And so it seems the Houthis have scored perhaps their most spectacular success to date.
Normal disclaimers apply, we do not currently know that the video is real, but as this is in line with the earlier demonstrated capability of the Yemeni rebels to launch successful attacks against shipping, I am prepared to tentatively accept the video as real until more evidence surfaces (it always does).
The vessel in the video is a Al Madinah class frigate. Four of these 2,000 ton (2,600 fl) frigates were built by French yard CNIM in La Seyne for the Saudi Navy during the first half of the 80’s, having been entered service between 1985 and 1986, and undergoing a major refit in France between 1995 and 2000. The crew consists of a total of 179 persons. The vessel is largely defenceless against modern anti-ship missiles, the sole air defence being an 8-shot Crotale launcher (with reloads) and two 40 mm Bofors guns (mounted amidships with relatively poor firing arches).
Based on the video, the attack seems to have followed the same modus operandi as the attack on Swift. If this is the case, the missile is most likely an Iranian-supplied C-802/Noor fired from a truck-based TEL, with the vessel having been tracked by shorebased radars and potentially shadowed by smaller vessels (note that the opening clip shows the vessel from starboard, while in the later clips it is travelling in the opposite direction). As said, this is based on the assumption that the attack seems to be modelled after the one on Swift, the short clip here gives very little to go after.
The single missile seems to have impacted the very rear of the vessel. This has likely destroyed the stern-mounted 533 mm torpedo tubes, variable depth sonar, and the helicopter pad, but should not be a fatal strike if the watertight compartments are properly secured and the ensuing fire is brought under control. It is however entirely possible that this has caused damage to the hull which would cause the propeller shafts to become misaligned, significantly reducing or completely ending the ships ability to move under her own steam. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a picture of the Al Madinah showing the hull below the waterline, and thus we can only guess the location of the propellers and their supports.
The frigates sport a helipad capable of handling the Saudi Navy’s AS.365 Dauphin-2, and the vessel seems to have had a helicopter aboard during the attack.
On the whole, while this is certainly one for the history books, successful anti-ship missile attacks are surprisingly rare considering their level of proliferation, in operational terms it won’t affect the Saudi-led war. The frigates have a very limited effect on what is for all practical purposes a land war, and while the damaged frigate is likely to need a significant overhaul (if the shaft line has been damaged it might be deemed uneconomical to return to service), the long term impact boils down to two questions:
How will this affect the Saudi naval expansion program? The long-winded modernisation program is centred around the so-called LCS-frigate, but also includes smaller 2,600 ton vessels. The need for modern warships with a solid self-defence capability might suddenly become more urgent in the minds of the Saudi leadership.
The other question is Iran. The missile was certainly not something made in the basement of a local warlord, but has been imported from abroad, most likely from Iran. An Iranian supplied weapon has now put a major Saudi surface vessel out of action, and quite likely caused losses amongst its crew. How will Riyadh react to this?
With the eyes of the world on Syria (and Trump), Yemen is steadily shaping up to be the tinderbox that might cause a major regional war.
*’Vampire’ is the brevity code for a hostile anti-ship missile.
Update 31 January 2017:
A Saudi press release on the incident has been published, which contradicts the version above by claiming the attack was made by three ‘suicide boats’, one of which impacted in the stern and leading to two dead sailors. The RSAF would then have chased of the other two (the frigate does feature Link 11 for communicating with aircraft).
I find this version somewhat hard to believe. To begin with, the opening video does seem to show a missile, and not another boat. Secondly, while the frigate lacked missile defenses, it has perfectly adequate weapons to fend off three boats, including deck guns and small arms of the crew. This is especially true given the longer reaction time available in the case of a boat versus a missile closing in. Naturally, the ship might have been at low readiness and been caught by surprise, but some kind of reaction would seem logical. The only vessel besides the frigate on the video is also the camera platform, which apparently got away.
All in all, while I don’t completely rule out the Saudi version, I still believe a missile to be the more likely version.
One ‘intermediate’ version would be that the closing vessel(s) would have fired an anti-tank missile, which would have caused a fire and potentially a secondary explosions amongst the torpedoes.
Update 06 February
A leaked video claiming to show the flight deck at the moment of impact has appeared, showing a white vessel approaching and then detonating. The video seems to be real, it featuring an AS365/565 on the helicopter deck, painted in the colors used by the Royal Saudi Naval Aviation, and the camera angle is the expected one for a camera watching the flight deck.
There has also appeared pictures showing the frigate entering port. The vessel sports the pennant number 702, identifying it as the lead ship of the class, ‘Al Madinah’, with visible damage being very light, and consistent with an external explosion caused by a light craft VBIED. Most likely the vessel will be back in service within weeks, as opposed to months.