Action off the coast of Yemen very recently provided a demonstration of contemporary asymmetrical warfare, which was red in tooth and claw.
On January 30, 2017, a Royal Saudi Navy (RSN) frigate of the French-built modified La Fayette-type (identified by some local media sources as the Al Madinah), was carrying out a security patrol in the Bab al-Mandab Strait in support of Arab-African Coalition action against the Houthi rebels who are fighting the Yemen government, was struck on the port quarter by an explosive-laden small fast suicide attack boat. The boat which carried out the successful attack was one of three such Houthi rebel vessels deployed on the mission.
A video recording, apparently filmed from a Houthi spotting boat, showed a large explosion, a burst of flame, and the sudden emission of dense black smoke from the warship’s funnel. It is likely that the damage sustained by the Saudi vessel was severe. Two RSN sailors were killed in the attack.
Intelligence reports last year confirmed that the Houthi rebels operate a flotilla of small fast attack craft from islands off Yemen.
This asymmetrical maritime warfare unit has assumed great importance since the Houthi rebels’ coastal radar network, which previously enabled their land based anti-shipping missiles to engage offshore targets, were destroyed by US Navy action late last year.
The Houthi vessels, some of which were possibly supplied by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, can be packed with explosives to facilitate suicide missions.
The incident showed that the RSN, which reportedly spends relatively little time at sea, might not be well drilled in defence against asymmetrical threats. At least three small hostile targets achieved close proximity to the stricken ship, although it is equipped with modern sensors and weapons, including surveillance and gun direction radars, Otomat surface to surface missiles, and 100 mm and smaller calibre guns.
This attack followed three missile launches against warships off Yemen in October 2016. Security in the Bab al-Mandab Strait, an important international seaway, has since been bolstered by the deployment of two modern guided missile destroyers, the American Cole, and the British Daring.
Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.