US intelligence agencies have assessed that Saudi Arabia is actively manufacturing its own ballistic missiles with the help of China, as the CNN. That development could have significant ripple effects across the Middle East and complicate efforts by the Joe Biden government to curb the nuclear ambitions of Iran, the Saudis’ biggest regional rival.
It is known that Saudi Arabia has bought ballistic missiles from China in the past, but has never been able to build its own — until now, according to three sources familiar with the latest information. Satellite images obtained by CNN they also suggest that the Saudi kingdom is currently manufacturing the weapons in at least one location.
Officials at various US agencies, including the White House National Security Council, have been briefed in recent months on secret intelligence disclosure of several large-scale technology transfers of sensitive ballistic missiles between China and Saudi Arabia, according to two sources familiar with the latest ratings.
The Biden government is now faced with increasingly pressing questions about whether Saudi Arabia’s ballistic missile advances could drastically change regional power dynamics and complicate efforts to expand the terms of a nuclear deal with Iran to include restrictions on Iran. its own missile technology – a goal shared by the United States, Europe, Israel and the Gulf countries.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are bitter enemies, and Tehran is unlikely to agree to stop making ballistic missiles if Saudi Arabia starts making its own.
“Although significant attention has been paid to Iran’s large ballistic missile program, the development of Saudi Arabia, and now ballistic missile production, has not received the same level of scrutiny,” he told CNN Jeffrey Lewis, weapons specialist and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
“Saudi Arabia’s domestic production of ballistic missiles suggests that any diplomatic effort to control missile proliferation would need to involve other regional actors, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, that produce their own ballistic missiles,” Lewis added.
Any US response could also be complicated by diplomatic considerations with China, as the Biden government seeks to re-engage Beijing on several other high-priority political issues, including climate, trade and the pandemic.
“It’s all about calibration,” he told CNN a senior administration official.
The National Security Council and the CIA declined to comment.
Asked whether there had been any recent transfer of sensitive ballistic missile technology between China and Saudi Arabia, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the two countries are “comprehensive strategic partners” and “have maintained friendly cooperation in all fields, including the field of military trade”.
“Such cooperation does not violate any international law and does not involve the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” the note says.
The Saudi government and the embassy in Washington did not return the request for comment from the CNN.
New challenges for Biden
A CNN first reported in 2019 that US intelligence agencies were aware that Saudi Arabia was collaborating with China to advance its ballistic missile program.
Former President Donald Trump’s administration did not initially disclose knowledge of this classified information to senior members of Congress, infuriating Democrats who discovered it outside the regular channels of the US government and concluded that this information had been deliberately left out of a series of briefings where they say she should have been introduced.
This fueled Democratic criticism that the Trump administration was too soft on the Saudis. Nuclear proliferation experts also say Trump’s lack of response has encouraged the Saudis to continue expanding their ballistic missile program.
“Normally, the US would have pressured Saudi Arabia not to pursue these capabilities, but the first indications that the Saudis were pursuing these capabilities nationally emerged during the Trump era. The Trump administration, to say the least, was not interested in putting pressure on Riyadh on these issues,” said Ankit Panda, an expert on nuclear policy and weapons at the think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Some lawmakers have been informed in recent months of new transfers of ballistic missile technology between Saudi Arabia and China, several sources told the CNN.
The sources also said the Biden administration is preparing to sanction some organizations involved in the transfers, though some on Capitol Hill are concerned that the White House is unwilling to impose significant consequences on the Saudi government for its actions.
Given the current state of negotiations with Iran, the Saudi missile program could make an already complicated problem even more difficult.
“A robust Saudi missile program would introduce new challenges to curb other missile programs in the region. To cite just one example, missiles from Iran, which are a major concern for the US, would be more difficult to restrict in the future without parallel restrictions from a developing Saudi program,” Panda said.
“First unambiguous evidence”
New satellite images taken by CNN indicate that the Saudis are already manufacturing ballistic missiles at a site previously built with Chinese assistance, according to experts who analyzed the photos and sources who confirmed that the images reflect advances that are in line with the latest assessments by US intelligence.
Satellite photos taken by Planet, a commercial imaging company, between Oct. 26 and Nov. 9, show that a flaring operation took place at a facility near Dawadmi, Saudi Arabia, according to researchers at the Institute for International Studies of Middlebury, who told the CNN that this is “the first unequivocal evidence that the facility is operating to produce missiles”.
“The main evidence is that the facility is operating a ‘burning pit’ to dispose of solid propellant remains from ballistic missile production,” said Lewis, a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, who reviewed the images.
“Launching rocket engines results in leftover propellant, which is an explosive hazard. Solid propellant missile production facilities often have flare pits where the remaining propellant can be disposed of and flared. The flare operations are therefore a strong indication that the facility is actively launching solid rocket engines,” he added.
Still, little is known about the ballistic missiles Saudi Arabia is building at this location, including important details such as range and payload.
According to Lewis, given that the facility in question was built with Chinese help and new intelligence assessments showing that Saudi Arabia has recently acquired sensitive ballistic missile technology from China, it is possible that the missiles produced there are of Chinese design.
But there is also evidence that Saudi Arabia has been reaching out to other countries for help in developing a ballistic missile program in recent years, making it difficult to identify exactly which weapons system the kingdom is now building at this facility, Lewis noted.
This content was originally created in English.
Reference: CNN Brasil