In 2007, China secretly sold Saudi Arabia improved ballistic missiles with U.S. approval Newsweek magazine is reporting.
According to the report, which cites a “well-placed intelligence source,” in 2007 China secretly sold Saudi Arabia DF-21 solid-fuel, medium-range ballistic missiles. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency quietly sanctioned the deal after confirming that they were not the nuclear-capable variants of the missiles.
The U.S. support for the deal stands in stark contrast to previous Sino-Saudi missile deals. Specifically, in the late 1980s Saudi Arabia clandestinely purchased DF-3 missiles from China, which the U.S. later exposed publicly and harshly criticized the deal. The arms deal created significant concern in some circles over fears that Riyadh’s purchase of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles signaled the Kingdom was intent on developing nuclear warheads.
The Newsweek report tries to play up the possible nuclear angle on the newer DF-21 missile deal, although there’s little reason to think this is Saudi Arabia’s reason for purchasing them given that it already possesses the DF-3 missiles. The report also notes that the DF-21 ballistic missiles have a shorter range but better accuracy than the DF-3 missiles.
Although the greater precision of the DF-21’s are important, perhaps the DF-21’s biggest advantage is their solid propellant and road-mobile ability. Their solid-fuel allows them to be launched more quickly and requires less maintenance, which is especially advantageous to the Saudi military which often requires significant foreign assistance to operate more advanced weapons systems. The fact that they have road mobile launchers gives them greater survivability, although this characteristic isn’t particularly necessary given the kind of threats Saudi Arabia faces.
The deal is interesting in a number of different ways. First, it shows China’s growing advanced weapon sales in the Middle East. Last year, Turkey announced that it had selected a Chinese air and missile defense system over a number of U.S. and European alternatives. China has a particular interest in furnishing Saudi Arabia with advanced military technology given Beijing’s heavy reliance on the Kingdom for oil.
Additionally, it reveals the dysfunction of America’s foreign and national security processes. That Saudi Arabia turned to China for advanced missiles is almost certainly because the U.S. would not provide comparable missiles to Riyadh. Advanced weapon sales to Saudi Arabia can be controversial in the U.S. as evidenced by the amount of effort former Defense Secretary Robert Gates had to devote to get through a deal to sell Riyadh more F-15s, as well as upgrade existing ones.
Still, in the end the U.S. ended up approving the DF-21 missile sale. Although the CIA took action to ensure that the DF-21 missiles aren’t nuclear capable, this can always change at a later date. Thus, the U.S. not only lost potential revenue in selling Saudi Arabia the missiles itself, but it also lost control in the process.