China’s Role in Houthi Arsenal: Sea Drones Proliferate in Red Sea Conflict

By Girish Linganna 

Jun 17: Houthi rebels from Yemen used a remote-controlled sea drone to attack a Liberia-tagged coal ship owned by Greece on Wednesday, forcing the crew to abandon the vessel, according to US military sources. Centcom reported that the coal ship, the Tutor, was gradually flooding after a separate attack by the Iran-backed group. A Filipino member of the crew from the Tutor is still missing. 

Analysts told the Wall Street Journal this seemed to be the first successful use of a sea drone by the Houthi rebels. This new tactic helps the Iran-backed group avoid US-led attempts to stop their missile and aerial drone attacks on ships in the Red Sea. 

A sea drone operates on, or under, water and is used for such tasks as surveillance or attacks on ships. An aerial drone flies in the air and is used for such activities as reconnaissance, delivering supplies, or launching attacks from above. Both can be remotely controlled or autonomous. 

On Saturday (June 15), the crew of a Ukrainian-owned ship had to abandon it after the vessel was hit by Houthi missiles. The US Central Command, which oversees American military actions in the Middle East, reported they had destroyed several explosive sea devices, an aerial drone and onshore radars used by the Houthis to target ships.

Since Hamas launched a wildcat strike on Israel on October 7 last year and Israel responded by attacking Hamas in Gaza, Iran-backed Houthi rebels have been frequently launching missiles, drones and other weapons at commercial ships and warships. A US-led naval coalition has successfully destroyed most of these projectiles aimed at maritime traffic. They have also conducted strikes on launch sites in Yemen.

British security firm Ambrey—which provides intelligence and risk management services, specializing in maritime security to protect vessels from threats like piracy and attacks—noted to clients that the possible destruction of two ships within days shows a big improvement in the Houthis’ attack capabilities. Ambrey mentioned that this was the first time the Yemeni group had successfully used a sea drone instead of missiles or aerial drones. The engine room was flooded because of the attack.

According to Centcom, the Ukrainian-owned ship, the Verbena, carrying Malaysian timber, was abandoned that same afternoon because the crew could not control fires started by Houthi missile strikes two days earlier. One of the members of the crew who were on board the Verbena was severely hurt.

Arsenio Dominguez, secretary-general of the International Maritime Organization, said on Friday (June 14) that this situation could not be allowed to continue. The Wall Street Journal reported that Evalend Shipping, owner of the Tutor and Donbass transit service, owner of the Verbena, did not respond to requests for comment.

So far, only one British-owned ship carrying 20,000 tons of fertilizer has sunk since the conflict began. Over the weekend, more incidents occurred. On Sunday (June 16), the UK Maritime Trade Operations reported two explosions near a ship passing by Yemen. Despite the explosions, the ship continued its journey without any problems.

Starting in January, strikes by the US and its allies targeted the Houthi arsenal and interrupted some of their military capabilities. Additionally, several shipments from Iran were intercepted. At the end of January, the US seized a large shipment of Iranian weapons intended for the Houthis, which included parts for the sea-based devices used in this week’s attack.

 Despite these challenges, the Houthis have found new methods to obtain the necessary equipment and weapons from Iran, according to Western and Houthi officials. Now, they do not ship them directly. Instead, they re-route the weapons through the Eastern African port town of Djibouti—which is strategically located at the crossroads of sea routes between the Far East, the Arab-Persian Gulf and Africa—where the arms are transferred onto civilian ships. Additionally, the Houthis are using Lebanon as a base to buy drone parts from China, according to sources.




(The author of this article is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru. He is also Director of ADD Engineering Components, India, Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany. You can reach him at:





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Title: China’s Role in Houthi Arsenal: Sea Drones Proliferate in Red Sea Conflict

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