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Houthis Claim to Have Hypersonic Missile, Threaten Indian Ocean Traffic

Iran is widely believed to be the Houthis' primary sponsor, and Iranian forces unveiled a claimed hypersonic missile last year (Tasnim / CC BY SA 4.0)
Iran is widely believed to be the Houthis' primary sponsor, and Iranian forces unveiled a claimed hypersonic missile last year (Tasnim News / CC BY SA 4.0)

Published Mar 14, 2024 5:44 PM by The Maritime Executive

Yemen's Houthi rebels claim to have tested a new hypersonic missile, according to Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti. The claim, which could not be confirmed, would give the militant group an improved capability to penetrate advanced air defenses. The group also claimed Thursday that it may begin attacking merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean, opening a new theater of operations for the growing conflict. 

Houthi forces have been attacking merchant ships and Western warships off Yemen's coast for months. To date, the group has hijacked one ship, sunk another, and damaged about half a dozen more. Three seafarers have been killed, one has lost a leg, and several more have sustained other injuries. 

The Houthis' deadliest weapon so far is its Iranian-supplied anti-ship ballistic missile inventory. Iran denies providing the arms for the campaign, but U.S. forces have repeatedly intercepted shipments of Iranian missile components bound for Yemen. 

Ballistic missiles attain super-high speeds upon reentry, but follow a predictable arc. Their simple flight path makes it easier for advanced air defense systems (like the U.S. Navy's AEGIS) to track and engage them. Hypersonic missiles are designed to maneuver, which makes them harder for interceptors to hit. 

According to RIA Novosti's source, Houthi forces have "successfully tested" a hypersonic missile thats is capable of reaching Mach 8. The missile is said to be entering the "manufacturing" phase and will be used on targets in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and on the ground in Israel. The source also claimed that the Houthis are modifying the warheads on its other munitions to make them more potent. 

Top leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi has previously hinted that the group has used something new in recent attacks, and that the next surprise "will be greater in every sense of the word."

The Houthis' sponsors in Iran claim to possess a hypersonic missile. Most advanced Houthi missiles and drone systems bear a striking resemblance to Iranian devices, according to Western defense analysts.  

"The Armed Forces have many cards they have not yet played," Yemen's Defense Minister Major General Mohammad Nasser al-Atifi said last week.

Very few nations have well-resourced hypersonics programs, and the technology poses demanding R&D problems in engineering and materials science. China and Russia are the only nations confirmed to have operating, deployable hypersonic weapons. 

Broadening the battlespace

On Thursday, Abdul Malik al-Houthi pledged to expand the group's area of operations into the Indian Ocean, and to attack the ships that have begun circumventing the Red Sea via the Cape of Good Hope. 

“Our main battle is to prevent ships linked to the Israeli enemy from passing through not only the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, but also the Indian Ocean towards the Cape of Good Hope. This is a major step and we have begun to implement our operations related to it," he said. 

Roughly half of all traffic that previously would have used the Red Sea-Suez route is diverting around the southern tip of Africa to avoid the risk of Houthi attack. The range between Houthi-held territory and the nearest Indian Ocean - Cape of Good Hope sea lane is more than twice as far away as the group's current target area in the Gulf of Aden.