The IRGC Qods Force is not very good at its job: Missiles in Yemen
11 October 2018
Redline is back! We've got a great tan after several summery months on the beach and we're chomping at the bit to get you some more juicy content. We're very pleased with our new-look: let us know what you think.
As some light beachside reading (we love a hammock) Redline has just finished getting through a very long and very detailed report released in January this year by the United Nations Security Council's Panel of Experts on Yemen. We weren't able to get round to reading it earlier in the year but we should have. The report, available here, gives an eye-opening expert account of the Yemeni conflict. Patently, nobody was winning it in January and it doesn't seem like much has changed since.
The situation in Yemen is horrible and we don't want to make light of the awful things that the Yemeni civilian population is going through. However, it was admittedly with some level of amusement that we read the Panel's account of Iran's attempts to covertly transfer arms to the Houthi forces in Yemen. Like so much that Iran tries to do in secret (to pick a few choice examples: constructing an underground uranium enrichment facility; building ICBMs; and trying to assassinate a foreign ambassador) they've completely screwed up the "covert" aspect, leaving Iranian fingerprints all over virtually every piece of key military kit held by the Houthi forces.
Indeed, looking at the evidence laid out by the Panel of Experts, there's a very clear trail of Iranian involvement that stretches from military-run factories outside Tehran all the way to the Houthi's missile launch sites in northern Yemen.
What the Panel report misses - but what we want to reveal today - is that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Qods Force (IRGC-QF) is at the heart of this Iranian arms trafficking into Yemen. The QF is the shadowy arm of the IRGC that is in charge of covert action outside Iran's borders, and it's also the organisation that's usually to be found wherever there's an Iranian foreign policy cock-up or bungled military action abroad.
Indeed, today we want to throw a bit more light on perhaps the most concerning IRGC-QF arms transfer that has caught the Panel of Experts' attention: the covert supply of modified Qiam-1 missile systems to the Houthis. These systems have a range of almost twice the Houthis' old SCUD-C missiles, enabling the Houthis to hit some of the most densely populated cities across the Gulf.
The addition of Qiam-1s into the Yemen theatre is a particularly dangerous gambit on Iran's part. Using a combination of open source information and confidential sources on the ground, we've got some revelations to make about the IRGC-QF's role in putting these cities under threat.
Let's take a look at just how these missiles got to Yemen.
Step 1. Manufacturing and transfer to the IRGC
The Qiam-1 missile was developed and is manufactured by an outfit in Iran's state-owned Aerospace Industries Organisation (AIO) called the Shahid Hemmat Industries Group (SHIG - گروه صنایع شهید همت). SHIG is Iran's premier manufacturer of liquid-propellant ballistic missiles.
SHIG makes Qiam-1 missiles and then supplies them to their sole customer - the IRGC Aerospace Force, which operates Iran's missiles and, as its name suggests, is part of the IRGC.
You don't need to look hard to find proof that SHIG makes these missiles and then hands them over to the IRGC. Here's a nice photograph from May 2011 showing the head of the AIO, Mehdi Farahi, officially handing over custody of several Qiam-1 airframes from SHIG to the IRGC Aerospace Force.
Buy four missiles, get a free clipboard. Bargain!
Step 2. The IRGC makes some "improvements"As at least one spectacular explosion has demonstrated, the IRGC can't help tinkering with the missiles that it obtains from SHIG and the AIO. The IRGC's missile development arm, the IRGC-AF Self Sufficiency Jihad Organisation ((سازمان جهاد خودکفایی) has for almost a decade tried very hard to improve on the products put out by the AIO - with very mixed results.
The Qiam-1 is no exception, it seems. As the Yemen Panel of Experts report shows, somewhere between leaving the SHIG factory and crashing into Saudi soil, at least one of the SHIG-origin Qiam-1 missiles that's made its way to Yemen has undergone some, erm, modifications.
The Panel looks pretty closely at one of these missiles, having viewed its wreckage in Saudi Arabia. And the Panel notes that some of the modifications presumably made by the IRGC were actually quite good. To wit, there's:
- A lightened airframe made of 5000-series aluminium rather than steel.
- A reduced weight warhead for extended range, and
- Compressed air bottles made of lightweight carbon fibre, rather than steel.
And some modifications were not so good. In fact, they were pretty rubbish. The Panel notes that the missile airframe that they viewed had, prior to its launch and sometime after it was originally manufactured, been cut into five sections and then welded back together - badly. With great understatement, the Panel describes the welding as "artisanal", which is a nice way of saying that it was shithouse. And the missile was given a fresh coat of paint - similarly artisanal - with a new hand-drawn designation, Burkan-2H.
So why dissect a missile and then weld it back together? As the Panel surmises, this was most likely to make it easier to covertly transport the missile from the supplying country (i.e. Iran) to the Houthis. The largest cut-up section would have been 4x1m in size, meaning it could be easily hidden in a truck-size container or on a small boat.
Step 3. Transit from Iran to YemenIt's the IRGC-QF of course! The Panel doesn't say it, but the IRGC-QF are the ones who have been getting these missiles from Iran to the Houthis, using sea/land smuggling routes through either Oman, Southern Yemen, or both.
Cutting up those missiles enabled the QF to transport them into Yemen without being interdicted by the Saudis or other Coalition forces operating in the region. Redline imagines that the IRGC's operational plans for the land and sea transit legs looked something like this:
We jest. But the IRGC's operational security is indeed exceptionally poor, which is how Redline has obtained some juicy details about the modalities of cooperation between the IRGC and Houthis. Redline can exclusively reveal that IRGC specialists, in cooperation with the IRGC-QF, have been working with the Houthis in Yemen since 2016. These IRGC personnel been essential to disassembling and reassembling medium-range missiles like the modified Qiam-1 so that they can be transported covertly.
Step 4. Launch missilesOnce the missiles reach Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen, the Houthis fire them into Saudi Arabia. The Panel has a neat graphic showing the trajectories of various missiles fired in this way between 2015 and 2017:
Launching a Qiam-1 isn't like putting up a kite. It requires extensive training, including on fueling, targeting, and safety aspects. Get things wrong and you'll be a fairly spectacular addition to a YouTube Fail video compilation.
How does this training take place? Redline has discovered from our sources that the Houthis have been receiving training from the IRGC since at least 2016, when a group of Houthis traveled to Iran to receive technical training on launching missiles capable of hitting Saudi military bases.
The training has been effective, to a point. We've also learned that Houthi missile technicians have suffered from a series of setbacks caused by a combination of crap missile assembly and poor training. These setbacks have included some serious accidents. In early 2017, for example, a number of Houthis were killed when a ballistic missile exploded as they attempted to launch it from the area of Wadi' in Sa'dah, Yemen. And then, our sources tell us, in April 2017 another missile aimed at Riyadh from the area of an-Nuq'ah in Sa'dah exploded just after launch, killing the driver of the launch vehicle.
Step 5. Deny Everything
The Iranian government's spin on the appearance of patently Iranian-origin missiles in Yemen is textbook Tehran.
Laughably, Iran told the Panel that they have no military presence in Yemen, but only a diplomatic representation in Sanaa, providing 'advisory assistance' to support efforts at finding a political solution to the current crisis. And as for the Panel's belief that Iran is probably responsible for the transfer of Qiam-1 missiles to the Houthis, well, that's all made up.
Problematically for Iran, the Panel's evidence is extremely compelling. It’s also embarrassing for the IRGC, who forgot to scrub traces of the missiles' Iranian origins before shipping them off to the Houthis. As a couple of examples, the Panel cites an electronic circuit board found in one missile's wreckage that has the manufacturer's name on its serial number - SHIG. Remember them from the first picture above?
There's also a metal jet vane featuring the logo of another missile component manufacturer who is part of SHIG's supply chain, the Shahid Bagheri Industries Group (SHBIG - not to be confused with the Shahid Bakeri Industries Group, which makes solid propellant missiles). That's entirely consistent with what you would expect from an Iranian-made Qiam-1.
It would have taken literally five minutes to scrub off these markings from the components to provide some level of deniability for Iran. But apparently that was simply too hard for the IRGC-QF to organise.
The unmasking of the IRGC-QF support to the Houthis raises some serious questions for the Iranian government. The high levels of security and competence that a truly covert military supply operation would require have simply not been shown in this case - and it’s the IRGC-QF that has failed to protect Iranian secrets.
Redline can't help but wonder if Iran's civilian government is at all in the loop on the QF's ham-fisted efforts to lob medium-range missiles at Saudi Arabia through their Houthi proxies. If they weren't, they should be asking some hard questions the next time they bump into their IRGC colleagues.