Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Are Yemen’s Houthis the Future of War?

Taking a page from T.E. Lawrence and excelling at primitive drone technology, these 'ragtag' insurgents are besting major powers in Yemen.

If you want to see the future of war, look closely at the fighting in Yemen. 

There, the Houthis, a rebel group based in the country’s northwest, have fought the lavishly funded and equipped militaries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to a standstill. They have even proven capable of launching attacks deep inside Saudi Arabia. How did this poor, lightly equipped and armed rebel group do it? And what does it mean for the United States, which continues to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in complex, costly, and vulnerable weapons systems?  

First, the Houthis have grasped the algebra of insurgency. In an article penned in 1920, T.E. Lawrence argued that insurgents would be victorious if they understood and applied a set of “algebraical factors.” He listed these as mobility, force security, and respect for the populace. The Houthis have refined and applied all three to varying degrees over the last decade. 

The Houthi forces are small and highly mobile, and this, combined with Yemen’s mountainous terrain, provides them with force security. Most critically, they and their allies have respected the local populace by providing—at least relative to southern Yemen—high levels of security and predictability. 

Sana’a, the capital of Yemen and a city of at least five million, is relatively crime- and al-Qaeda-free, and some basic public services continue to be provided despite a four-year-long blockade, ongoing aerial bombardment, and no electricity. Sana’a is, by necessity, the first capital city to be almost entirely dependent on solar power

(This is not to say, however, that the Houthis and their allies are not guilty of corruption, human rights violations, even war crimes—they are. All sides in the Yemen conflict have committed such violations.)

Second, the Houthis have enthusiastically embraced the use of drones. They have no air force, no consistent means of defense against the Saudi and Emirati aircraft that have controlled Yemen’s airspace for four years. Yet with the use of cheap and relatively easily manufactured drones, they have conducted aerial surveillance and launched attacks on targets, including ones in Saudi Arabia. Drones, even more than the missiles the Houthis build and launch, have been a game changer, and have been seamlessly integrated into the Houthis’ already mobile and capable forces.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE (the latter of which is now shifting most of its forces out of Yemen) have been largely caught off guard by the Houthis’ use of drones and have struggled to defend their forces and those of their proxies. The Houthis have used seaborne drones to attack ships and aerial drones to guide artillery and missile fire, attack and confuse U.S.-supplied Patriot missile defense systems, and even target ranking officers at a military parade.

Even apart from the artificial intelligence that drives them and can already make them wholly autonomous, drones are the most disruptive military technology yet conceived. They are cheap, deniable, and will only become more capable—especially in the hands of committed and creative rebel groups. Iran was one of the first countries to recognize this and early on it supplied drones and technical advice to its ally Hezbollah. Tehran saw the same opportunity with the Houthis: a rebel group that knew how to apply the algebra of insurgency and was in a position to take on Iran’s regional foes.

While there have been numerous claims and counter-claims by various governments and intelligence services about Iranian aid to the Houthis, in the first two years of the Saudi- and Emirati-led intervention in Yemen, this assistance was limited. The relationship between Tehran and the Houthis’ leadership was often rocky. 

However, Iran has—over the last two years—supplied technical advice and some key components for drones and missiles to the Houthis. Despite the irascible nature of many of the Houthis’ leaders, it was not going to pass up an opportunity to hinder Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Iran’s intelligence services, which are formidable, must have closely studied American tactics during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the early 1980s, U.S. aid to the mujahideen was limited. As a result, they struggled to make consistent gains against the Soviets who used attack helicopters to target and break up concentrations of fighters. That changed with the introduction of the man-portable air defense system, the Stinger. The U.S. eventually supplied between 2,000 and 2,500 missiles to the mujahideen between 1986 and the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. While the role of the Stingers in the Soviet decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is often exaggerated, they nonetheless undoubtedly hastened that retreat.

Iran made the same calculations with the Houthis that the U.S. made with the mujahideen. It saw two of their regional foes make the mistake of intervening in a complex, messy civil war in a country with terrain similar to that of Afghanistan. Like the Americans in the initial years of the Soviet occupation, the Iranians at first only provided a dribble of aid, primarily financial. Only after the Houthis proved themselves capable and only after the Saudis and Emiratis fully committed themselves to the war did the Iranians increase their assistance.

For millions of dollars, as opposed to the billions spent by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Iranians provided the Houthis with a cheap and disruptive technology: drones. But unlike the Stinger missile system, which was complex and could never have been manufactured by a guerrilla force, drones are relatively simple. They can be designed, built, and modified by rebel groups—especially ones as capable as the Houthis, who are allied with a significant part of what was the Yemeni Army.

The Houthis are demonstrating this capability with their own drones. These are based on Iranian designs, only modified and tailored to meet their specific requirements. 

With the advent of three-dimensional printing, it will be even easier for violent non-state actors to manufacture sophisticated drones that will fill numerous battlefield niches. States that aid and sponsor non-state actors will supply them with these drones without ever having to ship or smuggle them. They will simply send an electronic file that will contain the programs that will drive the three-dimensional printers and the drones themselves.

The war in Yemen points to a future where the overly complex weapons systems that the U.S. buys at the behest of its military-industrial complex may be rendered less and less effective. It is worth remembering the words of the fighter pilot, reformer, and military strategist Colonel John Boyd, who argued, “whoever can handle the quickest rate of change is the one who survives.” Insurgent groups, the successful ones, possess an innate understanding of this.  

U.S. policymakers would do well to look closely at how the Houthis, with minimal—but strategic—aid from Iran, have stymied both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. America’s continued focus on spending hundreds of billions of dollars on weapons systems like the F-35 may well leave it unprepared to grapple with a world where disruptive, cheap, and easily manufactured drones paired with rebel groups who understand and apply the algebra of insurgency can frustrate and even defeat the best equipped militaries. 

Michael Horton is a foreign policy analyst who has written for numerous publications, including Intelligence ReviewWest Point CTC SentinelThe EconomistThe National Interest, and the Christian Science Monitor.