Report claims Yemen’s Houthis have a hypersonic missile, possibly raising stakes in Red Sea crisis

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Yemen’s Houthi rebels claim to have a new, hypersonic missile in their arsenal, Russia’s state media reported Thursday, potentially raising the stakes in their ongoing attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and surrounding waterways against the backdrop of Israel’s war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The report by the state-run RIA Novosti news agency cited an unnamed official but provided no evidence for the claim. It comes as Moscow maintains an aggressively counter-Western foreign policy amid its grinding war on Ukraine.

However, the Houthis have for weeks hinted about “surprises” they plan for the battles at sea to counter the United States and its allies, which have so far been able to down any missile or bomb-carrying drone that comes near their warships in Mideast waters.

The Houthis’ main benefactor, Iran, claims to have a hypersonic missile and has widely armed the rebels with the missiles they now use. Adding a hypersonic missile to their arsenal could pose a more-formidable challenge to the air defense systems employed by America and its allies, including Israel.

“The group’s missile forces have successfully tested a missile that is capable of reaching speeds of up to Mach 8 and runs on solid fuel,” a military official close to the Houthis said, according to the RIA report. The Houthis “intend to begin manufacturing it for use during attacks in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, as well as against targets in Israel.”

Mach 8 is eight times the speed of sound.

Russia has maintained close ties with Iran, relying on Iranian bomb-carrying drones to target Ukraine. Russian state media, particularly its Arabic-language services, have closely reported on Yemen’s yearslong civil war that pits the Iran-backed Houthis against forces of the internationally backed Yemeni government, supported by a Saudi-led coalition.

Hypersonic weapons, which fly at speeds higher than Mach 5, could pose crucial challenges to missile defense systems because of their speed and maneuverability.

The danger from a hypersonic missile depends on how maneuverable it is. Ballistic missiles fly on a trajectory in which anti-missile systems like the U.S.-made Patriot can anticipate their path and intercept them. The more irregular the missile’s flight path, such as a hypersonic missile with the ability to change directions, the more difficult it becomes to intercept.

China is believed to be pursuing the weapons, as is America. Russia claims it has already used them on the battlefield in Ukraine. However, speed and maneuverability isn’t a guarantee the missile will successfully strike a target. Ukraine’s air force in May said it shot down a Russian hypersonic Kinzhal missile with a Patriot battery.

In Yemen, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, the Houthi rebels’ secretive supreme leader, boasted about the rebels’ weapons efforts at the end of February.

“We have surprises that the enemies do not expect at all,” he warned at the time.

A week ago, he similarly warned: “What is coming is greater.”

“The enemy … will see the level of achievements of strategic importance that place our country in its capabilities among the limited and numbered countries in this world,” al-Houthi said, without elaborating.

After seizing Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in 2014, the Houthis ransacked government arsenals, which held Soviet-era Scud missiles and other arms.

As the Saudi-led coalition entered Yemen’s conflict in 2015, the Houthis arsenal was increasingly targeted. Soon — and despite Yemen having no indigenous missile manufacturing infrastructure — newer missiles made their way into rebel hands.

Iran long has denied arming the Houthis, likely because of a yearslong United Nations arms embargo on the rebels. However, the U.S. and its allies have seized multiple arms shipments bound for the rebels in Mideast waters. Weapons experts as well have tied Houthi arms seized on the battlefield back to Iran.

Iran also now claims to have a hypersonic weapon. In June, Iran unveiled its Fattah, or “Conqueror” in Farsi, missile, which it described as being a hypersonic. It described another as being in development.

Iran’s mission to the U.N. did not respond to a request for comment Thursday, nor did the U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, which patrols Mideast waterways.

Israel’s military — which also has come under Houthi fire since the war against Hamas erupted on Oct. 7 when Hamas-led militants attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking 250 others hostage — declined to comment.

The Houthis have attacked ships since November, saying they want to force Israel to end the war in Gaza, which has seen over 31,000 Palestinians killed in the besieged strip. The ships attacked, however, have increasingly had little or no connection to Israel, the U.S. or other nations involved in the war.

But the assaults have raised the profile of the Houthis, whose Zaydi people ruled a 1,000-year kingdom in Yemen up until 1962. Adding a new weapon increases that cachet and puts more pressure on Israel after a cease-fire deal failed to take hold in Gaza before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Earlier in March, a Houthi missile struck a commercial ship in the Gulf of Aden, killing three of its crew members and forcing survivors to abandon the vessel. It marked their first fatal attack by the Houthis on shipping.

Other recent Houthi actions include an attack last month on a cargo ship carrying fertilizer, the Rubymar, which later sank after drifting for several days, and the downing of an American drone worth tens of millions of dollars.

A new suspected Houthi attack targeted a ship in the Gulf of Aden on Thursday, but missed the vessel and caused no damage, the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations center said.

Fabian Hinz, a missile expert and research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Iran transferred a new, hypersonic weapon to the Houthis. However, the question is how maneuverable such a weapon would be at hypersonic speeds and whether it could hit moving targets, like ships in the Red Sea.

“I wouldn’t exclude the possibility that the Houthis have some system that has some maneuvering capability to some extent,” Hinz said. “It is also possible for the Iranians to transfer new stuff for the Houthis to test it.”