The Saudi military is engaged in the largest military effort since the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War. It is fighting al-Houthi rebels supported by Iran on its southern border with Yemen. Though limited information is available (and much of it entails exaggerated claims from all sides attempting to distort the situation on the ground), monitoring Saudi Arabia's military performance can offer key insight into its military capabilities.
Along the border with Yemen, Saudi military forces have been engaged in a proxy battle with Iranian-supported Zaidi al-Houthi rebels in what has been characterized as the largest mobilization of Saudi military forces since the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Though it boasts a large budget and some of the most modern military equipment available, Saudi Arabia's military capability is limited due to a variety of factors that range from manpower and training issues to efforts by Saudi royalty to keep the military from being able to mount an effective coup. Thus, Saudi military operations along the Yemeni border in the Qatabar directorate in Yemen's northern Saada province, as well as an attempt to blockade a small portion of the northern Yemeni coast, offer considerable insight into the status of Saudi's military capability. The Saudis have long viewed the rebel group as a Yemeni regional sectarian problem, and have viewed the rise of insurgent and militant activity in Yemen as a potential threat to stability within the Saudi kingdom. This view has been reinforced in particular with recent terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia's southern Jizan and Najran provinces; as the attacks have been traced across the border. And following a Nov. 4 al-Houthi attack on a Saudi checkpoint, Riyadh began to reinforce its forces patrolling the border. Matters have since escalated with al-Houthi rebels briefly seizing territory in the Jabal Dukhan region, a strategic mountain range that straddles the border. Riyadh has said that it has since reclaimed that territory. In addition, indications of Tehran surging additional support to the al-Houthi have further pressured Saudi to react accordingly. (click here to enlarge image) Al-Houthi reports of Saudi soldiers' retreats or capture are met by Saudi reports of heavy al-Houthi casualties. With the claims and counterclaims, all with interests in distorting the situation on the ground, a clear picture of the correlation of forces and their relative performance is difficult. Nevertheless, six Saudi soldiers have been killed and reports suggest that a considerable number have been wounded. Even Riyadh has admitted that as many as eight of their soldiers have been captured. Significant fighting is clearly taking place. To support this fighting, Riyadh has deployed at least several thousand troops, including paratroopers and armor to reinforce the border, and troops have supplies to sustain operations. These are not Saudis Arabia's elite troops, and they are not equipped with the latest equipment — most arrived by trucks and jeeps armed with heavy machine guns. However, they are carrying out operations along the border, with security forces setting up checkpoints. Al-Houthi prisoners are also being taken — reportedly in significant numbers. Riyadh continues to emphasize that al-Houthi weapons caches are being uncovered. In addition to the fighting in the Jabal Dukham region, Saudi incursions into Yemeni territory have included reconnaissance efforts and other raids, and there are reports of brief skirmishes between Saudi and al-Houthi fighters in Yemeni villages. (Riyadh and Sanaa continue to deny any cross-border incursions have taken place.) But it seems Saudi forces are avoiding entanglement in sustained fighting, reportedly due in part to the vulnerability of armor in the rugged terrain across the border — a lesson perhaps drawn from the Israeli experience in Lebanon in 2006. Saudi forces have emphasized artillery and airstrikes. These are crude tools against an insurgency — all but the most modern and accurate artillery is a relatively blunt instrument. Though Saudi Arabia has the ability to deliver precision guided munitions, they require targets identified through good intelligence. But artillery and airstrikes are within the Saudi military's scope of practice. The Saudis appear to be using these techniques to enforce a buffer — largely on the Yemeni side — and to avoid heavier and more complex fighting. Given the low-threat environment in the air, along with the modern combat aircraft and precision weapons in the Saudi arsenal, the Royal Saudi Air Force should be capable of sustaining airstrikes, as long as it is provided with meaningfully accurate and timely targeting data, and actionable intelligence. (And Saudi pilots are absolutely capable of flying their aircraft, though not in any sort of complex mission profile.) But coordination of Saudi efforts — especially across the different branches of the military — is reportedly poor. The ability to carry out effective close air support missions may be limited. This is an imperfect strategy, and Saudi Arabia continues to suffer casualties along the border. It is not yet clear if the job of securing the Saudi border is getting done. The situation warrants further scrutiny, as fighting intensifies. Militants have a frustratingly consistent habit of reacting quickly to security initiatives and military offensives and finding work-arounds. Most of the Saudi-Yemeni border, after all, was not defined on paper until the 21st century, and remains poorly defined in practice. So, there is plenty of room for the al-Houthis to shift and attack other Saudi territory (though the bulk of the eastern border is open desert, which would not be conducive to their operations). The effort is reportedly being supported by U.S. advising and intelligence, important for targeting air and artillery strikes. This could mean that the Saudis' ability to conduct truly independent operations of this scale may be somewhat more limited than their operational performance might at first suggest. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is lobbying for further assistance, including more overt support from the United States, as well as help from Jordanian special forces and even Riyadh's political allies in Lebanon. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's naval forces (and possibly coast guard forces) attempt to enforce a blockade of the northern Yemeni coast from the Houdayda harbor to the Saudi border in order to block supplies from reaching the al-Houthi fighters. Saudi patrol boats are conducting operations nearly 400 nautical miles from Jeddah, the headquarters of the Western Fleet responsible for the Red Sea, and have reportedly succeeded in preventing rebels from taking over a local port town. A blockade is a challenge for even a more proficient and drilled navy. Small islands surround the northern Yemeni coast along the Red Sea, compounding the maritime surveillance challenge. Identifying and singling out likely smuggling vessels from the day-to-day civilian traffic can be difficult without sound intelligence and good situational awareness. Nevertheless, though Saudi efforts have not halted the smuggling of arms to the al-Houthi fighters, it appears to be at least playing a role in shifting smuggling efforts to other, less efficient routes. Though there are certainly challenges for the Saudi military, the operational experience at the Yemeni border — with the failures — may improve systemically the Saudi military's operational capability. Ultimately, Saudi forces are gaining valuable operational experience in an area that is of deep concern to the Saudi monarchy and the military alike: maintaining territorial integrity and securing the borders. And this comes as Iran's ongoing rise brings Saudi Arabia deep discomfort.