22 Jan 24

The successful helicopter assault and hijacking of the MV Galaxy Leader on 19 Nov 23 by Houthi militants was spectacular in nature. Well-edited footage grabbed media attention and spread prolifically across social media. The hijacking signalled the first major step in a series of escalations by the Houthis, setting the tempo for the events of the following weeks and months.

This article explores the story behind the hijacking and its execution by an untested assault team, highlighting how the Houthis achieved a key tactical victory in seizing the Galaxy Leader whilst simultaneously garnering international media attention to boost its strategic propaganda. The article concludes that the event highlights the disproportionate impacts that Iran’s proxy forces are capable of and suggests that this is likely to embolden their resistance to Western hegemony.

Why the MV Galaxy Leader?

The targeting of the vessel was unlikely glamorous or sophisticated. Publicly available records clearly linked the Galaxy Leader to both Ray Car Carriers [I] and Galaxy Maritime LTD prior to the event. Both companies can, in turn, be associated with Israeli businessman Abraham Ungar through the 2017 Paradise Papers leak [ii]. In early 2021, the Iranians attacked two Ungar linked vessels, Hyperion Ray and MV Helios Ray [iii]

Figure 1: Chart depicting the ownership structure of the Galaxy Leader

The Galaxy Leader was likely selected due to the absence of armed guards in conjunction with its large deck for landing, typical of vehicle transporters. Houthi mission planners would have chosen this ‘sitting duck’ as it offered the highest chance of success with minimal risk to the valuable helicopter and its crew.

The Story of a Hijacking

With an increasingly combative rhetoric emanating from Iran’s proxy network in reaction to the Israeli campaign in Gaza, it was little surprise that Houthi spokesmen were vocal in threatening Israeli-linked shipping transiting the Red Sea in early November [iv]. Iran itself has conducted high profile heliborne assaults on vessels in recent years and presented itself as a tangible threat to shipping passing through the Persian Gulf; however, the threat of heliborne assault of Houthis was deemed unlikely by security analysts and marine insurers alike.

The Houthis eclectic collection of rotary assets, which were estimated to number only five airworthy airframes at the beginning of 2024 [v], were inherited from the Yemini Air Force. Reports from local journalists indicate that the Houthis started regular helicopter operations in Aug 22 [vi], with footage published in Aug 23 depicting parachute jumps from Mil Mi-17 helicopters [vii]. Despite building these aerial capabilities, they were highly likely limited in nature due to the shortage of available functioning aircraft, parts, and pilots who defected from the Yemini Air Force. It has been well documented that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah operatives have trained Houthis militants [viii] in land warfare and it is likely this instruction has expanded in recent years to include airborne tactics.

Figure 2: Three Houthi Mil Mi-17 series helicopters, including the airframe possibly used in the Hijacking of the Galaxy Leader, flying over Saana on 21 Sep 23 (Source: english.iswnews.com)

Analysis of satellite imagery indicates that, historically, Houthi helicopters were most often located on the South-Eastern apron at Al-Dailami Air Base (Sana’a International Airport) [ix]. Two days prior to the hijacking of the Galaxy Leader (17 Nov 23) three helicopters can be seen parked on this apron. In all subsequent imagery until 18 Dec 23, the southernmost of these aircraft (see Fig 3) disappears from coverage. During this period, the aircraft is most likely active at Hodeida International Airport.

Figure 3: Satellite imagery depicting activity on the South-Eastern apron at Al-Dailami Air Base between 17 Nov 23 and 13 Jan 24. (Source: Planet Labs PBC and Airbus DS)

Meanwhile, the Galaxy Leader, a Bahamas flagged vehicle carrier, entered the Red Sea through the Suez Canal on 16 Nov 23. On its journey south through the Red Sea, the Galaxy Leader must have perceived the Houthi threat as considerable enough to turn off its AIS beacon on 18 Nov 23, yet not hazardous enough to bring armed guards onboard. At approximately 1100 UTC on 19 Nov 23 [x], the Galaxy Leader was boarded and hijacked by a Houthi assault team inserted by a single Mil Mi-171SH helicopter. Along with its 25 crew members, the vessel was diverted to an anchorage off Hodeida where it remains.

Figure 4: Map depicting the estimated route of the Galaxy Leader and its hijacking by Houthi militants

The range of a Mil Mi-171SH is 580km [xi], thus limiting it to a maximum 290km roundtrip sortie from base. Given the reported hijacking of Galaxy Leader is pushing the limit of this range from Al-Dailami, combined with the full complement of boarding team onboard, it is likely the aircraft involved in the hijacking was flying out of Hodeida International Airport. The absence of the aircraft at Al-Dailami Air Base until 18 Dec 23, in conjunction with observed helicopter operations at Hodeida International Airport on multiple dates during the same timeframe (see Fig 5), indicates that it is possible this particular airframe conducted the raid on Galaxy Leader.

Figure 5: Satellite imagery depicting activity at Hodeida International Airport between 09 Dec 23 and 15 Jan 24. (Source: Planet Labs PBC and Airbus DS)

Moreover, analysis of imagery from a Houthi military parade on 5 Jan 24 shows the airframe used in the raid of Galaxy Leader flying over Sanna (see Fig 6). It is plausible that this explains the presence of the helicopter back at Al-Dailami Air Base on 2 Jan 23. It remains unclear whether this specific helicopter was targeted and destroyed by US strikes on Al-Dailami Air Base, though the supporting capabilities to operate such airframes have highly likely been significantly diminished.

Figure 6: The same Mil Mi-171SH likely involved in the hijacking of the Galaxy Leader flying over Sanna on 05 Jan 23. (Source: gettyimages)

Analysis of the Hijacking

Figure 7: Schematic showing the heliborne assault of the Galaxy Leader by Houthi militants. (Source: https://twitter.com/MMY1444/status/1726639662234513758 and Maxar)

Initial landing:

  1. The hijack commenced with a single Mi-171SH helicopter approaching the Galaxy Leader from the stern, touching down on the deck, and offloading approximately eight Houthi militants in clear view of the bridge. The most effective method of maintaining surprise during such a helicopter landing is for the airframe to fly as low as possible until the last safe moment and then flare up onto the deck just before landing. This methodology was not observed and consequently the airframe and boarding party would have been relatively exposed. 
  2. A thin fast-rope is visible in footage; however, the fingerless gloves worn by the operatives are unsuitable for this activity from any significant height. The operatives likely did not expect to use the fast-rope, nor were they prepared to do so.
  3. There were no additional helicopters visible in the footage to provide covering sniper or machine gun support. The method of approach therefore exposed the airframe and assault team to risk of incoming small arms or RPG fire, had there been a defending force on board. The helicopter’s door gunner had a loaded PKM-pattern machine gun, but could not use it to cover the militants’ approach to the bridge.

Movement towards the Bridge:

  1. A Western Special Forces assault of a ship the size of the Galaxy Leader would typically include a significantly larger number of airframes and helicopters, each tasked with assaulting and capturing separate objectives simultaneously. Using just eight operatives to assault such a large ship further indicates high confidence that the ship would be undefended, that the crew would offer no resistance, and that the ship deck could accommodate the Mi-171SH helicopter without obstruction.Militants were armed with AK-103 assault rifles, Glock-19 pistols, and at least one domestically manufactured ‘Khatef’ anti-material rifle. Militants were not wearing ballistic plates, helmets, or night vision goggles. This indicates that planners behind the assault were confident in the ship’s position, that the hijack would be completed rapidly and before nightfall, and that the helicopter would have sufficient fuel to return to base after the operation. A lack of night vision goggles also indicates that the militants were not concerned about lighting conditions below deck.

Seizing the Bridge:

  1. Throughout the entire operation, assaulting teams had GoPro style cameras mounted to their heads and their backs. This ensured that footage captured depicted the militants themselves rather than just what they saw. This also highlights that one of the key objectives of the assault was to gain footage for use in Houthi strategic propaganda narratives.
  2. Militants clearly had a basic understanding of conducting room assaults but did not execute the door entry into the bridge well. The door was opened from the inside, possibly meaning that one of the crew opened the door and let the militants in. The militants appeared to know where they were going, which indicated some level of pre-operation rehearsal.

Post-assault Support:

  1. Aseef-1 and Fast attack craft were visible towards the end of the video escorting the Galaxy Leader back to        port. It is unclear whether these craft were present during the helicopter assault, although it is likely that extra personnel from these craft boarded the ship once the bridge was taken to help clear the vessel and detain the 25 crew members. After the coxswain and navigator are counted, each craft could likely add approximately four militants, giving a total of roughly 28 extra personnel from the seven craft observed.

Conclusions

Viewed from the standards of a Western military, the proficiency of the assault team and the aerial platform that delivered them on target was poor; this is an assault that would likely have ended in disaster if even a basic defence had been attempted. Judged relative to the capabilities of the Houthis, this was ultimately a carefully considered and deliberate operation designed to achieve a significant propaganda victory whilst securing a valuable asset and precious hostages.

It is highly likely that recent strikes by US/UK forces have critically degraded the Houthis aerial capability. This, combined with the increasing wariness of maritime traffic in the area and the powerful US/UK naval assets operating in their proximity, means the chances of a future Houthi heliboarding operation are significantly reduced.

Irrespective of the future efficacy of the tactic, the lessons from this event resonate more broadly. The fact an IRGC proxy was able to conduct a successful helicopter boarding operation – something previously reserved as the right of advanced conventional militaries – points to the changing equities in global conflict. The disproportionate impact such proxies can have, both in the cognitive and physical domain, will only continue to embolden the activities of Iran and other hostile states.

[i] shipspotting.com
[ii] offshoreleaks.icij.org
[iii] bbc.co.uk
[iv] reuters.com
[v] twitter.com
[vi] twitter.com
[vii] twitter.com
[viii] mei.edu
[ix] twitter.com
[x] ukmto.org
[xi] army-technology.com