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Houthi forces appear to be using Iranian-made drones to ram Saudi air defenses in Yemen, report says

By Thomas Gibbons-Neff

March 22, 2017 at 4:00 AM

A Houthi Qasef-1 drone. (Courtesy of CAR)

Houthi forces are using a type of drone probably built by Iran to attack Saudi and UAE missile defense sites in Yemen, an arms research organization said in a report Wednesday.

The report, put out by the group Conflict Armament Research, or CAR, looks at seven Houthi Qasef-1 drones and one drone engine recovered by forces from the United Arab Emirates. Six of the drones were captured in October on a known Iranian smuggling route that runs through Oman, while another was found after an attack by Houthi forces near Aden, Yemen, last month.

[Iran holds military exercises in response to U.S. sanctions]

The Qasef-1 is "consistent with descriptions and imagery" of an Iranian drone called the Ababil-T, produced by Iran's Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company, according to the report.

Last month, the Houthis released an infographic indicating that the drone had been indigenously built in Yemen.

"The Qasef-1 not only shares near-identical design and construction characteristics with the [Ababil-T]," the report says, "but also features identical serial number prefixes."

The Iranian drone program, like its Western counterparts, is secretive and replete with multiple variants that have different ranges and capabilities. Some of Iran's drones, such as the original Ababil line of unmanned aircraft, have been around since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

While the Houthis could have outfitted the Qasef-1s with explosives or used them for surveillance, Emirati officials indicated to CAR that they were simply purposed as kamikaze vehicles in a bid to damage the radar stations utilized by U.S.-made Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries.

The Patriot, aside from being able to shoot down aircraft, also pulls double duty as a ballistic-missile interceptor. The Patriot has been sold to a number of U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both countries currently use the Patriot in Yemen and on the Saudi-Yemen border to intercept Houthi ballistic missiles. Without its radar, the Patriot would not be able to detect and subsequently intercept the missiles.

The identification of the Qasef-1 as a possible Iranian drone variant comes almost two months after Houthi forces used an explosive drone boat to attack a Saudi frigate. Vice Adm. Kevin M. Donegan, commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, told Defense News that the drone boat probably had been supplied by Iran. The attack killed one, and the frigate returned to port with minor damage.

On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran's Quds Force, recently met with top military officials in the Iranian capital in a bid to explore ways to better assist the Houthis. The outcome of the meeting appears to be an influx of military equipment and advisers into the civil war, which has now been running for two years.

Related: [Trump wants to push back against Iran, but Iran is now more powerful than ever]

The arrival of more-advanced weapons in the hands of Houthis is potentially linked to the Trump administration's growing hostility toward Tehran. Before he stepped down, then-national security adviser Michael Flynn said in a news conference that Iran had been "put on notice" for its continued ballistic-missile tests and harassing of naval patrols in the Persian Gulf.

The Trump administration also has explored ways to supply more arms to the Saudi-led coalition in a bid to accelerate its controversial bombing campaign in Yemen. Human rights groups have routinely decried Saudi Arabia for bombing civilians and using internationally criticized cluster munitions in a number of attacks.

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Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a staff writer and a former Marine infantryman.

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