Saudi Arabia wants to keep in pace with Iran: kingdom's ballistic-missile programme
Having relied on missile imports from China since the late 1980s, in the last few years Saudi Arabia appears to have sought an indigenous production capability. Despite this concerning development, its missile programme does not elicit the level of concern sparked by Iran, The International Institute for Strategic Studies writes. If Iran were to enter into negotiations over its missile programme, it would be unlikely to accept limits that did not also apply to other countries. It is, therefore, useful to examine the ballistic-missile capabilities of Iran’s regional rivals.
For over three decades, Saudi Arabia’s ballistic-missile inventory consisted of large systems imported from China that exceeded range requirements to target regional adversaries. In the past couple of years, however, the Kingdom has supplemented these symbols of strength with capabilities that may prove to be more useful in practice.
In a defence parade on 29 April 2014, Saudi Arabia displayed publicly for the first and, so far, only time two of the Dongfeng-3 (‘East Wind’, DF-3) ballistic missiles it had secretly imported from China in 1988. Reportedly designated CH-SS-2 by the US Defense Intelligence Agency, but referred to as CSS-8 in many reports, the single-stage liquid-fuelled missiles may have a range of 2,500km with a 2,000kg payload, or up to 3,000km with a lighter warhead. They weigh 64 tonnes and are 24m long.
In 1983–84, China developed an improved version of the DF-3, increasing its range, payload and accuracy, and likely developed an export-only version intended for conventional payloads. Saudi Arabia has no nuclear weapons, but at the time of sale, it was widely believed that any ballistic missile that could deliver a warhead in excess of 500kg further than 300km was capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, and thus a proliferation risk. Chinese missile sales such as the DF-3A to Saudi Arabia were a major driver for the creation of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which was devised specifically to prevent sales such as this in the future.
One might ask why Saudi Arabia acquired such far-reaching missiles. Its main adversary, Iran, is about 250km at the closest point. Israel is even closer. The answer is probably that the Saudis wanted a land-based alternative to aircraft delivery to contribute to a nuclear hedging strategy, and the DF-3 was the only system then available on the market.
The inaccuracy of the DF-3 – estimated to have a circular error probable (CEP) of 1,000–4,000m, meaning it had a 50% chance of falling within a 1,000–4,000m radius of the target – contributed to speculation about Saudi intentions: at that level of imprecision, the missiles would have little military utility unless nuclear-armed. But even inaccurate systems can provoke terror among civilian populations and Saudi leaders may see symbolic importance in being able to respond in kind against any future missile attack. However, the Saudis reportedly assured the United States that they would not use nuclear or chemical warheads with the DF-3 and, in fact, acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in October 1988. While some sources indicate that 50 of the DF-3 were imported, others say ‘at least 30’. The IISS Military Balance estimates the current number of DF-3 launchers at 10+ and notes that their service status is unclear, given their age, the difficulties of maintenance, a lack of spare parts and likely general degradation of the systems. The Saudis have apparently never flight tested the DF-3, nor any other ballistic missile.
Seven years before the 2014 parade, Saudi Arabia had reportedly already acquired less cumbersome solid-fuel DF-21 missiles from China. According to a 2014 Newsweek article by Jeff Stein, the US Central Intelligence Agency approved Riyadh’s acquisition of the DF-21, called CH-SS-5 or CSS-5 by the US, on condition that the nosecones were modified so as not to carry nuclear weapons. CIA analysts who reportedly examined the missiles after their import concluded that the modified nosecones did not have room to accommodate unsophisticated nuclear weapons of the kind that Saudi Arabia conceivably could acquire from Pakistan or China. How many of the missiles were imported is unclear, and at least one reputable Chinese scholar doubts the reports entirely.
The DF-21 weighs about 15 tonnes and has a range of 1,700km. It also has a significantly higher accuracy than the DF-3, with an estimated CEP of 300m. A terminal speed of Mach 10 makes it difficult to defend against with common missile-defence systems. The Saudi government has never acknowledged possessing the DF-21, apart from displaying it in 2013 in a commemorative glass-encased set of three missile models, two of which appeared to be the Chinese systems and the third of which is a mystery. For the boost it gives to the Kingdom’s ambiguous deterrent posture, however, authorities cannot be unhappy to be thought to have such a weapon, even if it has never been revealed nor tested from Saudi Arabia. With a replacement nosecone, it would contribute to the clear Saudi intention to follow suit if Iran were to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Saudi officials might not have been happy to see press reports in early 2019 featuring overhead imagery of the al-Watah missile base, which appeared to show a factory to produce solid-fuel motors. The key indicator was an apparent rocket-engine test stand that bore close similarities to a similar facility in China, although on a smaller scale. The evidence angered members of the US Congress at a time when the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi had frayed relations. How close Saudi Arabia is to being able to produce ballistic missiles is unknown. An observable sign of progress would be the depiction by infra-red satellites of ground engine testing, for which there have been no reports in the public realm.
What role China had in building the apparent missile-production facility is unclear, although US intelligence agencies appear to have no doubt about Chinese assistance. While China is not an MTCR member, it has agreed – at least in principle – to apply the original MTCR guidelines, which would preclude any sale of such missiles and related technology, but especially manufacturing capacity such as this. The US assesses (without providing public detail) that China has not adhered to this commitment.
In 2018, Ukraine unveiled a new solid-propellant short-range ballistic missile that was said to have been covertly financed by Saudi Arabia. Based on Ukrainian efforts to produce an Iskander-class missile called Sapsan, the new system, called Grom-2 (Thunder-2) can reportedly carry a 500kg warhead and has a range of 280km – so as to keep it MTCR compliant. A US defence journal reported in 2019 that Saudi Arabia was expected to receive the Grom system in 2022. Interestingly, the Kingdom has not sought to purchase the US MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System ballistic missile (unlike Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates), and there is no public reporting that it has sought China’s short-range ballistic missiles (unlike Qatar).
Other than a general desire to keep pace with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s motivations in acquiring ballistic missiles are not entirely clear. That said, Riyadh’s missiles do not elicit the level of concern sparked by Iran’s missile programme, and for good reason. While the DF-3 does have a longer reach than any of Iran’s current systems, Saudi Arabia is not known to have initiated any work to develop a nuclear warhead for its missiles, which are of questionable utility, and it does not engage in missile test launches. Its import of Chinese missiles was a challenging blow to the non-proliferation policies of Riyadh’s Western partners, however, as is its secret work on solid-fuel motor production. Non-proliferation norms should apply to all parties. And if ballistic missiles are to be constrained everywhere in the region, systems in Egypt, Syria, Turkey and the UAE, as well as those in the hands of rebel forces in Yemen, should also be taken into account.