Saudi Arabian DF-3A missiles. Photo: Armed Forces of Saudi Arabia

Last week CNN reported that US intelligence had assessed that Saudi Arabia was building its own ballistic missiles – with China’s assistance.

Saudi Arabia is known to have purchased ballistic missiles from China in the past, but has never been able to build any until now. 

Satellite images of the Al Watah missile base show Saudi Arabia has expanded the base to include rocket engine production and test facilities, although it is unclear if any missiles are under production at this point. 

The Saudi government had sought assistance from the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, China’s armed forces branch responsible for its land-based nuclear arsenal. Saudi advisers and an official familiar with US intelligence said talks between Saudi Arabia and China had moved to the stage of the former acquiring critical hardware necessary to produce its own ballistic missiles. 

Ballistic missiles follow a ballistic trajectory, or arc, to deliver conventional or nuclear warheads on targets. They have a powered flight phase which takes them into the upper layers of the atmosphere, an unpowered free flight phase, and a re-entry phase. 

In addition, last year China also assisted Saudi Arabia in building its own yellowcake uranium enrichment plant near Al Ula. This move seems to have enjoyed the tacit approval of the Trump administration, as it attempted to bypass US laws safeguarding against the US transfer of such sensitive technology to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is also in the process of negotiating a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the US, but is reluctant to agree on restrictions regarding fuel enrichment and international oversight. 

Yellowcake enrichment is a critical step in manufacturing nuclear weapons. It is an important precursor for making highly-enriched uranium, a key element for nuclear warheads. 

Saudi Arabia first acquired ballistic missiles from China in 1988, with the purchase of the DF-3A that year. However, the DF-3A was outdated as it first entered service in 1971, is highly inaccurate and is restricted to launch pads.

Saudi Arabia followed up this purchase by acquiring the DF-21 in 2007. The DF-21 entered service in 1991 and is a newer road-mobile design, making missile launches much harder to detect and stop. 

While both the DF-3A and DF-21 are nuclear-capable, it appears the versions China sold to Saudi Arabia were modified to carry conventional warheads only. It was for this reason that perhaps the US tacitly approved the sale of these weapons to its Saudi ally.

China’s DF-31 ballistic missile, a more recent version than the DF-21. Photo: WikiCommons

However, Saudi Arabia could later modify these missiles to fit a nuclear warhead. 

These developments have raised concerns of nuclear proliferation, resulting in bleak prospects for negotiations on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and a further escalation in Saudi-Iranian tensions. 

That may make it hard to persuade Iran to scale down its nuclear program, missile development and support for its regional proxies in the Middle East if it sees that arch-rival Saudi Arabia has its own nuclear program with tacit, albeit reluctant, US approval. 

It should be noted that Iran was the first state to carry out an attack against a nuclear facility during the Iran-Iraq War. However, a direct attack by Iran at this time would be implausible, considering the outdated state of its air force and the threat of retaliation by the US and its Gulf allies.

Considering such constraints, Iran could stage an attack against Saudi Arabia’s missile base at Al Watah and the yellowcake facility at Al Ula using rockets, missiles or drone swarms operated by its proxies in Gaza and Yemen.  

Also, the US has been pushing the Abraham Accords which aim to normalize relations between Arab countries and Israel. However, this move may be interpreted as a US effort to form a de facto regional alliance against Iran.

With the Abraham Accords, the US has effectively outsourced its security role to regional military powers such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, as it refocuses its efforts to counter China in the Pacific.

That said, Saudi Arabia and Israel’s nuclear programs may substitute for the strategic deterrence formerly provided by the US against Iran.