Saudi Rattles Its Saber

On April 29, 2014 during a parade at the Hafr al-Batin Airbase following Saudi Arabia's largest-ever military exercise, called "Abdullah's Sword," Saudi Arabia - for the first time ever - allowed photographers to take pictures of the CSS-2 (DF-3) ballistic missiles that the Kingdom purchased from China in the late 1980s. The display of these missiles reflects a new openness within Saudi Arabia about the country's Strategic Missile Force (SMF). For many years, the only official description of Saudi Arabia's missile force was provided by Prince Khaled bin Sultan, who wrote a memoir that primarily described his tenure as Joint Commander during Operation Desert Storm, but also contained a chapter regarding the purchase of CSS-2 ballistic missiles from China. However, in recent years, Saudi state media has begun to describe Saudi Arabia's missile forces in striking detail, and extensive descriptions of the missile force are available online.

The new openness surrounding the Saudi Strategic Missile Force manifests itself in other ways as well. The military transferred oversight of military base schools to the Education Ministry. The numbers and locations of many bases can be determined by looking at lists of base schools and viewing photographs of school visits. Contractors also publish descriptions of many projects to provide housing, roads, and other physical infrastructure to bases. Finally, many Saudi soldiers openly discuss the location of various bases. The Saudi Strategic Missile Force allows a soldier to move from one location to another as long as he can find someone willing to switch with him. Many soldiers go online to find another soldier willing to trade, openly discussing the various advantages and disadvantages of different locations.

Although some of these disclosures are almost certainly violations of operational security, they take place in the context of a reduced emphasis on secrecy that is unprecedented for the Saudi Strategic Missile Force. Overall, this new openness appears deliberate. Regional media explicitly discussed the appearance of the missiles in the parade in terms of the warning Saudi Arabia was sending to Iran. [1] In recent years, Saudi Arabia has expressed growing alarm at both its deteriorating regional security situation and the growth in Iranian military capabilities. Some Saudi officials have stated clearly the need for the Kingdom to respond to Iran's growing missile and nuclear capabilities. As such, it appears that Saudi Arabia is releasing vastly more official information about its strategic missile forces and order of battle with the objective of demonstrating it possesses a robust deterrent against the growing number of regional ballistic and cruise missile programs.

Historical Context: Initial Purchase of DF-3 Missiles from China

Iran and Iraq both used ballistic missiles to target civilian populations in the so-called "War of the Cities" during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War. [2] In early 1985, Saudi Arabia's King Fahd concluded that the Kingdom should acquire ballistic missiles to deter similar attacks. Saudi Arabia had few potential suppliers of such missiles. The U.S. Congress strongly opposed sale of an arms package negotiated by the Reagan Administration, leaving American Lance missiles out of the question. Saudi Arabia was reluctant to further damage relations with Washington by purchasing missiles from the Soviet Union. There were, at the time, no long-range missiles produced in Western Europe, leaving China as the only likely source of such missiles. (Saudi Arabia seems not to have considered North Korea.)

During this period, Saudi Arabia and the People's Republic of China did not even have diplomatic relations. In the spring of 1985 Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, broached the issue of a missile purchase with the Chinese Ambassador to the United States during a diplomatic reception. [3] Following a meeting with Chinese officials in Islamabad, Bandar made a number of trips to Beijing, including in July 1985 and July 1986. Bandar conducted difficult negotiations aimed at securing Beijing's agreement in principle to make a missile sale without an explicit quid pro quo for switching the Kingdom's diplomatic mission from Taipei to Beijing. (The missile sale would, however, be followed by Saudi recognition of Beijing in 1990.)

After Bandar worked out the broad political accommodation that would lead to the missile sale and ultimately, the opening of diplomatic relations with Beijing, Fahd directed Khaled bin Sultan, then Commander of the Royal Saudi Air Defense force and Bandar's half-brother, to arrange for the purchase of long-range ballistic missiles. [4] Khaled was one of the few senior military officers in Saudi Arabia who was familiar with missiles, having helped to establish the air defense force as an independent service and negotiated a 1984 purchase of Crotale surface-to-air missiles from France. Khaled hosted a Chinese delegation in Saudi Arabia in December 1986, subsequently making four trips to China starting in February 1987.

China delivered the first consignment of DF-3 (CSS-2) ballistic missiles in 1987. [5] These missiles were hidden in a shipment of Chinese weapons that Saudi Arabia had purchased on behalf of Iraq. The United States intelligence community did not detect the delivery of the DF-3 missiles until Chinese entities began assisting in the construction of missile bases in January 1988. (The United States would confront the Saudi government about the purchase in March 1988.)

While Chinese DF-3 missiles were armed with large multi-megaton thermonuclear warheads - and thus did not need to be especially accurate - Saudi Arabia's conventionally-armed variants required far better accuracy to provide effective deterrence. China, apparently with Israeli technical assistance, reportedly produced a more accurate version of the DF-3. [6] In April 1988, China delivered the second consignment of DF-3 missiles with "drastically improved" accuracy to replace those delivered a few months before. In the end, Saudi Arabia imported approximately 40 DF-3 missiles capable of carrying a 2,000 kilogram explosive payload to a range of 3,000 km. [7]

Although many Western observers were historically skeptical of the value of conventionally-armed ballistic missiles, in the years since, numerous countries in the region have acquired long-range conventionally-armed missiles, including Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, the UAE, and Yemen. In recent years, China has invested heavily in conventional variants of its ballistic missile force. In hindsight, the Saudi decision was a harbinger of long-range missile proliferation in the developing world.

Despite acquiring a conventional deterrent, Saudi Arabia did not use its strategic missile force in 1991 when it came under missile attack by Iraq. Khaled, in his memoir, notes that he ordered the missile units to prepare to launch Saudi Arabia's missiles - save for the final step of ordering the missiles to be fueled. In practice, fueling would have made the decision irreversible, requiring the launch of the missiles. King Fahd, according to Khaled, refrained from retaliating because doing so would "cause casualties among innocent Iraqis" - perhaps an admission that the accuracy of the missiles was insufficient to limit damage primarily to military targets. [8]

Saudi Arabia's Strategic Missile Force Today

The Strategic Missile Force is usually regarded as a fifth service, distinct from the Land, Naval, Air and Air Defense Forces. The Strategic Missile Force has a commander, Major General Jarallah bin Mohammed Al-Alwit, as well as its own headquarters. Yet there seem to be ties between the Air Defense Force and the Strategic Missile Force. In addition to sharing the same patron in the person of Khaled, photographs of SMF personnel show them wearing Royal Saudi Air Defense insignia on their uniforms. The headquarters buildings for the two services are adjacent to one another. Students that graduate from the King Abdullah Air Defense College can choose to be commissioned as Lieutenants in either the Air Defense Force or the Strategic Missile Force. (Indeed, the commander of the Strategic Missile Force attends the graduation at the Air Defense College.)

There were, for many years, rumors that Saudi Arabia's ballistic missile force was manned by foreign personnel - Chinese technicians or perhaps Pakistani mercenaries. Declassified documents indicate an interest by the U.S. intelligence community regarding whether the ballistic missiles were under the control of Saudi personnel. [9] On balance, however, the evidence suggests that the Royal Saudi Strategic Missile Force is, in fact, Saudi. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has publicly recruited personnel for the Saudi Missile Force, providing significant information about terms of service, including educational requirements and pay. For a brief period, the Saudi Missile Force even maintained a publicly visible website (since taken down). There are many images of Saudi officials attending graduation at the school.

In the years since the initial purchase of DF-3 ballistic missiles from China, Saudi Arabia's Strategic Missile Force appears to have expanded considerably, and has probably included the introduction of new missile types. Today, Saudi Arabia has at least five missiles bases, as well as headquarters in Riyadh and what may be a maintenance facility near Ta'if. See Saudi Strategic Missile Force Locations.

Saudi Arabia originally deployed its DF-3 ballistic missiles at two bases near the towns of Al Hariq and Wadi ad-Dawasir. Saudi missile bases comprise two physically separate areas, often separated by tens of kilometers-a "tactical" area where missile airframes, propellants and warheads are stored and a "residential" area with housing, schools, mosques and other amenities. [10]

The oldest and apparently largest missile base is Base 511, located near Al Hariq. An early news account described Al Hariq as the "main missile base" of the Saudi Strategic Missile Force. [11] Saudi officials were, for some time, quite careful to avoid disclosing the location of this base. Khaled tells a story about a solider based at the site - without mentioning its name - that is ostensibly intended to demonstrate the secrecy of the location. The young soldier, according to Khaled, disclosed the location of the site to his conservative father, who believed the young man was lying about having been sent to a secret missile base in the desert. Khaled claims he relocated the older man, making him the base's Imam so that word of its location would not spread further. Today, although Saudi officials remain somewhat guarded in describing the base, its activities are reasonably well documented, including mention of blood drives in October 2011 and June 2012, and a visit by the senior officers at the base to the local religious police in May 2012. [12] A wide-angle image of local officials touring the base school, since removed from the local school administration website, definitively established the location of the residential area associated with Base 511.


Commander of Base 511 Visiting Religious Police in Al-Hariq
Source: Hareq News.com, December 13, 2014

Saudi Arabia's second missile base, Base 522 near Wadi ad-Dawasir, was constructed around the same time as Base 511. [13] In 1988, the location of the Wadi ad-Dawasir base was revealed in satellite images released by a Swedish company, Space Media. [14] Like the base near Al Hariq, Wadi ad-Dawasir is well described in press accounts. In addition to the usual residential and tactical areas, Base 522 hosts Saudi Arabia's strategic forces academy, where new recruits are sent for training courses lasting between three and nine months. Saudi media frequently covers graduation ceremonies from the school, particularly if a senior member of the Saudi royal family is in attendance.

A third missile base, Base 533 near Raniyya, seems to have been constructed later, around 1997. [15] The location of the site was revealed in Saudi media after Prince Sultan inaugurated the "tactical" area of the base in 1997. [16] In addition to naming the base commander at the time, Saudi press noted that the residential area included 238 fully furnished villas, two mosques, two primary and intermediate schools for boys and girls, a clinic, a desalination plant and a water purification plant. It is possible to count the villas in satellite images, and identify the mosques, school buildings and plants providing water. [17] It is unclear whether this site was intended to house additional DF-3 missiles or serves some other purpose. Jonathan Scherck, a former contractor for the CIA, has described "underground storage facilities" at the site. [18]

During the 2000s, satellite images suggested that Saudi Arabia was expanding the facilities at Wadi ad-Dawasir. [19] Scherck also noted activity at Al Hariq, Wadi ad-Dawasir, and Raniyya in the mid-2000s, and argues that construction at the facilities may have corresponded with the arrival of new missiles, a method that the U.S. intelligence community also used to track the conversion of Chinese DF-3 bases to accommodate the new DF-21.

In recent years there has been yet another round of construction. Along with the new openness regarding Saudi missile capabilities, a new headquarters building and at least two new missile bases suggest significant expansion of Saudi Arabia's missile force. In 2010, Saudi Arabia announced the construction of a new headquarters building in Riyadh for the Strategic Missile Force, and has released images of the building, as well as a number of meetings held inside it. The structure is easily visible in satellite images and is listed on local maps.

Saudi Arabia also appears to have constructed at least two new missile bases in recent years: one near Ad-Dawadmi and another near Ash-Shamli. The construction of base 544, near Ad-Dawadmi, was finished in 2013. Images of the construction site, released by a contractor who completed the base housing, can be used to identify the location of the residential area.


Left, images from a contractor briefing on construction of a military residential
project near Ad-Dawadmi; Right, a satellite image of the location. 
Sources: Images (left) extracted from a briefing by a Saudi contractor
Image (right) GoogleEarth, October 5, 2011

The second new missile base, possibly numbered 566, is located near Ash-Shamli, west of Ha'il. Social media posts by Saudi military personnel describe being based near Ash-Shamli. Satellite images first published in Jane's Intelligence Review show what appears to be a tactical area for a missile base.

Finally, Saudi social media postings suggest there are Strategic Missile Forces personnel stationed near Ta'if. Ta'if has a relatively large military presence from all Saudi military forces. In addition to housing Ta'if Air Base, it is the location of a number of maintenance institutes and the King Abdullah Air Defense College, which sends some graduates into the Strategic Missile Force. Generally, Saudi launch bases are not located in major urban areas. Information on the Strategic Missile Force presence near Ta'if is scant, but one account suggests that Ta'if houses a maintenance and support facility.

Has Saudi Arabia Purchased New Missiles?

The construction of two new missile bases naturally raises questions as to whether Saudi Arabia has acquired new ballistic or cruise missiles to supplement the DF-3 force. The location of the new bases, further north in the country, would seem to suggest Saudi acquisition of missiles with shorter ranges.

There have long been reports that Saudi Arabia agreed to purchase M-9 and M-11 missiles from China. [20] Moreover, in 1999 then-Defense Minister Prince Sultan visited Kahuta Research Laboratories in Pakistan, where AQ Khan was enriching uranium and building copies of North Korea's Nodong missile, which Pakistan calls the Ghauri. One U.S. Administration official told the New York Times it was "definitely eyebrow raising." [21]

Suspicions deepened in 2013 when then-Deputy Defense Minister Prince Fahd bin Abdullah posed with a glass case containing models of three different types of missiles. The missiles themselves are difficult to identify, but along with the construction of new bases, most observers think Saudi Arabia must have purchased new missiles to justify the expansion of the Strategic Missile Forces.


Deputy Defense Minister Prince Fahd bin Abdullah receiving
a “souvenir” from the Strategic Missile Force
Source: Alriyadh.com, May 21, 2013

The most obvious candidate is the DF-21, which replaced the DF-3 in China. In 2010, Jonathan Scherck, a former intelligence contractor, published a book Patriot Lost alleging that China delivered new DF-21 ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia in 2003-2004 while he was seconded to the CIA. Scherck's account is not wholly convincing, but many details ring true, particularly his description of how the U.S. intelligence community monitors missile deployments by tracking construction at missile bases. In 2014, Jeff Stein reported that that the U.S. intelligence community had acquiesced to such a sale. A Saudi official implicitly confirmed the purchase, although the precise wording of the confirmation was ambiguous. [22]

It is also possible that China provided Saudi Arabia assistance similar to that provided to Pakistan. The United States intelligence community believed that China had in place agreements with Saudi Arabia to transfer M-9 and M-11 missiles. These missiles, along with supporting technology, appear to form the basis of Pakistan's Shaheen-1 and 2 missile programs. Saudi Arabia may have similar missiles from the family of solid-fueled missiles that China provided to Pakistan. Given the location of the new sites, one would expect some of the new missiles to have a range of 1400 km, while others may be close to 700 km. There are other possibilities as well. Saudi Arabia may have acquired Nodong missiles - either Pakistan's copy, the Ghauri or, perhaps less likely, Nodongs directly from North Korea.

Understanding Saudi Actions in the Regional Context

Saudi Arabia clearly envisions its strategic missile force as a deterrent to the growing missile arsenals of its neighbors. Norman Cigar points to a Saudi cartoon that emphasizes the Kingdom's dual concerns with Iran and Israel. [23]


Caricature in Saudi Newspaper: Gulf countries trapped between Israeli & Iranian nukes.
Source: Cartoon by Talal Al-Shasha as appeared in Al-Jazirah, reproduced from
Norman Cigar, Saudi Arabia's Strategic Rocket Force: The Silent Service, September 2014.

Analysis of new bases near Ad-Dawadmi and Ash-Shamli suggest that Tel Aviv and Tehran remain the most important strategic targets for the Saudi Strategic Missile Force.

In addition to Iran and Israel, Saudi officials have also indicated that Yemen is a growing challenge. Saudi Arabia fought a proxy war with Iran in Yemen in 2009 against Houthi forces seeking to overthrow the government. (Khaled was the military commander of that expedition.) Houthis have recently taken control of several significant locations in Yemen, including in the capital Sanaa and the port city of Hudeida. [24] Some Saudi clerics and analysts describe the Houthi threat as more dangerous to the stability of the Kingdom than even the Islamic State. Like Iran, Yemen has purchased a significant number of Scud missiles from North Korea that might threaten Saudi Arabia if the government were to become hostile.

More generally, Saudi Arabia appears alarmed by both the deterioration of the regional security environment and the spread of ballistic missiles. Saudi Arabia has expressed concern not only with Iran's growing military power, but also vis-à-vis the ongoing sectarian violence in Syria, Libya, and now Iraq. The Saudi decision to reject a long-sought term on the UN Security Council was intended to underscore deep Saudi unhappiness with the regional security situation, as well as concerns that the United States cannot be counted upon to protect Saudi interests. At the same time, many states have acquired ballistic missiles in the Middle East, including Egypt, Iran, Israel, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

It is hardly surprising that, in such an environment, Saudi Arabia would seek to improve its ability to deter missile attacks. The display of the DF-3 missiles, along with Saudi Arabia's generally increased openness about its missile capabilities, is intended to ensure that those capabilities will be well enough understood by potential adversaries for Riyadh to enjoy their full deterrent value.

Sources:
[1] "Arabian Missiles in the Iranian, Israeli Media," Al-Arabiya, May 9, 2014, www.alarabiya.net.
[2] The phrase "War of the Cities" is imprecise - some authors refer only to the 1988 Iraqi ballistic missile strikes against Tehran with this term. Others, however, distinguish among different campaigns, starting with the "First War of the Cities" in 1984 through the "Fifth War of the Cities" in 1988. Iraq targeted Iranians near the border with ballistic missiles as early as 1982. Iran acquired ballistic missiles thereafter. By 1985, Iraq and Iran were targeting cities far from the border, including Iraqi strikes against Isfahan and Iranian strikes against Baghdad. It appears to be this earlier context that prompted Fahd's decision in 1985 or 1986 to acquire long-range ballistic missiles as Iraq and Iran had done.
[3] This account appears in a biography of Bandar. David Ottaway, The King's Messenger: Prince Bandar bin Sultan and America's Tangled Relationship with Saudi Arabia, (Walker and Company, 2008). A similar account occurs in an authorized biography by William Simpson, The Prince: The Secret Story of the World's Most Intriguing Royal, Prince Bandar bin Sultan (Regan, 2006).
[4] This purchase is recounted in a memoir by Prince Khaled Bin Sultan called Desert Warrior: A Personal View of the Gulf War by the Joint Forces Commander (HaperPerennial, 1996).
[5] The number is reported differently. The number of 40 missiles is provided by the Central Intelligence Agency, National Intelligence Estimate: Prospects for Special Weapons Proliferation and Control, NIE 5-91C/II, Annex A, page 6.
[6] Jon Swain, "Israel in Secret Missile Deal with China," The Sunday Times, April 3, 1988 and David Ottaway; "Israelis Aided China on Missiles; Weapons for Saudis Improved Despite Potential Threat," Washington Post, May 23, 1988, A1.
[7] Central Intelligence Agency, National Intelligence Estimate: Prospects for Special Weapons Proliferation and Control, NIE 5-91C/II, Annex A, page 6.
[8] Khaled, Desert Warrior, 350.
[9] "Saudi Control of CSS-2 Ballistic Missile System," April 6, 1992. This document is a cable from the Commander of the 513 Military Intelligence Brigade at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey indicating that the intelligence - which is entirely redacted - arises from a human intelligence reporting.
[10] A word on place names: Saudi media follows relatively consistent protocol in describing the place names for military units, including Strategic Missile Force units. These names are quite accurate, usually referring to the populated place nearest the residential area. These names often differ, however, from the place names used in the Western press. For example, Saudi media describes the military site near Al Hariq, which is the same location described in the Western press as Jufayr. We use the Saudi place names.
[11] "Crown Prince Inspects Main Missile Base," Kuwait News Agency (KUNA), May 12, 1999.
[12] "Strategic Rocket Base Donates Blood…," June 4, 2012, www.alhota.net; Al-Hariq, http://alhariq.com; and "Provincial Government Hosts the Commander of the 511 Strategic Missile Base," Hareq News, October 15, 2014, www.hareqnews.com.
[13] Western accounts sometimes describe this site as Sulayyil, which is the name used by Khaled in his memoir.
[14] "Saudis Accused of Missile Bases," Los Angeles Times, September 19, 1988.
[15] Western sources sometimes refer to this site as Rawdeh or Rawdah.
[16] "Sultan opens military projects." Saudi Press Agency, via Moneyclips, May 22, 1997.
[17] The site appears to have between 230 and 242 villas.
[18] Scherck, Patriot Lost.
[19] Ronen Bergman, "El-Sulayil Missile Base - Saudi Desert," Yediot Ahronot, March 27, 2002.
[20] Central Intelligence Agency, National Intelligence Estimate: Prospects for Special Weapons Proliferation and Control, NIE 5-91C/II, Annex A, page 6.
[21] Jane Perlez, "Saudi's Visit to Arms Site in Pakistan Worries U.S." New York Times, July 10, 1999. AQ Khan has written that the visit was "blown out of proportion by the Western media." See: AQ Khan, "Unsung Heroes - Part IV," The International News (Pakistan), June 16, 2014.
[22] Ali bin Grsan, "'East Wind' Enhances the Arsenal of Deterrence…" Okaz, September 18, 2014, www.okaz.com.sa.
[23] Norman Cigar, Saudi Arabia's Strategic Rocket Force: The Silent Service, September 2014, www.mcu.usmc.mil, Middle East Monitor, September 27, 2014, www.middleeastmonitor.com.
[24] "Sanaa is the fourth Arab capital to join the Iranian revolution," Middle East Monitor, September 27, 2014, www.middleeastmonitor.com. 

December 15, 2014
About

In the past few years, Saudi Arabia has been far more open about the capabilities of its Strategic Missile Force. Combined with open-source information, outside observers now have far more information about Saudi missile capabilities than ever before.

Authors
Jeffrey Lewis

Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program, Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Countries

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2017.