By Norman T. Roule
A U.S. Department of Defense exhibit shows a drone that the Pentagon says was manufactured in Iran but recovered in Yemen, as it sits on display at a military base in Washington, U.S., December 13, 2017. Picture taken December 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

On Wednesday, the Arab Coalition in Yemen announced that it had shot down a “hostile Houthi drone with Iranian specifications and characteristics” over the Saudi city of Abha. If confirmed, this would mark the second time this month that the Houthis have used an Iran-supplied unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to attack the Coalition and Yemen’s internationally recognized government.

Although it received only modest attention in the West, three weeks ago Tehran opened another dark chapter of Middle East proxy violence. Using Iranian-provided drone technology, Yemen’s Houthi militia attacked a Yemeni military base and killed a number of senior personnel, including the head of Yemen’s military intelligence, and wounding an estimated twenty officials. Countries have used drones to attack terrorists, but this appears to be the first time a country has coordinated with its proxy forces to kill the official of another state using armed drone technology. Absent international pressure on Iran, Tehran will likely conclude that drone operations conducted by surrogates are a low-cost way of striking adversaries at no risk to Iranian personnel or equities. The day of the aerial car bomb has arrived.

The dramatic January 10 attack exploited a military parade at Al Anad Air Base near the port of Aden to target dignitaries, including two governors and a large number of top military commanders, observing the event. A local journalist watching the ceremony claimed to have seen the drone hovering above the stage minutes after the parade started and throughout a speech by the Yemeni army spokesman. Houthi media subsequently claimed that the drone was designed to explode at a height of twenty meters and rain shrapnel downward upon its target. Although the number and seniority of the casualties may have been chance, it cannot be ruled out that the Houthis exploited the drone’s surveillance capacity to detonate the drone at the moment of maximum impact. Shortly after the attack, the Houthi spokesman announced that the group was building a new stockpile of locally manufactured drones.

A growing number of countries employ drones in combat, and this is not the first UAV attack at a parade event. No doubt this attack will cause many to recall the failed August 4, 2018, assassination attempt against Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. The attack also echoes the unsuccessful January 6, 2018, mass drone attack on Russian forces at Khmeimim Air Base in Syria. However, Iran is the only country known to proliferate armed drone technology to surrogates as part of a campaign to bleed adversaries and extend its influence.

The Saudi-led Arab Coalition in Yemen has long complained of Houthi use of Iranian-supplied drones. Houthi UAV tactics have become increasingly sophisticated and include the use of such systems to target Patriot batteries in support of Houthi missile launches (which also involve Iranian weapons and technology). The drone used in the January Al Anad attack was apparently the Qasef, a variant of Iran’s Ababil system. Despite Tehran’s denials that it is providing UAV support to the Houthis, a 2018 United Nations report declared that Qasef-1 drones had been “assembled from components supplied by an outside source and shipped into Yemen” and were “virtually identical in design, dimensions and capability to that of the Ababil-T, manufactured by the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries.” The Qasef also employs serial number prefixes identical to those of its Iranian counterpart. In addition, six Qasef-1 UAVs were seized in the Marib, apparently having been smuggled from Iran through neighboring Oman.

Tehran has also provided similar systems to other regional allies. In addition to operations in Yemen, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has established drone bases in Syria and has exported several generations of UAV technology to Lebanese Hezbollah as well as to the Syrian government. It is likely that some of the Hezbollah personnel believed to be in Yemen have provided UAV training to Houthi clients.

In every arena where Iran has employed UAVs, there have been examples of aggressive testing of adversary responses, as follows:

  • In June 2017, US F-15E’s shot down two armed Syrian-operated Iranian Shahed 129 UAVs after one dropped munitions close to US forces and a second approached an American outpost.
  • Iran’s UAV tactics in the Strait of Hormuz mirror the unprofessional practices of its small boat fleet in the area. Iran’s UAVs often fly without lights or active transponders, making their use a threat to air traffic in the crowded strait area. On August 8, 2017, an unarmed Iranian Shahed 129 drone operating without lights harassed an F/A-18E Super Hornet as it prepared to land on the USS Nimitz. At one point, the drone came within one hundred feet of the aircraft. A few days later, a second Iranian drone came within one thousand feet of the carrier.
  • On February 10, 2018, Israel’s military downed an Iranian Shahed 171 drone that Tehran claims to have been a copy of the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel that Iran intercepted in December 2011. Directed by personnel at an Iran-operated facility at Syria’s Tiyas air base, the drone spent almost two minutes over Israeli territory before it was destroyed. In response to the incursion, Israel used eight F-16I’s to destroy the Iranian command facility operating the drone.

Perhaps lost in this story is that the training in drone combat and manufacture Iran has undoubtedly provided to its proxies will be very hard to undo. It takes little imagination to wonder if this capability will be used by Tehran and its allies in terror attacks against US personnel and interests and to strike other countries in the region. For the international community and US policy makers, this attack should serve as an example of what Iran is capable of undertaking unless its leadership begins to recognize that its destabilizing actions come with real costs.