Key point: Many countries sell weapons and they can end up in different hands than those who bought them.
It’s possible the missile strikes that badly damaged a key Saudi oil facility on Sept. 14, 2019 involved far-flying drones firing small, guided munitions.
Yemen's Houthi rebels, who have been at war with a Saudi-Emirati coalition since 2015, claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks on the Aramco sites, which lie around 800 miles from the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border. Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guard Corps in the past has supplied the Houthis with weaponry including drones.
But it’s worth noting that the Houthis also possess a surprisingly sophisticated arsenal of homemade ballistic and cruise missiles possessing the range performance to strike targets deep inside Saudi Arabia.
According to aviation expert Tom Cooper, the main weapon in the Houthi arsenal is the Burkan, a modified version of the Soviet R-17E Scud rocket that’s around five feet longer than the baseline missile and some 4,400 pounds heavier and can travel farther than 500 miles.
The Houthis inherited from the defunct Yemeni military a large number of Soviet-exported Scuds as well as North Korean-made Scuds called “Hwasong-6s.”
Iraq in the 1980s modified its own Scuds to the long-range “Al Hussein” standard, which is similar to the Burkan. An Iraqi engineer told Cooper about the modification effort, perhaps offering a perspective on the origins of the Houthis’ long-range rocket force.
“The R-17E is quite simple,” the engineer told Cooper. “From its tip towards the rear, it contains a warhead, then a room for equipment like gyro and timer, then the fuel tank which is about 1.35 meters long, and the oxidizer tank that is about 2.7 meters long. At the rear end is the engine.”
Stretching the missile body is no problem, but stretching fuel tanks is one. The simplest solution — the one we applied early on — is to take a tank from another missile, cut its central section and insert it into the tank of the modified missile.