Saudi Arabia is known to have 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 intelligence. Satellite images obtained by CNN also suggest that the Kingdom is currently manufacturing the weapons in at least one location.
U.S. officials from numerous agencies, including the National Security Council at the White House, have been informed in recent months of classified intelligence revealing multiple large-scale transfers of sensitive ballistic missile technology between China and Saudi Arabia, according to two sources close to the last evaluations.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are bitter enemies, and Tehran is unlikely to agree to stop making ballistic missiles if Saudi Arabia has started making its own.
“While special attention has been paid to Iran’s extensive ballistic missile program, Saudi Arabia’s development and now production of ballistic missiles has not received the same level of scrutiny,” said Jeffrey Lewis, weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies. CNN.
“Saudi Arabia’s domestic production of ballistic missiles suggests that any diplomatic effort to control missile proliferation should involve other regional players, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, which produce their own ballistic missiles,” Lewis added. .
Any U.S. response could also be complicated by diplomatic considerations with China, as the Biden administration seeks to re-engage Beijing on several other high-priority political issues, including climate, trade and the pandemic.
“It’s all about benchmarking,” a senior administration official told CNN.
The National Security Council and the CIA declined to comment.
When asked if there had been recent transfers of sensitive ballistic missile technology between China and Saudi Arabia, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry told CNN in a statement that the two countries are “comprehensive strategic partners” and “have maintained friendly cooperation in all fields, including in the field of military trade.
“Such cooperation does not violate any international law and does not imply the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” the statement said.
The Saudi government and the Embassy in Washington did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
New challenges for Biden
The Trump administration did not initially disclose its knowledge of this classified information to key members of Congress, infuriating Democrats who discovered him outside the regular channels of the US government and concluded that he had been deliberately excluded from it. a series of briefings where they say he should have been presented.
This fueled Democratic criticism that the Trump administration was being too soft on Saudi Arabia. Nuclear proliferation experts also say Trump’s lack of response has encouraged the Saudis to continue expanding their ballistic missile program.
“Normally, the United States would have pressured Saudi Arabia not to pursue these capabilities, but the first indications that the Saudis were pursuing these capabilities in an indigenous manner emerged during the Trump era. The Trump administration , to put it lightly, was not interested in tackling Riyadh on these issues, ”according to Ankit Panda, nuclear policy and weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Some lawmakers have been told in recent months of new intelligence about ballistic missile technology transfers between Saudi Arabia and China, multiple sources told CNN.
The Biden administration is preparing to sanction some organizations involved in the transfers, sources told CNN, although some on Capitol Hill fear the White House is willing 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 thorny problem even more difficult.
“A robust Saudi missile program would introduce new challenges to restrict other missile programs in the region. To take just one example, Iranian missiles, which are a major concern for the United States, would be more difficult to restrict in the future without parallel constraints on a growing Saudi program, “Panda told CNN.
“First unambiguous proof”
Satellite photos taken by Planet, an imaging trading company, between October 26 and November 9 show that a burning operation occurred at a facility near Dawadmi, Saudi Arabia, according to researchers at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, who told CNN it was “the first unambiguous evidence that the facility works to produce missiles.” ”
“The main piece of evidence is that the facility operates a ‘combustion pit’ to remove solid propellant remnants from the production of ballistic missiles,” said Lewis, a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies who reviewed the images.
“The casting of rocket motors produces leftover propellant, which poses a risk of explosion. Solid propellant missile production facilities often have combustion pits where leftover propellant can be removed by combustion. Combustion operations are therefore a strong signature that the installation is actively flowing. powder engines, ”he added.
Still, little is known about the ballistic missiles Saudi Arabia is building at this site, including important details like range and payload.
Given that the facility in question was built with help from China and new intelligence assessments showing that Saudi Arabia recently purchased sensitive ballistic missile technology from China, it is possible that missiles that are produced there are Chinese in design, according to Lewis.
But there is also evidence that Saudi Arabia has sought help from other countries to develop a ballistic missile program in recent years, making it difficult to identify the exact weapon system the Kingdom is building. currently in this facility, Lewis noted.
CNN’s Natasha Bertrand and Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.