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Secondary blasts caused by an air strike on one of the Missile Battery Group’s bases near Sana’a on March 29, 2015. Al Masirah T.V. capture

How Did the Houthis Manage to Lob a Ballistic Missile at Mecca?

Let’s do some educated guesswork

War Is Boring
Jan 2, 2017 · 7 min read


On Oct. 28, 2016, the Houthi alliance fighting against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen fired what might have been a homemade Burkan ballistic missile toward Mecca — the holiest place in Islam.

Saudi defenses intercepted the missile 40 miles short of its target, according to local reports.

While ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia in the course of the ongoing Yemen War are nothing new, an attack on Mecca is. This city is around 350 miles away from the border with Yemen and is thus well outside the range of the Houthis’ standard missile types.

The Burkan — if indeed that’s what nearly hit Mecca — is something new. So where did this missile come from?

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First, let’s be clear where it’s not from. And that’s Iran.

U.S., Israeli, Saudi and other foreign sources tend to implicate Iran in arming Yemen’s Houthi political movement — a.k.a. Ansar Allah — with ballistic missiles, allegedly including Tehran’s own Zelzal rocket.

Undeniably, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ generals like to brag about training Yemeni rebel fighters. And to be sure, Tehran has touted its support for Ansar Allah. Yes, there are reports of Houthi troops training in Syria.

However, there’s very little evidence confirming any serious, sustained, direct Iranian material military support to the Yemeni rebels. And bear in mind, Iran routinely exaggerates the extent of its influence over the Houthis.

So if the Burkan rocket that the Houthis fired at Mecca didn’t come from Iran, where did it come from? Yemen’s SABA news agency claimed that the Yemeni military’s own Missile Research and Development Center — a wing of the ballistic missile force — developed the Burkan.

The Burkan is reportedly a modified Scud that’s around five feet longer than the baseline missile and some 4,400 pounds heavier.

But Yemen is hardly renown for being particularly industrialized — nor for cultivating its rocket scientists. Reports from 2013 describing foreign rocketry instructors working with the Yemeni military create the impression that the Yemenis cannot operate ballistic missiles on their own. And probably can’t manufacture them from scratch, either.

But maybe they could modify old rockets to travel farther.

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Either an R-17E or Hwasong-6 missile preparing for launch in mid-2015. Al Masirah T.V. capture

Some background. A decade ago, the Yemeni military had four artillery brigades, one of which was equipped with field artillery while three — the 1st, 26th and the 89th Artillery Brigades — deployed rockets and ballistic missiles.

The latter have operated R-17E Elbrus (NATO name SS-1C Scud-B) and OTR-21 Tochka (SS-21 Scarab) ballistic missiles, 9K52 Luna-M (FROG-7) short-range rockets and BM-27 Uragan multiple rocket launchers.

All three units answered to the Yemen Republican Guards, a powerful, multi-brigade formation whose main job was defending the capital Sana’a against all sorts of internal and external threats. Its officers and other ranks were loyal to Pres. Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In the early 2000s, the Yemeni army removed old Luna-Ms from service and replaced them with Hwasong-6 systems it acquired from North Korea, deliveries of which continued until at least 2002.

Based on the R-17E, the Hwasong-6 is also known as the Extended Range Scud because it can reach targets around 310 miles away, compared to 187 miles from normal Scuds. The extra reach came at the price of reduced payload — from 2,200 pounds to just 1,540 pounds.

When Saleh was ousted in 2011, new Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi initiated a comprehensive reorganization of the military. He purged many of officers loyal to Saleh, disbanded the YRG and re-assigned its former units to a number of new headquarters.

The three missile-equipped brigades thus came under the command of the Missile Batteries Group. Headquartered at Camp Sabra in Bilad Ar Rus outside of Sana’a and commanded by Staff Brig.-Gen. Mohammed Nasir Ahmed Al Atefi, this new formation consisted of the 5th, 6th and 8th Missile Brigades.

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The launch of an unknown ballistic missile by the Houthi-Saleh alliance against Saudi Arabia. Al Masirah T.V. capture

While the unit’s exact equipment remains unknown to outsiders, Belarusian advisers who once worked in Yemen claimed one was equipped with six operational 9M117M launchers and 33 R-17E missiles from the Scud system — and another with 10 operational 9M714 launchers for the OTR-21/SS-21 system.

Curiously, the same sources did not mention North Korean missiles, apparently indicating these were operated by a unit beyond their direct observation.

Saleh and many of his followers sided with the Houthis in 2014, enabling the rebels to take over not only Sana’a but also up to 60 percent of the Yemeni military. It was in this fashion that Houthis established something like indirect control of the most advanced weapons systems in the Yemeni arsenal — including the MBG’s missiles.

Unsurprisingly considering its importance, the latter found itself on the receiving end of numerous air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen on March 26, 2015.

Some of the first air strikes — most of which relied heavily on U.S. intelligence — bombarded bases housing missile stockpiles, including Camp Bilad Ar Rus. The Saudis never claimed to have destroyed all the missile stockpiles, however. They merely reported strikes on missile storage depots on March 29 and 30, 2015 — and said they were searching for other munitions stocks.

After recovering from the initial blows and extracting surviving equipment from demolished bases, the MBG units soon were back in business. Iranian media reported the first rocket strikes on Saudi Arabia in late May 2015.

These early missile strikes involved BM-27s and do-it-yourself weapons such as the M-75 — whose designation is apparently based on its range of 75 kilometers, or 47 miles — targeting Saudi border posts south of Najran.

Around the same time, video surfaced depicting a single 9M117M launcher underway in the Amran Governorate north of Sana’a. This was the first trace of evidence that at least some of the MDG’s heavy equipment survived the Saudi-led aerial onslaught.

Only few days later, following some particularly fierce air strikes on Sana’a, the Houthi-Saleh coalition went a step farther and fired the first ballistic missile at Saudi Arabia. Two Saudi PAC-2 surface-to-air missiles reportedly shot down this rocket.

Although much of the related reporting is unreliable, there’s little doubt that the Houthis have fired dozens of ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia and allied positions inside Yemen.

Some of the munitions in question were what the Houthis call “Qahir” missiles, which are obsolete S-75 (SA-2 Guideline) SAMs fired in ballistic mode, aimed by little more than their operators’ basic knowledge of ballistics and mathematics.

But none of those rockets could reach Mecca. For that, the Houthis needed a Burkan. Yemeni sources refused to discuss the Houthis’ rockets, so War Is Boring asked an Iraqi engineer— who, back in 1987 and 1988, worked on the Al Hussein “super Scud” missile—about converting an R-17E or Hwasong-6 into a Burkan-style rocket.

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Official crest of the Missile Batteries Group. Art via Tom Cooper

“The R-17E is quite simple,” the engineer said. “From its tip towards the rear, it contains a warhead, then a room for equipment like gyro and timer, then the fuel tank which is about 1.35 meters long, and the oxidizer tank that is about 2.7 meters long. At the rear end is the engine.

Stretching the missile body is no problem, but stretching fuel tanks is one. The simplest solution — the one we applied early on — is to take a tank from another missile, cut its central section and insert it into the tank of the modified missile.

Before launching domestic production of stretched fuel tanks, we used tanks from three R-17Es to create one for the Al Hussein missile. The problem is the cutting of that fuel tank — doing that with usually available means results in destruction of the tank. We found an engineer trained in England before 1951. He modified the cutting machine so that the tank was not damaged.

Another problem was welding of the new, extended fuel tank. We had to use argon for welding.

The third problem was the center of gravity. During early trials, missiles came back down horizontally and slowly, and failed to explode. The solution was to move air pressure cylinders from the rear to the front of the missile, near the warhead, to make its nose heavier.

The final problem was that of batteries. Some of missiles fired at Tehran in 1988 failed to detonate for this reason. In April 1988, we installed a second battery, and this never happened again.

While this is hardly definitive proof that the Yemenis stretched R-17Es or Hwasong-6s on their own, it at least indicates that modifying older Scud-style missiles for longer range is possible.

And that means the Houthis might be able to make more Burkans — and continue to threaten Mecca.

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