Ankit Panda is the Stanton senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Panda is an expert on the Asia-Pacific region and his research interests include nuclear strategy, arms control, missile defense, nonproliferation, emerging technologies, and the United States’ extended deterrence. He is the author of Kim Jong Un and the Bomb: Survival and Deterrence in North Korea (Hurst Publishers/Oxford University Press, 2020). Panda was previously an adjunct senior fellow in the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and a member of the 2019 FAS International Study Group on North Korea Policy. He has consulted for the United Nations on nonproliferation and disarmament matters, and has testified on security topics related to South Korea and Japan before the congressionally chartered U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Diwan interviewed Panda in early January to discuss reports that Saudi Arabia is manufacturing ballistic missiles with assistance from China.
Michael Young: Recently, according to CNN, the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Saudi Arabia is manufacturing ballistic missiles, with Chinese assistance. What are the implications?
Ankit Panda: The reported transfer represents a lamentable lapse in China’s adherence to its previous commitments concerning the transfer of missile technology and it underscores the rapidly shifting security environment in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has been on a military spending spree in the last decade, ranking fifth and sixth in global defense spending in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Moreover, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s direction, Riyadh has emphasized self-sufficiency in a number of economic domains, as well as in defense matters.
A capability to mass-produce ballistic missiles coheres with these broader dynamics in Saudi national strategy. Saudi Arabia’s 2022 defense budget allocation accounts for a 10 percent reduction in aggregate spending and emphasizes localized production of a number of capabilities. While there’s no public acknowledgement of the reported ballistic missile production by the Saudi government, or other elucidation of the role of these new ballistic missiles in Saudi Arabia’s national defense strategy, an indigenously produced, precise conventional ballistic missile capability may be seen as a longer-term cost-effective supplement to aircraft for the Royal Saudi Air Force. It may also represent a component of a nuclear hedging strategy, should Saudi Arabia decide to pursue nuclear weapons in the future as the crown prince has suggested it might.
MY: Can you explain what this tells us about China’s approach to the Middle East—namely that it is supplying missiles to a country that is likely to use such missiles against Iran, another country with which Beijing has friendly relations?
AP: The Chinese Foreign Ministry and other government entities have not commented publicly on the reported U.S. intelligence assessment concerning China’s assistance in bolstering Saudi Arabia’s indigenous missile manufacturing capabilities. With the exception of the transfer of Dongfeng-3A ballistic missiles to Riyadh in the late-1980s, China and Saudi Arabia have not been major defense partners.
In the 1990s and 2000s, this likely was due to Saudi geopolitical proximity to the United States and China’s general lack of high-end defense export offerings. As China’s higher-end defense export offerings have grown in the last decade, Saudi Arabia has not been a major customer. Even the missiles that Saudi Arabia did receive from China in the late-1980s were reportedly deemed unusable against Iraq during the first Gulf War due to their low accuracy. A second, unconfirmed missile transfer in 2014, of more precise Chinese Dongfeng-21 missiles, may have generated greater Saudi interest in solid-propellant ballistic missiles—the kind reported to be under manufacture now in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has not acknowledged possessing DF-21 missiles, but it has publicly shown its DF-3As acquired in 1988.
In general terms, China has managed to sustain its relationships with Riyadh and Tehran without being drawn into their geopolitical differences. In this recent transfer, Beijing’s interests may be transactional rather than strategic. While a precise timeline of the technology transfers remains unknown, previous reporting suggested that Saudi-Chinese cooperation on ballistic missile technology accelerated under the Trump administration, which withheld disclosure of the development from U.S. lawmakers. Perceptions in both Riyadh and Beijing that the United States, under Donald Trump, would probably overlook this cooperation may have prompted both sides to proceed.
The reported ballistic missile technology transfer will once again, however, shed a light on Beijing’s missile proliferation record. The Missile Technology Control Regime, a multilateral export-control regime created in the late-1980s to address, in part, transfers like the one between Beijing and Riyadh involving the DF-3A, is under increased stress. China, which is not a member of the nonbinding, informal regime, has long pledged to nonetheless abide by its standards. The transfer of what CNN has reported to be “large-scale” and “sensitive ballistic missile technology” would represent a failure by Beijing to uphold these commitments. In 2021, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance found that China had failed to adhere to its earlier commitments on missile proliferation. The State Department did not specify the nature of China’s missile proliferation activities, but in light of this recent report, ballistic missile technology transfer to Saudi Arabia is likely a component of this finding.
MY: The United States, at least in its official statements, has favored stability in the Middle East. This development is not likely to bolster stability, at least in the near term. How has Washington responded to the Saudi ballistic missile program?
AP: Recognizing perceived Saudi insecurity, successive U.S. administrations facilitated the transfer of American military technology—particularly aircraft—to the Royal Saudi Air Force. At the same time, Washington, as a matter of policy, has opposed the proliferation of missile systems—particularly those capable of delivering nuclear weapons—in the Middle East and elsewhere. Under the Trump administration, when the reported China-Saudi Arabia cooperation on missile manufacturing may have originated, and was certainly accelerated, confrontation with Saudi Arabia over a range of issues that might have otherwise conflicted with U.S. regional interests was set aside in favor of a broader regional strategy premised on pressuring the Iranian regime. This included a reported effort by the Trump administration to conceal knowledge of Saudi efforts to advance its ballistic missile program from U.S. lawmakers.
MY: How does the Saudi ballistic missile program affect any prospective U.S.-led negotiations over limiting Iran’s own ballistic missile program?
AP: Increased Saudi self-sufficiency in ballistic missile production will undoubtedly complicate efforts to unilaterally constrain Iran’s ballistic missile programs. But even without Saudi Arabia’s indigenous endeavors, efforts to constrain Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities would have to contend with the region’s proliferated missile landscape.
Short-range ballistic missiles and, increasingly, cruise missiles have been introduced into the arsenals of many Middle Eastern and North African states. The rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh would no doubt result in special emphasis on Saudi capabilities in potential negotiations, but Iran is likely to insist that capabilities in Israel and even Turkey be taken into consideration as part of any regional package. Looking at the region as a whole, Iran continues to stand out in terms of the sheer diversity of short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missile systems in its overall inventory—and its proliferation of missiles to nonstate actors, such as the Houthis and Hezbollah.
While much remains unknown about the specific capabilities under development in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh’s chronic sense of insecurity vis-à-vis Iran is unlikely to be quickly assuaged. As long as Saudi Arabia remains a nonnuclear state, militarily useful ballistic missiles will be those that are sufficiently precise. The Chinese-made DF-3 missiles that Riyadh imported in the late-1980s had been originally conceived as a means for nuclear weapons delivery, which did not necessitate a high degree of precision. While presently available open-source evidence points to a pilot Saudi manufacturing initiative, we may learn more about the range, precision, and other potential parameters of these missiles as they begin flight-testing.
MY: How might the revelations about the missile program affect the United States’ posture in the ongoing talks in Vienna on reviving the nuclear deal with Iran?
AP: The talks in Vienna concerning the revival of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action already face considerable headwinds without Iran’s ballistic missile programs being on the agenda. Iran has consistently refused to link talks concerning limitations on its nuclear program to sanctions relief or its ballistic missile capabilities. This is unlikely to change. Meanwhile, Saudi and Chinese silence on the reported cooperation over ballistic missile production can grant all sides concerned a level of plausible deniability for the moment.
MY: If the Saudis are now developing ballistic missiles without outside intervention, what does this say about any prospective Saudi nuclear program if the talks in Vienna fail and Iran either builds, or nears the capacity to build, nuclear weapons?
AP: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been unequivocal in the past that Riyadh would look to pursue a nuclear weapons capability if Iran succeeds in developing one itself. While there are a number of possible policy interventions by the United States and Saudi Arabia’s other major international partners, including Russia and China, that could dissuade Riyadh from following through on this, Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s threat deserves to be taken seriously. His conditional declaration and Saudi ballistic missile capabilities, when taken together with Riyadh’s stated interest in preserving the option to enrich uranium for its nuclear energy needs and its refusal to implement an Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, are certainly concerning.
Among the states that possess nuclear weapons today, ballistic missiles are the favored means of delivery. While Saudi Arabia’s older DF-3As could have, in a pinch, served as a means for nuclear delivery, a fully indigenized supply chain for ballistic missile production would help ensure that any international sanctions that Riyadh might face for choosing to pursue nuclear weapons would have a limited impact on its ability to sustain a nuclear deterrent. The growing precision of Iran’s conventional ballistic missile arsenal may have further raised Saudi concerns that the relatively immobile, slow-to-fuel liquid-fueled DF-3As would be too vulnerable to a preemptive attack.
However, the pursuit of indigenous ballistic missile manufacturing capabilities should not be taken as a dispositive signal of Saudi Arabia’s intent to pursue nuclear weapons. Conventional, precision ballistic missiles are rapidly proliferating worldwide and are seen by many regional powers and even smaller states as essential military capabilities. Any Saudi decision to pursue nuclear weapons would ultimately depend on a complex range of factors.