Saudi long-range missile factory sparks fears over weapons proliferation

Saudi long-range missile factory sparks fears over weapons proliferation
Comment: There are worrying signs that ballistic missile proliferation in the Middle East is spiralling out of control, writes Paul Iddon.
5 min read
20 Feb, 2019
Saudi soldiers take part in a military parade in Mecca [Getty]
Satellite photos published in January reveal that Saudi Arabia may possess a factory capable of producing ballistic missiles.

This development is another worrying indication that rival Middle East powers are proliferating increasingly destructive weapons, escalating the risk of a dangerous regional arms race.

The satellite photos show a military base 145 miles west of the capital Riyadh. Included in the site is a test stand for testing any missiles the Saudis actually manage to manufacture.

Interestingly, analysts note that the Saudi test stand resembles a Chinese design, albeit smaller in size. Riyadh already possesses antiquated Chinese-made DF-3A ballistic missiles which it acquired from Beijing in the 1980s.

The Saudis paraded those missiles back in April 2014, in a clear show of force directed against Iran, which possesses one of the largest missile arsenals in the Middle East.

In 2007 Riyadh also purchased more accurate Chinese-made DF-21 missiles. The US reportedly supported the deal after the CIA was permitted to inspect and ensure the missiles were not capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The older DF-3As are nuclear-capable, which means they are significantly less accurate for use as conventional missiles.  

It's unclear if Riyadh is now trying to reverse-engineer its Chinese missiles or make improved versions of its own. It's also unclear if it is receiving any assistance from any third-party in this endeavour.

Included in the site is a test stand for testing any missiles the Saudis actually manage to manufacture

In the nuclear deal - now effectively defunct due to the Trump administration's withdrawal - the US and the West had sought to impose limitations on Iran developing any nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, efforts the Saudis also champion. 

But the Saudis themselves have an enormous modern air force consisting of jet fighter-bombers purchased primarily from the United States and Britain. While in theory, this gives it the capability to bomb its neighbours - as it has relentlessly shown in Yemen since 2015 - the air force does not deter potential rivals regionally in the same way ballistic missiles, which are much harder to shoot down, could do.

Interestingly, pre-revolutionary Iran faced a similar dilemma. The last Shah of Iran also bought enormous quantities of hi-tech western weapon systems, including the best American-made warplanes of the day. However, his Iran lacked a ballistic missile arsenal at a time neighbouring Iraq was buying Scud missiles from the Soviet Union.

When the United States refused to supply Iran with ballistic missiles, the Shah in 1977 entered into a secret programme with Israel, called Project Flower. In return for oil, Israel would build replicated American-made nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, with Israeli parts and know-how for the Iranian military.

Read more: Satellite images raise suspicions of Saudi Arabia's first ballistic missile factory

While the Israelis began building a missile assembly facility and test range inside Iran, the project was ultimately never realised as a direct result of the Iranian Revolution two years later.

During its bloody eight-year war with Iraq throughout the 1980s, Iran acquired some Scuds of its own from Libya and North Korea to retaliate against Baghdad's Scud attacks on its cities.  

Since then Iran has produced an array of ballistic missiles that are becoming increasingly accurate. Tehran of course sees its missile programme as its main means of deterring its enemies.

At the Munich Security Conference this month, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif flatly dismissed the notion that Tehran would ever negotiate over its missile programme.

Tehran has used its missiles against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria over the last two years, and also destroyed a base belonging to an Iranian Kurdish opposition group in Iraqi Kurdistan last September, which undermines Iran's insistence that its missile arsenal and programme is purely defensive in nature.

Iran has also supplied Hizballah in Lebanon with an array of increasingly accurate missiles in recent years, giving the group the capability of targeting any part of Israel should another war break out between those two adversaries.

This has led the Israeli military to draw up contingency plans to bomb hundreds of villages in southern Lebanon in order to swiftly destroy as many of these missiles on the ground as possible in the event of another war, an eventuality that would clearly have tragic consequences for civilians caught in the crossfire.

It's unclear if Riyadh is now trying to reverse-engineer its Chinese missiles or make improved versions of its own

Israel has also begun developing more surface-to-surface missiles itself, in case Hizballah missiles take any of its air bases out of action.

"There is no reason we won't be able to strike every single target with intensity and precision, even without jets," then Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Al-Monitor last August. "We absolutely must have an alternative to the air force. We can't afford to put all our eggs into one basket, no matter how sophisticated that basket may be."

Israel already possesses an arsenal of long-range Jericho ballistic missiles, which are more likely than not nuclear-capable.

The Houthis the Saudi-led coalition is targeting in Yemen also possess ballistic missiles which they have fired into Saudi Arabia, targeting Riyadh airport and even the royal palace. While the Saudis managed to shoot many of them with their air defence missiles, they still cannot find and destroy them all on the ground, even though their air force dominates Yemen's airspace unopposed.

Many of these developments have taken place over the course of the last decade, and are worrying signs that Middle East ballistic missile proliferation is spiralling out of control and could have dire consequences for the already volatile region in the not-too-distant future.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.