Yemeni Houthis’ Indian Ocean threats face skepticism, raise concerns over weapons proliferation

The situation escalated dramatically on Feb. 18 when the Houthis attacked the British-operated cargo ship Rubymar with missiles in the Red Sea

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A protestor holds a model of a Houthi missile during a protest against Israel's continued war on the Gaza Strip and the U.S.-led airstrikes and sanctions against the Houthi group in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 16, 2024. (Photo by Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua)

Abdul Malik al-Houthi, the leader of Yemen’s Houthi group, raised alarms earlier this month with his declaration of intent to disrupt maritime traffic in the Indian Ocean, particularly around the strategic Cape of Good Hope. Broadcast on the group’s al-Masirah TV, al-Houthi’s pronouncement of ongoing operations to hinder Israeli-affiliated shipping has heightened regional tensions.

Further compounding these concerns are reports from Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency, which indicated that the Houthis may have acquired hypersonic missiles. This claim has elicited a mix of skepticism and apprehension among military experts, with some questioning the group’s ability to effectively utilize such advanced technology due to logistical and operational challenges.

Ali Bin Hadi, a Yemeni military analyst, argued that the Houthis lack the means to disrupt maritime traffic near the Cape of Good Hope, as it exceeds the range of their existing arsenal. Despite their demonstrated capacity to affect shipping in regional waters, notably the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, controlling far choke points like the Cape of Good Hope remains beyond their grasp.

“The cape lies thousands of miles away, well outside the operational range of Houthi missiles and drones, making any threats to that area highly unlikely,” Hadi asserted.

Khaled Salman, a Yemeni political observer, said that while the Houthi group does not possess the technical know-how to develop either long-rang or supersonic missiles independently, “it may have illicitly obtained hypersonic missiles through a third-party source.”

The prospect of the Houthis wielding hypersonic capabilities is particularly troubling, Salman noted, as it could significantly threaten international navigation and maritime trade routes. The observer also suggested that Yemen could inadvertently become a “testing ground” for major powers to test their hypersonic weapons in real-world scenarios.

Thabit Hussein, a Yemeni researcher and military expert, viewed the potential proliferation of hypersonic and long-range reaching technologies to non-state actors like the Houthis as deeply concerning, with implications for regional stability and conflict escalation.

The Houthi campaign against commercial shipping intensified last November, coinciding with increased tensions between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. The group claims its attacks on Israeli-linked vessels are in retaliation for the Israeli offensive in Gaza and in solidarity with the Palestinians.

In response, the United States and Britain conducted airstrikes and missile strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen since Jan. 12, 2024. Far from deterring the group, these actions have led to a Houthi escalation, with the group expanding its targeting to include U.S. and British naval vessels.

The situation escalated dramatically on Feb. 18 when the Houthis attacked the British-operated cargo ship Rubymar with missiles in the Red Sea. The sinking of Rubymar, confirmed by Yemen’s internationally recognized government on March 2, marks the first such incident since the conflict escalated last November. 

Xinhua News Agency

Founded in 1931, Xinhua News Agency is one of the largest news organizations in the world, with over 10,000 employees across the globe. As the main source of news and information for China, Xinhua plays a key role in shaping the country's media landscape and communicating its perspectives to the world. The agency produces a wide range of content, including text news articles, photos, videos, and social media posts, in both Chinese and English, and its reports are widely used by media organizations around the world. Xinhua also operates several international bureaus, including in key capitals like Washington, D.C., Moscow, and London, to provide in-depth coverage of global events.

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