Saudi Arabia has built missile launch pads that target both Iran and Israel with ballistic missiles, according to imagery and analysis by IHS Jane’s, the British security consultancy.
While IHS Jane’s analysts did not see actual missiles, the sites include command and control facilities and underground bunkers that likely conceal missiles and launchers nearby, said Allison Puccioni, a senior image analyst at IHS Jane’s.
The discovery is a sign that Saudi Arabia has prepared for the possibility that Iran will become a nuclear power, and it’s a reminder that a decades-long truce between Saudi Arabia and Israel is just that, and not a peace treaty, says Michael Rubin, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute who briefs members of the U.S. military on Iran.
The Saudis’ “predominant fear is that Iran will become a nuclear power,” Rubin said. “They’re showing they’re serious.”
Puccioni said one site, at Al Watah, is about 5 years old and others were apparently build in the mid-2000s. They resemble missile launch sites in China built for the Dongfeng-3 (DF-3), a medium-range missile that can launch a 4,700-pound payload with a range of 1,600 miles. The DF-3 launches from trucks known as transporter erector launchers (TELs).
“We’ve not seen the TELs but the entire area has drive-in bunkers.” she said. “How far it goes into the mountain I can’t tell you, but it’s wide and tall enough to accommodate a transporter erector launcher.”
IHS Jane’s analysts concluded that unlike two previously-known sites at Al Sulayyil and Al Jufayr, the new site at Al Watah has a different layout than previously known missile bases and that the new site “potentially serves as a training and storage complex with the ability to perform operational missile launches as required.”
Launch pads at the new site also bear markings on the ground that point in the direction of Iranian and Israeli targets, they said.
“Saudi Arabia is likely to begin re-arming its missile stock with more modern and accurate Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs),” said Robert Munks, deputy editor of IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review.
Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal said in 2011 that his country would purchase “off the shelf” nuclear weapons if Iran developed its own supply. “For such short notice, the foundations for both nuclear-capable launch vehicles and for acquiring the warheads will need to be laid in advance,” Munks said.
Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said the Saudis started buying ballistic missiles from China in the 1980s at a time when Iran and Iraq were warring with similar weapons. The Saudis maintain the weapons as a deterrent to Iran, Iraq and Israel, its chief rivals in the region, Pollack said.
The most significant aspect of the IHS Jane’s analysis is what it does not show, Pollack said: The review did not find that Saudi Arabia is investing in new missile capability to counter a growing threat from Iran.
“These are really old missiles,” Pollack said. “Wouldn’t you want faster, better missiles if only to send a message to the Iranians?”
Rubin says Saudi Arabia’s current alliance with the United States and its truce with Israel should not be taken for granted because the monarchy leadership is in flux.
The succession to the Saudi throne passes from brother to brother, and many of that generation are now in their 80s. “Each king may last a year or so if not less,” Rubin said.
And among the 3,000 or so princes, there are pro-Western moderates such as Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, as well as others who dislike the United States and lean toward radical ideologies, Rubin said.
“Anyone looking at this structure must recognize that what seems safe today could pose a tremendous threat in the future,” Rubin said.