Disguised Explosive Boat May Be New Threat To Tankers Off Yemen
Dramatic photos shared by the Saudi government Wednesday may show a new form of explosive boat developed by the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The pictured boat was one of four involved in an attempted attack on an oil tanker 90 miles off Yemen’s southern coast that failed, according to the Saudi account. While many details have yet to be confirmed, including that it is a Houthi design, this could indicate a new threat to tanker traffic in the region.
The Iranian-backed Houthi movement are involved in a bloody civil war in Yemen that has raged since 2015. They have used a number of methods to attack tanker traffic and naval vessels in the Red Sea and Arabian Sea, including locally designed sea mines, anti-ship missiles and, as seen here, explosive boats.
This new model of explosive boat is based on a skiff, the ubiquitous small fishing vessels used in the region. This means that it could be more easily hidden, and harder to identify as a threat. It may also make it cheaper to build since existing fishing vessels can be converted.
An explosive boat is simply a small vessel loaded with explosives that rams the target vessel. The idea is not new and has been used during wartime by countries including Germany, Italy and Israel, as well as by non-state actors like the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, aka The Tamil Tigers) and Al Qeada. Many have used a human pilot, at least until the last moment, but also some designs have been remote controlled.
So far the Houthi models have all been remote controlled. In Navy parlance these are Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs). The Houthi models have also been dubbed Waterborne Improvised Explosive Devices (WBIEDs).
On January 29, 2017, an explosive boat hit the Saudi Arabian frigate al Madinah below the helicopter deck, killing 2 sailors, in the first major strike by Houthis using this method.
In September 2018 Yemeni naval forces intercepted a Houthi unmanned surface vessel (USV) in the Red Sea. This was a unique purpose-built design dubbed the Blow Fish. Although it had two cockpits for people its mode of operation also appeared to be as a remote controlled explosive boat.
The new skiff-based model appears to be a significant shift towards a simpler design. This may reflect difficulties in building or hiding the previous versions. Or it could be intended to be harder to identify before it makes its terminal approach.