have been numerous claims and counter-claims by various governments and intelligence services about Iranian aid to the Houthis, in the first two years of the Saudi- and Emirati-led intervention in Yemen, this assistance was limited. The relationship between Tehran and the Houthis’ leadership was often rocky.

However, Iran has—over the last two years—supplied technical advice and some key components for drones and missiles to the Houthis. Despite the irascible nature of many of the Houthis’ leaders, it was not going to pass up an opportunity to hinder Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Iran’s intelligence services, which are formidable, must have closely studied American tactics during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the early 1980s, U.S. aid to the mujahideen was limited. As a result, they struggled to make consistent gains against the Soviets who used attack helicopters to target and break up concentrations of fighters. That changed with the introduction of the man-portable air defense system, the Stinger. The U.S. eventually supplied between 2,000 and 2,500 missiles to the mujahideen between 1986 and the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. While the role of the Stingers in the Soviet decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is often exaggerated, they nonetheless undoubtedly hastened that retreat.

Iran made the same calculations with the Houthis that the U.S. made with the mujahideen. It saw two of their regional foes make the mistake of intervening in a complex, messy civil war in a country with terrain similar to that of Afghanistan. Like the Americans in the initial years of the Soviet occupation, the Iranians at first only provided a dribble of aid, primarily financial. Only after the Houthis proved themselves capable and only after the Saudis and Emiratis fully committed themselves to the war did the Iranians increase their assistance.

For millions of dollars, as opposed to the billions spent by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Iranians provided the Houthis with a cheap and disruptive technology: drones. But unlike the Stinger missile system, which was complex and could never have been manufactured by a guerrilla force, drones are relatively simple. They can be designed, built, and modified by rebel groups—especially ones as capable as the Houthis, who are allied with a significant part of what was the Yemeni Army.

The Houthis are demonstrating this capability with their own drones. These are based on Iranian designs, only modified and tailored to meet their specific requirements. 

With the advent of three-dimensional printing, it will be even easier for violent non-state actors to manufacture sophisticated drones that will fill numerous battlefield niches. States that aid and sponsor non-state actors will supply them with these drones without ever having to ship or smuggle them. They will simply send an electronic file that will contain the programs that will drive the three-dimensional printers and the drones themselves.

The war in Yemen points to a future where the overly complex weapons systems that the U.S. buys at the behest of its military-industrial complex may be rendered less and less effective. It is worth remembering the words of the fighter pilot, reformer, and military strategist Colonel John Boyd, who argued, “whoever can handle the quickest rate of change is the one who survives.” Insurgent groups, the successful ones, possess an innate understanding of this.

U.S. policymakers would do well to look closely at how the Houthis, with minimal—but strategic—aid from Iran, have stymied both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. America’s continued focus on spending hundreds of billions of dollars on weapons systems like the F-35 may well leave it unprepared to grapple with a world where disruptive, cheap, and easily manufactured drones paired with rebel groups who understand and apply the algebra of insurgency can frustrate and even defeat the best equipped militaries.

Source: The American Conservative

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ArcAngel
ArcAngel
3 months ago

Good article with many good points…
Alas…with all respect to the author, this is NOT new. Not even close.

I humbly suggest the author check into one, US Marine Corp Lt General Paul van Riper and the 2002 War Games called “Millennium Challenge 2002” and it results.
He PROVED this exact concept… and EVERYBODY knows it.

Especially the “Military Industrial Congressional Complex” of the US… but there is no obscene profits to be made off of inexpensive, off-the-shelf tech, low tech, survivable weapon systems that actually work.
This was a hot topic in the 1970’s and 80’s in Air Force circles, as the Soviets were building fighter aircraft that were inexpensive, rugged, survivable and could be serviced, in time of war, in the field.
The US of course went with ‘gee whiz’, “high tech”, extremely vulnerable, systems that NEVER lived up to their “mission requirements”. Purchasing aircraft where 10-20 people have to walk in a line picking up FOD so the fighter can take off. Crazy!

Every Intelligent Military took note of General Riper’s results – 80% total destruction of the fleet. It would seem whom ever is running the Yemeni war for the Houthi’s they also took notice.

This type of warfare has been goin on for centuries. Small, determined local force v a large invading force w/ superior weapons… do I need to state examples…I think not as there are so many.
“Future of War” … hardly
Lessons learned from the past, like 17 years ago, yes. The Houthi’s get it.
Perhaps a little more study of the past for the “American Conservative”

ArcAngel
ArcAngel
3 months ago
Reply to  ArcAngel

Forgot to mention:
In the War Games of 2002, General Riper played the part of “Iran”
Classic.

CHUCKMAN
3 months ago

Interesting and perceptive article.

Some really important points made.

Drones are a revolutionary kind of weapon. Relatively low-cost, Highly adaptable. Immensely flexible.

Nice to see some little guys able to hurt a truly ugly bully like Saudi Arabia.

Edward Singh
Edward Singh
3 months ago
Reply to  CHUCKMAN

The ugly bully got his ass kicked by the little guy

Jesus
Jesus
3 months ago

The aglgebra of insurgency was instituted long ago, recently we saw Vietnam, Afghanistan ….etc, Saudi and EAE military incompetency make Houthis look good.
If Russian forces were deployed against Houthis, their algebra of insurgency would collapse.

Edward Singh
Edward Singh
3 months ago
Reply to  Jesus

The only army worth mentioning in the arab and muslim world is the iranian army, they can kick ass.

bilal ahmad
bilal ahmad
3 months ago
Reply to  Edward Singh

you are obviously ignorant; ever heard of pakistan army

gabart
gabart
3 months ago
Reply to  bilal ahmad

And what’s so important about the Pakistani army? Its proxies have been defeated in Kashmir by the Indian paramilitary forces and all the ISI can do is support terrorists groups attacking civilians in India.

bilal ahmad
bilal ahmad
3 months ago
Reply to  gabart

that’s the idiotic indian version on their ignorant press and a tea boy turned prime minister, Indians should be ashamed of themselves; ten times larger than pakistan and yet the sink down constantly blabbering against pakistan who recently shot down three indian aircraft in one go.

Edward Singh
Edward Singh
3 months ago
Reply to  bilal ahmad

How many wars did pakistan won, if i remember right east pakistan was part of pakistan, i also remember that sikh general jagjit singh aurora kicked ass and his army took 93000 prisioners

gabart
gabart
3 months ago
Reply to  bilal ahmad

C’mon… I am not in favor of or against Pakistan or India, but you should accept reality of the situation… after all your country is bankrupt and was bailed out by the Saudi terrorists and the IMF. The Pakistani and Indian nuclear arsenals are a real and present danger to the world!

bilal ahmad
bilal ahmad
3 months ago
Reply to  gabart

Another idiot with twisted logic, So the Indian and Pakistani nukes are real and present danger to the world but the Israel, American, Russian, Chinese nukes are not? specially when the criminal state of America has already used nukes against civilians and the criminal Zionist state is murdering children, women and frail old men is occupied Palestine. to call you a liar and mentally unstable would be an understatement.

gabart
gabart
3 months ago
Reply to  bilal ahmad

Um? I have never said your nuclear arsenal is the ONLY danger to the world, but you´re insisting in your warmongering rhetoric… dear Bilal, you are an intolerant, bellicose person that cannot accept the true without insulting other people, however I fully understand your poor situation, ’cause the corrupt, jingoistic military caste in Islamabad and its puppet civilian governments are always siphoning Pakistani resources away from the people and spending very little on education and social development…

bilal ahmad
bilal ahmad
3 months ago
Reply to  gabart

LOL….So it dawns that either you are a hindu slum dweller or some trash hindu slumdog sympathiser. I am delighted I was able to hound out an uneducated idiot like you, it was easy. You seems to think we all need to agree with your ignorant views.

Certainly white trash countries and hindu slumdogs hate Pakistan and muslims in general because we have beaten the shit out of you in every land of ours you thieves came into to steal oil, gas and natural resources. This is only the beginning of wider conflicts, huge wars are getting closer and closer, When tea-boys and Donald Buffoons become leaders then any evil is possible, in anywise resource thieving nations of west are coming to a close and soon will be throw into the dustbin of history.

As for hindu slumdogs they were always nobodies and will remain so, currently a Billion hindu slumdogs don’t have toilet facilities and crap on the streets of their filthy gutter country. You need to wake up from your wet dreams, the colonial age is long gone and your pie will continue to shrink and homelessness and deification on streets of your cities will grow exponentially; now chew on that you ignorant uneducated bigot.

gabart
gabart
3 months ago
Reply to  bilal ahmad

A lot of insults and wet dreams from you… and nothing more. Facts are: the Pakistani military dictatorship has lost Kashmir due to its utter incompetence and weakness, just like it lost Bangladesh during the 70s. Pakistan is now a Chinese colony, just like it was before a US client state. Pakistan is bankrupt, it was bailed out by the IMF and the Saudis. Pakistan is a failed state sponsor of terrorism. Pakistan is a shithole country regarding social development, housing, education, infrastructure, health, basic sanitation, and business opportunities. These are the facts, like it or not! As I said before, I fully understand you dear Bilal, your personal life must be a disgrace, it must be a nightmare living in a low income, violent and corrupt country where minorities are attacked everyday by cannon fodder and sect fanatics. This is why you are nothing but a cheap keyboard nationalist, ready to die for a corrupt general with bank accounts in London… but in the end you’re predictable and boring… good bye! ¡Hasta nunca, pobre diablo!

bilal ahmad
bilal ahmad
3 months ago
Reply to  gabart

lol….bye bye hindu slumdog, I am delighted I smoked you out….”Hasta la vista…..dick face hindu.

Edward Singh
Edward Singh
3 months ago
Reply to  bilal ahmad

That army that lost 4 wars to india, the pak army will be no match for the iranian army

Ilya
Ilya
3 months ago
Reply to  Jesus

Not if the populace was with them. Only thing that can break an insurgency the general population supports is athe Chenghis style – kill all who resist, and everyone they like on top. But the Russians don’t practice that style of warfare.

Jesus
Jesus
3 months ago
Reply to  Ilya

Insurgencies ususally involve populations being used as shields, support cover, and since insurgency tactics are meant to harass and inflict limited casualties over long periods of time demoralizing the enemy and sapping its will to fight. Opponents of the insurgencies have to have special forces with limited footprint, air assault formations, air support to seek and neutralize the insurgents. They can influence the population if there are some cultural commonalities and divide their loyalty and support .

Ilya
Ilya
3 months ago
Reply to  Jesus

Is this how the American insurgency against the Crown worked in the 18th century?

Jesus
Jesus
3 months ago
Reply to  Ilya

The American colonies had a citizen armed army, they engaged the British in typical conventional warfare using tactics and deployments typical of late 18th century, before Napoleon.

bilal ahmad
bilal ahmad
3 months ago
Reply to  Jesus

not true, the Russians got their ass seriously kicked in Afghanistan and ran like cowards

Edward Singh
Edward Singh
3 months ago
Reply to  bilal ahmad

And the americans been in afganistan 19 years now and got nothing to show for it, afganistan is where great powers come to get their asses kicked and america is no different.

Anti-Empire