The Houthi of Yeman just changed the nature of war

Summary: Milestones in warfare often slide pass with few seeing their importance, and experts waving them away as nothing new. So it is with the recent attack on Saudi Arabia. Here William Lind explains why we should pay attention.

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The Houthis Teach a 4GW Lesson

By William S. Lind at Traditional Right, 23 September 2019.
Posted with his generous permission.

The recent Houthi attacks on Saudi oil facilities at Khurais and Abqaiq, which are more than 500 miles from Yemen, offer a number of Fourth Generation war lessons. Although the U.S. is saying the Houthis, a non-state entity, don’t have the ability to undertake such a sophisticated operation and that Iran must therefore be responsible, I think the Houthis and some other 4GW entities are fully capable of this and similar actions.

Why is no one considering that the Houthis might have launched their drones from the sea? It does not require a warship to launch drones; a dhow would serve quite nicely and be a “stealth” platform because it looks like all other dhows. The Quds 1 drone, which the Houthis have used previously, is large and capable enough for the mission. The dhow could have been positioned north or northwest of the targets. Iran probably supplied the drones and expertise, but we have been doing the same for the Saudis in their air campaign against the Houthis. Turn about is fair play.

The first lesson here is that states tend to underestimate the capabilities of non-state, 4GW players. We did so with al Qaeda and paid for it on 9/11. The Israelis did it with Hezbollah and paid by being fought to a draw last time they invaded Lebanon. Now the U.S. is doing it again with the Houthis, as did the Saudis when they launched what they thought would be an easy war against them in 2015. This chronic underestimation will probably continue until a 4GW player sets off a nuke somewhere inconvenient.

A related lesson is that all the latest technology has not altered the limits on air power. From Douhet onward, the (often well paid) advocates of air power have over promised and under delivered, as General McPeak, then Air Force Chief of Staff, said on my Modern War TV show years ago. Each time air power used for strategic bombing fails to win a war, the hucksters promise a new airplane or system they claim will finally work. It never has and never will, including in Yemen.

The most important lesson is that the technologies that matter for future war are mostly not the baroque, hyper-expensive “systems” state militaries squander billions on but cheap, simple adaptations from the civilian market. The most effective cruise missiles ever were the civilian aircraft used by al Qaeda on 9/11; all that cost was a few thousand dollars in pilot training. The Houthis’ Quds 1 drone costs much less than multi-million dollar models we buy, not to mention the $100 million-plus F-35 or the $15 billion Ford-class aircraft carrier that is supposed to launch the F-35 but can’t. If I’m right and the Houthis launched their attack from a civilian-type ship, compare the cost of their dhow to a U.S. Navy destroyer. Then ask which one has actually destroyed something.

This vast disproportion between what states get for their money and what non-state, 4GW actors get is typical of a change in generations. The German Panzer divisions of 1940s were much cheaper than the Maginot Line they bypassed. The bicycles the Japanese used in their campaign to take Singapore in 1942 cost a tiny fraction of the defenses of Singapore. The hi-tech sensors of the “McNamara Line” in Vietnam cost infinitely more than the cans of piss the VC hung from trees to fox them, and the ratio was about the same for the microwave ovens the Serbs used in defense of Kosovo to decoy our multi-million dollar anti-radiation missiles.

Smart state militaries will learn this lesson and start using their greater resources for lots of small, 4GW-type procurement programs in which they modify products for sale in the civilian market. That will not happen here, because the worst thing you can say about a proposal in the DoD is that it is inexpensive (that’s why our troops are still marching instead of riding bicycles). In Washington, the budget, not a weapon, is the product. And so Fourth Generation war and the non-state entities that wage it are the future, not because they are so competent but because we are so corrupt.

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About the author

William S. Lind is director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation. He has a Master’s Degree in History from Princeton University in 1971. He worked as a legislative aide for armed services for Senator Robert Taft, Jr., of Ohio from 1973 to 1976 and held a similar position with Senator Gary Hart of Colorado from 1977 to 1986. See his bio at Wikipedia.

William Lind

Mr. Lind is author of the Maneuver Warfare Handbook (1985), co-author with Gary Hart of America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform (1986), and co-author with William H. Marshner of Cultural Conservatism: Toward a New National Agenda (1987). Most importantly, he is one of the co-authors of “Into the Fourth Generation“, the October 1989 article in the Marine Corps Gazette describing fourth-generation warfare.

He’s perhaps best known for his articles about the long war, now published as On War: The Collected Columns of William S. Lind 2003-2009. See his other articles about a broad range of subjects…

  1. His posts at TraditionalRight.
  2. His articles about geopolitics at The American Conservative.
  3. His articles about transportation at The American Conservative.

For More Information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see other posts about threat inflation, about 4th generation war, (esp these about 4GW theory), about our long conflict with Iran, see these posts …

  1. Darwin explains the futility of killing insurgents. It makes them more effective.
  2. In our wars the tactics of the weak confound the strong – by GI Wilson (COL, USMC, rtd).
  3. Stratfor explains why we are fighting in Yemen’s civil war.
  4. William Lind warns about the cost of threat inflation.

Books by Martin van Crevled explain modern war

Nobody writes about modern warfare as well as Martin van Creveld.

The Culture of War.

Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present.

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Technology and War
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13 thoughts on “The Houthi of Yeman just changed the nature of war”

  1. …. not because they are so competent but because we are so corrupt.

    In future war games, perhaps this will be the explanatory quote that is used. It should be.

  2. The Man Who Laughs

    This attack made me think I knew how some people felt reading about Taranto, where the Royal Navy sank three Italian battleships in harbor with aerial torpedoes. War had just changed, and not everyone was spaying attention.

    I’d be careful about terms here because it looks to me like air power worked pretty well in this specific case, just not air power as we’re used to thinking of it. The air power that really failed wasn’t strategic bombing, it was air supremacy of the kind we’ve invested in heavily, in the form of high performance sophisticated jet fighters. They used to say that the bomber would always get through. It didn’t, and it frequently failed to hit anything that mattered when it did. Now maybe F-22s and F-35s could have thwarted this attack, although I would not bet my Blu Ray of Top Gun on it. So it looks like for the foreseeable future the drone is likely to get through. It’s been a long time since US ground forces faced serious air attack. That may be about to change, and it isn’t clear to me that the General Staff is paying any attention.

    I’m skeptical that the little Houthis down in Houthiville built these things on their own. I’m pretty sure they didn’t build the Scud missiles they were tossing into Saudi Arabia a while back, and if some unknown parties who might possibly live north of the Gulf were willing to supply them with Scuds, then maybe they might be willing to supply drones as well.

    1. The Man,

      (1) Essays like this have to use the terms of common language. Otherwise they become long turgid academic prose. Everybody knows what Lind means by “air power.” Its what the US Air Force spends tens of billions of dollars on every year.

      (2) “It didn’t, and it frequently failed to hit anything that mattered when it did”

      Bombers proved to be devastatingly effective weapons in WWII. If used properly in the Battle of Britain, unlike as they were used by Goering’s clowns, they might have forced Britain to terms with Germany. The strategic bombing campaigns on Germany and Japan crippled their industrial capacity – albeit not in a cost-effective manner (as the Strategic Bombing campaign showed).

      (3) “Now maybe F-22s and F-35s could have thwarted this attack”

      Against slow-moving drones? Not likely. Many USAF people have said that modern fighters might have difficulty shooting down WWI biplanes (I suspect that’s an exaggeration, but a vivid way to show their limitations).

      (4) “it isn’t clear to me that the General Staff is paying any attention.”

      They are. Perhaps you’re not watching the military press.

      (5) “I’m skeptical that the little Houthis down in Houthiville built these things on their own.”

      Did you click on the Wikipedia link discussing that? Here it is.

      (6) “I’m pretty sure they didn’t build the Scud missiles they were tossing into Saudi Arab”

      Proxy war has been the primary form of conflict between major nations after Korea. Everybody plays it because it reduces of odds of expensive and destructive escalation into direct conflict.

      1. Typical Lind. Regurgitating the exact points that were made better and sooner by others. Also, this clunker:

        This chronic underestimation will probably continue until a 4GW player sets off a nuke somewhere inconvenient.

        completely misunderstands the situation. Drones are a weapon of the weak (or in Lind’s academic jargon “4GW players”), giving them capabilities that were once the exclusive domain of a few air forces. Why on earth would their goal be the extremely difficult one of acquiring a nuke – a weapon that would spark a retaliation that kills millions – when drones can be constructed from off-the-shelf parts and can be used to carry out attacks that bring their enemies to the bargaining table?

  3. The Man Who Laughs

    “Proxy war has been the primary form of conflict between major nations after Korea. Everybody plays it because it reduces of odds of expensive and destructive escalation into direct conflict.”

    Well, if someone is waging a proxy war and they’re capable of getting ballistic missiles into Yemen, then they’re also capable of bringing in drones. I’d ask who’s waging this proxy war, but I’m pretty sure I already know. Yeah, everybody does it, but someone specific does it in each specific case.

    I was being a bit sarcastic about the F-35s stopping this attack. About the only way that would be likely would be if they wiped out the launchers on the ground, and I doubt they could even find them.

    1. The Man,

      I have no idea what you are attempting to say. You are wrong about the Houthi’s ability to build these weapons, as were most of your other statements. Guessing doesn’t help in these matters.

  4. Optimistic Person

    World is just turning a blind eye to Iran’s increasing power in the Middle East Syria, Iraq, Yemen are just a few examples and then they go on to say “Iran never attacked any country”

    1. Optimistic,

      “World is just turning a blind eye to Iran’s increasing power in the Middle East”

      Does “blind eye” include a flood of reports, news stories, and op-eds? The sanctions against Iran? The assassination of Iran’s scientists, repeated cyberattacks on Iran, and support for terrorists in Iraq by Pakistan, Israel, and the US?

      Also, did God personally tell you that it was Her will that the US be the dominant power in the Middle East – and that Iran’s efforts to push back on the pressure exerted since its revolution by the Israel-US-Sunni Axis are inherently illegitimate? Did he give you tablets we can read?

  5. Nothing new under the sun. Not even drone warfare. The first full scale use of drones in a battlefield was in 1982, during the Israeli invasion in Lebanon. Israel used dozens of drones (they were called UAVs back then, I believe) as decoys, forcing the Syrian air defence to shoot them down with their extensive network of SAMs in the Bekaa Valley. This allowed the Israeli to locate the radars of said SAMs by means of electronic warfare and to launch one of the biggest SAAD operations in modern history, obliterating the Syrian Air Defence in Lebanon.

    In recent times your own USAF has made extensive use of armed drones, killing thousands of enemy fighters during the War on Terror. It is safe to assume that the US is world leader in drone technology for military purposes, though other countries are catching up. Furthermore, the US military is funding many research projects for anti-drone technology, some of them with really exotic stuff like high energy lasers!

    https://www.raytheon.com/capabilities/products/counter-uas

    Drones are actually very easy to shoot down, once they have been spotted. They are far smaller, slower and more fragile than a typical fighter plane, the “pilot” has usually a very narrow field of vision and no other means of early warning, as drones have no RWR or radar-and of course they can’t turn like a fighter plane can. Their advantage lies in their small size, low flight altitude and small cost. So the real problem with them is

    a) finding them and
    b) shooting them down with something that is not several orders of magnitude more expensive than the drone itself.

    Perhaps you remember the time when Saudi Arabia shot down a cheap Quadcopter drone with a Patriot missile.

    https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-39277940

    Now, there are numerous Air Defence systems out there that could spot a low flying drone and shoot it down at low cost. Laser guns aside, any radar-guided gun on an armoured vehicle could do, and Saudi Arabia has the cash to buy thousands of them, man them and keep them operating 24/7. There are also cheaper Anti-Aircraft missile systems than can be connected to the Patriots and aim lower priority targets like the drones and cruise missiles of the Houthis. The fact that the Saudis haven’t done so, although they are at war with an entity that uses cheap drones regularly for the last 5 years speaks volumes for their incompetence and nothing at all for the quality of the arms they buy from the US, or the choices of the American military establishment.

    I think the author of this article is a bit harsh on the leaders of your Armed Forces. They very well know the utility of drones, have been using them extensively for decades and, it appears, they are taking steps to defend your troops against such threats. I cannot say if the procurement of F-35 and F-22’s is the right decision, but it seems to me that “real” fighter jets cannot be easily replaced by and unmanned quadcopter, at least not yet.

    1. Taraxippos,

      Good to know that obsolete thinking never goes out of style. Reminds me of the military people in the late 1930s blind to the potential of aircraft and submarines.

      “Perhaps you remember the time when Saudi Arabia shot down a cheap Quadcopter drone with a Patriot missile.”

      Perhaps you remember the cost of a Quadcopter vs. a Patriot missile, and the relative numbers of each that can easily be brought to bear on a target.

      “I cannot say if the procurement of F-35 and F-22’s is the right decision, but it seems to me that “real” fighter jets cannot be easily replaced by and unmanned quadcopter, at least not yet.”

      Got to be the silliest thing I’ve read all week. It demonstrates quite the total misunderstanding of the situation. Please look up the meaning of “drone.”

      1. “Perhaps you remember the cost of a Quadcopter vs. a Patriot missile, and the relative numbers of each that can easily be brought to bear on a target.”

        Yes, I do, and pointed out in my post.

        “It demonstrates quite the total misunderstanding of the situation. Please look up the meaning of “drone.””

        I know what a drone is, thank you very much. Obsolete thinking? If you mean by it, the attempt to see things in a certain context, yes, that is my way of thinking. The context being, the Saudi Arabian Air Force is nothing like the USAF, or any half way competent Air Force. The fact that the Houthis can hit them with drones doesn’t turn the drones into Wunderwaffen.

      2. Taraxippos,

        Your comment shows little knowledge about drones.

        (1) Your “remember the when Saudi shot down” was silly, for the reason I pointed out. The incident demonstrates the power of drones, not their weakness.

        (2) Your making-stuff-up about the ease of shooting down drones.

        (3) Esp silly was “that “real” fighter jets cannot be easily replaced by an unmanned quadcopter.” Drones are not quadcopters. Quadcopters are one kind of drone. Other kinds of drones are replacing “real” fighter jets. Quadcopters

  6. @Larry

    “Your comment shows little knowledge about drones.”

    No it does not. It shows you are not capable of actually reading and understanding a comment.

    “(1) Your “remember the when Saudi shot down” was silly, for the reason I pointed out. The incident demonstrates the power of drones, not their weakness.”

    I wanted to point out exactly the fact that a drone can be shot down but that the Patriot missile used in that instance was way more expensive.

    “(2) Your making-stuff-up about the ease of shooting down drones.”

    I am not making up stuff, drones are very easy to shoot down. The world’s most advanced drone, the MQ-9 Reaper flies at a speed of about 450mph and has the size and Radar Cross Section of an F-16. How hard would it be for any SAM to hit it? I mentioned in my posting the incident in the Bekaa Valley. Read it again, Syrians shot dozens of Israeli Drones in a single day. But the next day the Israelis sent F-4’s, F-16’s, A-4’s and it was a different story altogether.

    “(3) Esp silly was “that “real” fighter jets cannot be easily replaced by an unmanned quadcopter.” Drones are not quadcopters. Quadcopters are one kind of drone. Other kinds of drones are replacing “real” fighter jets. Quadcopters”

    “Quadcopter” was a figure of speech. What are you, a 13 year old and can’t understand when the person you talk to makes a figure of speech?

    Larry, I am sorry to say, I find your blog very interesting, but your rude manners make a conversation with you an ordeal. Sometimes I have the impression your teenage son or nephew has taken over the blog and answers to comments.

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