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Missiles may be the weapon of the weak, but they expose political weaknesses Open in fullscreen

Robert Springborg

Missiles may be the weapon of the weak, but they expose political weaknesses

Houthis in Sanaa celebrate the launching of a missile at Riyadh's airport [AFP]

Date of publication: 22 December, 2017

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Comment: Iran's arming of its proxies is unlikely to achieve military success, but asymmetric warfare puts huge pressure on Saudi Arabia's vulnerable political leadership, writes Robert Springborg.
Ballistic missiles have, since their development by the Germans during the Second World War, become the weapon of the weak against the strong.

The V-2 missile, deployed in the final year of that war, was intended by the collapsing Nazi regime to wreak vengeance on British civilians, with little prospect of deterring bomber attacks on German targets and even less hope of turning the tide of war.

But by that stage, when the Luftwaffe had essentially collapsed, it was one of the few means left by which Hitler might impose a heavy price on his adversaries.

The V-2 did terrorise Londoners, but ultimately killed fewer than 3,000 of them, or about two for each V-2 launched, having zero impact on the course of the war. Air and then ground attacks on mobile launch sites contributed to the V-2s' relative impotence, as did their inaccuracy.

Fast forward to 1991, when Saddam sought unsuccessfully to use his Scud missiles against Israel to deter American-led forces from expelling Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Several rockets fell on Palestinian territory, some were shot down by Patriot missiles, while numerous launch sites were attacked from the air and on the ground by British and American special forces.

Since that time, Hamas has, like the Germans and the Iraqis before them, sought unsuccessfully to use its homemade short-range missiles to punish and, if possible, deter the Israelis. As in the previous cases, the rockets were too inaccurate, carried too small a payload, and proved too vulnerable to countermeasures to achieve their objectives.

Iran has for some years been seeking to reverse the lesson of military history that as a weapon of the weak, missiles have had relatively little deterrent effect on the strong. In the 1980s, during the war against Iraq, Iran began to develop its ballistic missile capacities with the assistance of the Chinese and North Koreans.

Those capacities were insufficient to have any meaningful impact on the war itself. In the war's wake in 1988, however, the Iranians redoubled their investments in ballistic missiles. Their primary domestic intent was to be able to deter an enemy attack by ensuring that their mix of short and medium range missiles, combined with seaborne attacks by light patrol boats, could effectively close down Gulf oil supplies to the world, both by blocking the Straits of Hormuz and by direct attack on Arab oil loading facilities.
Since 2015, Iran has expanded into Yemen its doctrine of asymmetric warfare by arming the Houthis with ballistic missiles with a range of almost 1,000 kilometres
As for the wider Middle East, Iran sought to project its asymmetric power by arming with missiles its proxies, key of which was then Hizballah. In both cases the missiles may have contributed to bolstering Iran's deterrent capacities, whether against attacks on it directly by the US, or its Arab GCC allies, or by Israel on Hizballah. But that conclusion necessarily remains speculative.

Since 2015, Iran has expanded into Yemen its doctrine of asymmetric warfare by arming the Houthis with ballistic missiles with a range of almost 1,000 kilometres. The firing of one such missile in November and now a second on 19 December aimed at targets in Riyadh are clear attempts to deter Saudi and Emirati attacks on the Houthis presently entrenched in power in Sanaa.

The question is whether Iran and its Houthi proxies will be able to accomplish with missiles what the Germans, Iraqis and Palestinians could not.
[Click to enlarge]

That question can only be answered with reference to the intent and capacities of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As for intent, the lesson of the history of missile deterrence is that those being attacked have not been intimidated, but have remained committed to overwhelming their enemy, willing to pay the price in casualties and destruction to achieve that end. As for capacities, those on the receiving end have exerted maximum efforts in the air and on the ground to stop the launch of missiles or intercept them once airborne.

It is not clear, however, that either the Saudis or the Emiratis are sufficiently intent on defeating the Houthis or have the capacities to interdict Houthi-launched missiles to be able to emulate the success of the British, Americans and/or Israelis. A key difference is that those three countries were all democracies in which elected leaders could count on the loyalty of their populations and their willingness to undergo sacrifices in order to defeat the enemy.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor the Emirates are a democracy, so the question of the willingness of their populations to endure sacrifices and remain loyal to an unelected leadership must be raised. Indeed, this is the key question now facing the "two Muhammads" - Muhammad bin Salman in Riyadh and Muhammad bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi - the two architects of the war in Yemen.

In other words, the primary threat posed by the Houthis' Burkan-2 missiles is political, not military. These are not particularly accurate missiles, do not carry a large warhead, and are probably not possessed in large quantities, as they are smuggled into Yemen from Iran in sections, suggesting a tortuous supply line.

On the other hand, being launched from mobile sites in rugged territory, it is unlikely that they can be destroyed on the ground by Saudi or Emirati air or land forces. The November missile aimed at Riyadh International Airport was apparently not intercepted by a Patriot missile, the record of which in downing incoming ballistic missiles is in any case far from perfect. So while the Houthis may not be able to inflict much damage with these missiles, they can inflict some, possibly including a dramatic strike on a key facility such as an airport, ruler's palace, or city centre.
These then are the precise conditions under which asymmetric deterrence of the sort represented by these missiles can work

The war in Yemen is already unpopular with the two Muhammads' populations, to say nothing of the rest of the world. While a successful missile strike on Riyadh or Abu Dhabi would result in some "rallying around the flag", it would also raise questions about the sagacity of the political leadership. Muhammad bin Salman is particularly vulnerable because of his youth, his recent coup against other family members, and because of adverse publicity about his wealth at a time when he is seeking popularity on the basis of an anti-corruption campaign.

These then are the precise conditions under which asymmetric deterrence of the sort represented by these missiles can work. The political price they impose upon the two Muhammads may just be too high for one or both to be willing to pay, so they may abandon any joint effort to destroy the Houthis militarily.

It is quite likely the two Muhammads will differ in their responses. Muhammad bin Zayed is under less personal political threat than Muhammad bin Salman and the Emirates are less threatened by the Houthis than is Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the Emirates are concentrating their military activities in the south of Yemen, whereas the Saudis are more concerned with the military situation in the north.

The recent missile attack thus places considerable additional strain on that alliance. That strain could, however, result not in deterrence, but in a dramatic increase in Saudi military involvement - a desperate throw of the dice by Muhammad bin Salman.

In either case, however, the Iranians and their Houthi proxies will be the chief beneficiaries. If the Saudis back down militarily, Iranian asymmetric warfare will have scored another victory and Houthi pre-eminence in the north secured. If the Saudis send ground forces into northern Yemen, they will accentuate their regional and global isolation, while placing huge political pressure on Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and the country's entire political edifice.

So, it seems that even relatively primitive ballistic missiles can strike politically vulnerable targets.  

Robert Springborg is the Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff



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