Iranian-backed Houthi rebels working to take power in Yemen are using a new weapon that is raising fears of seaborne attacks on both military and commercial shipping in the region.
The weapon is an Iranian-designed remotely piloted small boat filled with explosives, a defense official told Inside the Ring.
The exact number of the explosive drone boats is not known, but the rebels are believed to have enough to threaten ships that pass through the strategic sea lanes off the Yemeni coast. The Navy has intelligence photos of the deadly boats but declined a request to release them. The boats were first detected after one was used in an attack Jan. 30 on a Saudi frigate in the Red Sea.
Iran is backing Houthi rebels as part of a strategy of seeking to encircle its rival, Saudi Arabia, and ultimately to take control of the peninsula.
One strategic objective of the Iranians is to control the strategic Bab el-Mandeb or Mandeb Strait on the southern Red Sea that is a major shipping passage.
Iran already has a major influence in Iraq and in the past has threatened to shut down shipping in the Persian Gulf by targeting traffic passing through the Hormuz Strait.
Should the Mandeb Strait come under Iranian control, Tehran would be able to threaten or close shipping at both strategic choke-points that see the passage of a major percentage of the world’s oil supplies.
The commander of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet warned about the drone explosive boats after the attack on the Saudi warship.
“Our assessment is that it was an unmanned, remote-controlled boat of some kind,” Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan, commander of the Bahrain-based U.S. Fifth Fleet and head of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, told Defense News Feb. 19.
Adm. Donegan did not say the Iranians were behind the drone explosive boats, but the defense official said U.S. intelligence believes the Iranians designed the boat bombs and supplied the materials to build and control them to the Houthis.
“That’s not an easy thing to develop. There have been many terrorist groups that have tried to develop that; it’s not something that was just invented by the Houthis,” Adm. Donegan said. “There’s clearly support there coming from others, so that’s problematic.”
Adm. Donegan said the deployment of the remote-controlled vessels means that suicide bombers are not needed for attacks.
“There are certain terrorists that do things, and they get martyrs to go and do it,” he said. “But there are many others that don’t want to martyr themselves in making attacks like that, and that’s pretty much where the Houthis are. So it makes that kind of weaponry, which would normally take someone suicidal to use, now able to be used by someone who’s not going to martyr themselves.”
Adm. Donegan said the United Nations has reported extensively on Iranian military and weapons support to the Houthis. Additionally, the Iranians are supplying the Houthis with ballistic missiles of increasing range.
Of the drone boats, Adm. Donegan said: “My fear is they move to use that [weapon] against any kind of commerce that flows through [the southern Red Sea]. And even if they don’t intend to, my fear is that it becomes a collateral damage, because they’re not so good at identifying targets and things like that.
“With about 64 vessels a day traveling through there, the Bab al-Mandeb, almost all with energy cargoes, any issue of misidentification or misapplication of one of these weapon systems could become an issue with commerce, and that’s what we have to avoid. In the end, what we’d like to see is that conflict back into the land mass and not out into where we have commercial traffic,” he said.
Control over the Bab al-Mandeb could be used to threaten the fragile Egyptian economy by attacking shipping up the Red Sea, he added.
Also, any restriction in shipping through the strait would undermine both the regional and global economy, Adm. Donegan said, adding that his biggest worry is that “nation-state-like weapons” are in the hands of non-nation states.
China’s Africa Base
China is also establishing a military base near the strategic Red Sea chokepoint of the Bab al-Mandeb near the Horn of Africa at Djibouti.
The Chinese base is located very close to Camp Lemonnier, a key U.S. military base for operations in both North Africa and the Middle East. The Chinese presence is raising concerns about military spying.
Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of the Africa Command, told a Senate hearing last week the Chinese plan to use Djibouti to support Beijing’s global economic strategy known as Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road, dubbed One Belt, One Road.
“The intention for that location was to provide a port for their ships to have in the area,” Gen. Waldhauser told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 9. “They have about 2,200 peacekeepers on the continent.”
Gen. Waldhauser said the Chinese base is due to be completed this summer, and his main concern is the spy threat.
Camp Lemonnier is 4 miles from the Chinese base. The camp is used by commandos from the Special Operations Command that often engage in covert missions. The camp is also used by conventional U.S. forces from Africa Command, Central Command and European Command.
“The concern that I have from an operational perspective is the operational security when we operate so close to a Chinese base,” Gen. Waldhauser said. “It’s a very strategic location.”
The four-star commander said he has voiced his concerns to Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh on two occasions about “what the Chinese can or cannot do at that location.”
China’s commercial strategy starts in China and stretches through Indonesia, Malacca to Djibouti, up into Europe and back involving about 60 nations and 40 percent of China’s global domestic product.
“It’s all about trade,” Gen. Waldhauser said. “This is their first endeavor in an overseas base, and it won’t be their last.”
Russian drones, troops to Egypt
U.S. intelligence agencies recently detected Russian military activities in western Egypt, including the deployment of drone aircraft and troops, according to defense officials.
The Russian deployment is the latest sign that the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is shifting toward Moscow after decades of relying on U.S. military support.
During the Obama administration the delivery of U.S. military helicopters to Egypt needed for counterterrorism operations in the Sinai was held up for months. President Obama backed the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi, who was ousted in a coup in 2013 by then-Gen. el-Sissi.
Defense officials said the Russian activities are being closely watched and appear to be part of Russian support for Libyan military leader Gen. Khalifa Haftar, whose forces represent one faction in the ongoing Libyan civil war.
Reuters reported Tuesday that drones and Russian special forces troops had been deployed to western Libya at a base called Sidi Barrani, located about 60 miles from the Egypt-Libya border. The Russian Defense Ministry later denied deploying special forces to Egypt, but did not address whether troops and drones were dispatched.
The U.S. military has dispatched special operations commandos to Libya, and also has conducted drone strikes in the country in a bid to knock out Islamic State terrorists who have moved into the largely ungoverned, oil-rich North African state.
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command, said recently that the Russian military inroads with one of the United States’ close allies in the Middle East is troubling.
“Certainly we have seen outreach to Russia lately,” Gen. Votel said Nov. 1. “I think that is cause for some concern for us [and] I don’t know if that is particularly helpful to the things we are trying to accomplish in the region.”
Gen. Votel told a Senate hearing last week that Moscow is seeking to increase its influence in the region. “We’ve seen them do things certainly with our longstanding partner, Egypt and others across — across the region,” Gen. Votel said.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.
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