By Tom Cooper
On the evening of Jan. 7, 2018, the coalition of the Houthi insurgency and Yemeni military units that sided with the Houthis claimed to have shot down a Saudi Tornado fighter-bomber.
A day later, Houthi and allied forces claimed to have shot down a Saudi F-15 fighter. In support of their claim, they published a dramatic video depicting what they said was the shoot-down.
For a while at least, it appeared the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis and their allies was on the verge of losing its total control of Yemeni air space.
It is impossible to sufficiently emphasize the importance of this development. Although its troops are far better equipped and trained than the Houthis’ own forces are, the Saudi-led coalition has fewer troops on the battlefield. Complete control of the air is thus of crucial importance to the Saudis.
At top — a rare photograph of Soviet-made RSP-7 or RSP-10 radar systems used for ground-controlled approach, as operated by the 101st Air Defense Brigade at Daylami air base at Sana’a International since the early 1980s. Pit Weinert collection. Above — North Yemeni troops walking through a position of a South Yemeni SA-3 SAM site that used to protect Anad air base, shortly after this base was captured during the civil war of 1994. Albert Grandolini Collection
The origins of the Houthis’ air defenses can be traced back to the early 1970s. At the time there were two Yemens. North Yemen received some support from Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union. Still, North Yemen was militarily weak.
South Yemen, a former British protectorate, gained independence in 1967 and enjoyed the support of the Soviet Union and Cuba. Working methodically, the Soviets and Cubans helped the South Yemenis gradually develop a small but effective air force and a strong ground-based air defense.
In 1977, the latter was equipped with four S-75/SA-2 surface-to-air systems and 136 associated V-755 missiles. All the officers in command of these systems were trained in the USSR, while other personnel were trained by Cuban advisors in South Yemen.
The South Yemeni air force and air defenses played a small but important role in the short but bitter war between two Yemens in early 1979. The conflict ended with the North’s defeat. Immediately after the ceasefire, supporters of each side scrambled to bolster the Yemens’ defenses.
South Yemeni SA-6s on display during a military parade in Aden in the early 1980s. Pit Weinert collection
With the Saudis keen to keep the United States out of North Yemen – which they consider to be within their sphere of influence – Washington showed no interest in providing surface-to-air missiles to the government in Sana’a. The Saudis went as far as to consent to North Yemen purchasing Soviet weapons, instead.
Therefore, the government in Sana’a placed an order for 12 S-75M and four S-75M2 SAM systems and a total of 752 associated V-755 missiles from the Soviet Union. Personnel were trained by Soviet advisors in North Yemen.
While always welcoming the income from arms exports, Moscow could not ignore the defense requirements of what was then its most important ally on the Arabian Peninsula — South Yemen. Correspondingly, the USSR delivered three additional S-75 SAM sites to Aden, too.
By the end of 1979, the Soviets added two 2K12/SA-6 and four 9K31/SA-9 SAM systems to the South Yemeni arsenal.
Two South Yemeni SA-9 vehicles and a single SA-2 missile, as seen during the same parade. Pit Weinert collection
In a similar action a few years later, Moscow granted permission for the export of a further air-defense systems to both Yemens. South Yemen received three S-125/SA-3 SAM systems and 108 associated V-601 missiles in 1985. North Yemen received three systems and 148 V-601 missiles in 1986.
All of these air-defense weapons saw significant action during the bitter Yemeni civil war in 1994, in the course of which the South was defeated and Yemen united into one country under the control of the government in Sana’a.
During the late 1990s and for most of the first decade of the 21st century, the air defenses of the united Yemeni military were barely operational. It was only in 2012 that Sana’a contracted the Ukrainian arms exporter Ukrobronservice to overhaul several of the remaining systems.
How much of that project was actually realized remains unclear. There were multiple reports that Ukraine upgraded of all of Yemen’s S-125s to a standard similar to the Russian-made Pechora-2M, but no evidence of the work ever emerged.
As of 2014, Yemeni air defenses were grouped into nine air-defense brigades, each operating a mix of surface-to-air missile sites equipped with S-75/SA-2, S-125/SA-3, 2K12/SA-6 and 9K31/SA-9 missile systems.
By the time Houthi insurgents descended from the mountains of northern Yemen and brought Sana’a under their control in September 2014, the Yemeni military was already suffering deep internal divisions.
A few units – foremost those operating aircraft – sided with the legitimate president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, but most of those disintegrated by February 2015.
The majority of the military sided with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. One of the first military units to publicly follow Saleh and side with the Houthis was the 101st Air Defense Brigade of the Yemeni air force.
Also known as the Radar Brigade, this unit operated around a dozen early-warning radars of Soviet origin, and exercised control over three other air-defense brigades based in the Sana’a area. Thus, it was in control of the only element of Yemen’s air defenses that can be described as “integrated.”
Unsurprisingly, while most of top commanders and nearly all of the flying personnel of the Yemeni air rorce refused to obey orders from the Houthis, the personnel of the 110th Air Defense Brigade – responsible for the defense of Daylami air base at Sana’a International — followed the example of the 101st and joined the insurgency.
Two other air-defense brigades – the 140th and the 160th – were responsible for the defense of the Yemeni capital. Most of their personnel had sided with the Houthis by January 2015.
At top — a pre-war photograph showing Yemeni SA-6 and SA-3 missiles during a parade in Sana’a. Pit Weinert Collection. Above — Houthi militants with two 2P25 launchers, each loaded with three 3M9 missiles, from one of two SA-6 Gainful SAM systems brought to them by Yemen air force units that sided with the insurgency in February 2015. Photo via Facebook
Similar scenes occurred in central and western Yemen. Personnel of the 150th Air Defense Brigade in Hodeida, and of the 180th Air Defense Brigade responsible for the area around Ma’rib, joined the Houthis.
The 170th Air Defense Brigade protecting the strategically important Bab Al Mandab Strait joined the Houthis in mid-March 2015.
Farther south and east, the situation was entirely different, primarily because the Houthis never managed to reach the relevant bases. The 120th Air Defense Brigade – which used to be responsible for Aden – fell apart during the chaos of March 2015, and was never re-established.
In eastern Yemen, the 190th Air Defense Brigade, based at Riyan air base near the port of Mukalla, was overrun by Al Qaeda. As far as is known, the jihadists massacred some of its officers. The rest of the personnel disappeared.
By late March 2015, the Houthis and allied Yemeni military units had taken over most of air-defense assets of the former Yemeni air force. In this way, they found themselves in possession of at least six S-75/SA-2 systems, five or six S-125/SA-3s, two 2K12/SA-6s and four 9K31/SA-9s, organized into seven air-defense brigades.
When a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015, these air-defense units found themselves on the receiving end of a major suppression-of-enemy-air-defenses campaign. Deploying some of most advanced U.S.- and European-made fighter-bombers and associated armament, the Saudis and allies systematically tracked down and destroyed not only most of the Houthis’ radars, but also most of their launchers and support equipment.
Photographs and videos showing Yemeni SA-9s remain a rarity, but this does not mean that none are operational. This vehicle was captured on a video showing it in action against the Saudi-led intervention. Photo via ACIG.info
The Yemenis fought back, firing as many as 40 surface-to-air missiles. They claimed to have shot down two Saudi warplanes, two Emirati ones and at least one Sudanese plane. In fact, the Houthis shot down nothing.
By April 2015, the 101st, 110th, 140th, 160th and 180th Air Defense Brigades were largely neutralized. Only the 150th and 170th Air Defense Brigades managed to recover and hide most of their equipment.
In comparison, various shoulder-launched air-defense missiles and guns belonging to Houthi-allied Yemeni army units proved far more effective during the first phase of the conflict. By the end of 2015, these were responsible for destroying one Moroccan F-16C, a Bahraini F-16C, two Saudi AH-64As and up to a dozen drones.
Once it became clear that the war would last longer, in May 2015 most of the surviving air-defense equipment was taken over by the Houthis’ new Missile Force. Consisting of officers with decades of experience operating various missile systems and equipped with whatever armament and tools were left after the first few weeks of air strikes, this force established its own research division — the Missile Research & Development Center.
The MRDC became responsible for converting a stock of around 200 V-755 SAMs from the S-75/SA-2 system into ballistic missiles. Deployed under the designations Qaher-1, Qaher-2 and Qaher-2M, dozens of these were fired at different targets in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
What exactly happened to the other heavy air-defense missiles remains unclear. The disappearance of systems such as the S-125/SA-3 and 2K12/SA-6 from the battlefields of the Yemen war seems to indicate their near-complete destruction. Under constant stream of air strikes, by 2016 the Houthi coalition was thus in urgent need of other means of air-defense.