Jeffrey LewisSaudi Arabia’s Strategic Dyad


Sean O’Connor has a really great article on Saudi Arabia’s missile force in Jane’s Intelligence Review (“Saudi ballistic missile site revealed“) that nicely updates his 2009 blog post on the same subject. O’Connor’s article offers a nice excuse to  tackle what I like to call Saudi Arabia’s “Strategic Dyad.”

Over the past decade, I suspect Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in conventional ballistic and cruise missiles to provide the Kingdom a sort of strategic deterrent.  While I don’t think Saudi Arabia is going nuclear in the near future, the acquisition of strategic ballistic and cruise missiles is a pretty interesting development.


Saudi Arabia’s Ballistic Missile Force

O’Connor’s article is interesting, both because of the details it provides about better known  and Al Jufayr missile bases, as well as his focus on the much lesser known underground facilities near Rawdah.

Satellite imagery available to IHS Jane’s confirms that there are DF-3 complexes at Al Sulayyil, Al Jufayr, and a previously unseen fa cility at Al Watah. The first public examination of Saudi DF-3 complexes came in 2002, when commercial satellite company Space Imaging’s high-resolution Ikonos satellite provided the first details of the secretive Saudi Arabian IRBM force. Al Sulayyil and Al Jufayr share many similarities, suggesting that they share the same role. Al Jufayr lies approximately 90 km south of Riyadh, with Al Sulayyil approximately 450 km southwest of the capital.

In 1995, lower-resolution imagery from the SPOT satellite, an earth observation imaging system, depicts Al Sulayyil as a significantly less developed complex than the 2002 Ikonos imagery. Comparable historic satellite imagery of Al Jufayr is unavailable. If missiles were operational by 1990, the ongoing development of Al Sulayyil between 1995–2002 suggests that Al Jufayr represented the initial operational location.

Satellite imagery analysis of Al Sulayyil and Al Jufayr shows that each has three primary areas. While exact layouts are dictated by a site’s geology, critical components are virtually indistinguishable.

Each complex has two missile garrisons (a north and a south), with a third area providing housing, maintenance, and administrative functions. The garrisons themselves are located a short distance apart within a secured complex. The administrative and support complexes are outside the security perimeter.

The Al Watah complex differs in layout from Al Sulayyil and Al Jufayr. Identifiable garrison complexes are not present, with Al Watah instead featuring a large number of UGFs and a co-located series of support structures.

With two Chinese-designed launch pads, Al Watah is connected to Saudi’s IRBM force, but the lack of identifiable garrison facilities and location of the launch pads, bunkers, and support facilities contrasts it with the traditional layouts of Al Sulayyil or Al Jufayr.


Did Saudi Buy the DF-21?

 O’Connor works on the assumption that Saudi Arabia continues to operate a force of DF-3 missiles, although he does note that Saudi Arabia might consider purchasing the DF-21 from China in the future. I don’t intend at all to be critical — O’Connor is probably the most careful open source imagery analyst I have ever encountered.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him make a mistake.

That said, it might be worth speculating a bit.  Since the early 2000s,  rumors have swirled that Saudi Arabia intended to replace the DF-3 missiles purchased in 1987 with something newer, like the solid-fueled DF-21.  O’Connor notes, in passing, that “Although Al Jufayr has been identified as a DF-3 site, the circular launch pads commonly associated with Chinese DF-3 bases are not visible.”  That’s interesting.  Although the DF-21 has a shorter range than the DF-3, it is still sufficient to reach Tehran, Tel Aviv and a few other choice locations.  Or perhaps a Ghauri or Shaheen from Pakistan?  Our friend above  — the Deputy Defense Minister standing with the Saudi Chief of Staff and the Commander of the Strategic Missile Force– seems to be holding a display case with some interesting missiles.

There is some reason to think that the changes at Saudi missiles bases between 2003-2007 reflect a new missile purchase.  In 2000, Bill Gertz leaked a National Air and Space Intelligence Center report — back then it was just the National Air Intelligence Center — report that detailed the sort of changes the intelligence community was tracking at Chinese missiles bases as they converted from handling liquid-fueled DF-3s to solid-fueled DF-21s. (“Nevertheless, recent demolition activity at Datong indicates that facility is also undergoing conversion. Four barracks have been razed since late April, two more are in the process of being razed, and a third may be razed as well.”)

Jonathan Scherck — the former intelligence analyst who self-published a book (Patriot Lost) claiming that Saudi Arabia was going nuclear with the help of China, Pakistan and Dick Cheney (I know, calm down) — described internal debates within the intelligence community about whether changes at the base signaled he arrival of new missiles.  Here are the good parts:

Phil, with his many years of experience working in CPD, started things off on our side. In typical Phil fashion, he began to coolly and methodically paint a picture of the DO’s collective view (myopic though it was) of developments relating to Saudi Arabia’s ballistic missile program. He spoke as CIA’s authoritative expert on the matter, which he effectively was at the time …

There had been the vexing shipment in 2003, Phil mentioned first. … The imagery of Chinese shipments arriving in Saudi Arabia since at least 2003, Phil continued, appeared to be related to a considerable overhaul of the Saudis’ ballistic missile capability. This was difficult to argue. However, despite persistent efforts by the DO to target assets for the collection of HUMINT on the issue, Phil concluded, there was just no real progress to report. …

The one thing I distinctly recall mentioning came when the conversation turned to the subject of the dramatic changes that were taking place on the missile bases in conjunction with the shipments, as seen by U.S. satellites: Al Sulayyil, Al Joffer and (of particular interest) the underground storage facility at Rawdah. Obviously, NGA’s bird’s eye view couldn’t reveal what was going on underground at Rawdah, but there was plenty of activity at the mouth of the tunnels leading into the cavernous subterranean bunker to pique everyone’s interest.


In this same vein, I was more of the mind that the December 2003 shipment that Charlie Allen helped to delete from the IC’s memory—that this was our best source of information on the ongoing parade of shipments we were witnessing in 2006. Both in terms of what the images themselves reportedly indicated and, just as importantly, the fact that they got boxed away as quickly as they did.

The analysts at NGA never went into great detail about the exact circumstances of Charlie Allen’s intervention, but the general consensus on that shipment years later (corroborated by multiple sources directly familiar with events at the time) was that the imagery from late 2003 indicated that Saudi Arabia had received one or more CSS-5 class ballistic missiles from China.


The CSS-5 shipment in December 2003 (the one the Saudi’s supposedly returned to China under observation by U.S. officials watching from a distance with binoculars) had been a clear indication of things to come for Saudi Arabia’s ballistic missile force. This shipment was either the first of many, or perhaps another in a series of such shipments that spanned most of George W. Bush’s presidency—and Dick Cheney’s vice presidency. In either case, there was no arguing the facts—at least as seen from above: Saudi Arabia was acquiring a new and far different ballistic missile capability.

Even after December 2003, NGA would continue to disseminate plenty more imagery analysis, right up to the time of my departure in April 2007 in fact. These subsequent write-ups all pointed to a new system, one with characteristics quite consistent with the CSS-5. In addition, several key Saudi missile bases were undergoing significant overhaul during this time; changes that (by all appearances) were consistent with the arrival of a new class of ballistic missile. Large launch pads at the bases, which had been used for years by the Saudi SRF as part of their CSS-2 launch training, went into disrepair or were reused for entirely different purposes.

One particular report out of NGA described a massive shipment of what analysts concluded with a high degree of certainty were “TELs” (transporter erector launchers), the tractor trailer launch vehicles described above. These TELs looked very similar to the Chinese CSS-5 transport vehicles one finds in Jane’s military encyclopedia, although—to be fair—“looked like” should not be confused with a one-for-one match. As much as Hollywood likes to portray U.S. satellite capabilities as being able to provide the numbers of a car’s license plate parked in downtown Moscow, this was not the same level of fidelity that NGA analysts were working with over Saudi. Nevertheless, this particular shipment had clearly been a substantial delivery of missile transport vehicles. That much was clear.

And yet, oddly, NGA’s published analysis of the event failed to reference the CSS-5 by name. But the Chinese make and model was clearly there, in between the lines. And if you bothered to ask the analysts at NGA who had actually written the report what they thought was going on (indeed, what they wanted to write), they were more than happy to explain.

Now, one can raise a number of questions about the logic in Scherck’s book — particularly when he starts imagining Pakistani warheads on those Chinese missiles or accusing Bush Administration officials of various crimes —  but when Scherck sticks to the details about monitoring foreign missile shipments and deployments, he’s believable. It is in this context, that I interpret the post-2003 changes that O’Connor detailed at Al Jufayr and the scope of the facility near Rawdah. (Sadly, we don’t seem to have satellite images of Al Sulayyil before 2003.)

On the other hand, the most recent Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat lists Saudi Arabia as having only DF-3 ballistic missiles.  There are two explanations for this.  First, Scherck claims that the intelligence community could not confirm the sale.  He chalks this up to a deliberate policy of misdirection by the Bush Administration, although I think it is more likely that Saudi Arabia is a hard target.  What if we aren’t sure whether Saudi bought Chinese, Pakistani or both? Second, NASIC does seem to censor itself regarding Saudi missile purchases. Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat also omits Saudi Arabia’s purchase of Storm Shadow cruise missiles from the UK, even though this sale is relatively well documented.


Storm Shadow

I would be remiss if I did not add that, in addition to a force of ballistic missiles, Saudi Arabia also appears to have purchased some number of Strom Shadow cruise missiles from the United Kingdom, a transaction that has been much discussed  in this space. (See: Storm Shadow, Saudi & the MTCR, 31 May 2011; More Saudi/Storm Shadow/MTCR, 7 June 2011; and Saudi Storm Shadow Sale Confirmed, 3 April 2012.)

 The Strom Shadow is an Anglo-French cruise missile capable of delivering a conventional explosive warhead to a range of several hundred kilometers.  The French and British only say the range exceeds 250 kilometers, but a preceding NASIC estimate placed the range closer to 500 kilometers. We don’t know if the version sold to Saudi Arabia was range-reduced, as in the case of the French sale to the UAE, or had stealth aspects removed.  We also don’t know if the Saudi’s could or would undo the range reduction.  But Storm Shadow offers some interesting possibilities for standing outside the air defenses and knocking the crap out of a neighbor.

Saudi Arabia’s Strategic Dyad

So, the US has been mum on both purchases. I am confident the Storm Shadow sale occurred.  I suspect Saudi Arabia may also have purchased the  DF-21 or something very similar. If true,  Saudi Arabia has acquired a capable strategic dyad of conventionally-armed ballistic and cruise missiles.  With nary a peep from the US.

It is worth asking why Saudi Arabia is purchasing such a fancy conventional deterrent.  We have a surprisingly detailed account of Saudi Arabia’s purchase of the missiles from Khaled bin Sultan, the senior Saudi commander during the 1991 Gulf War. Khaled wrote a book entitled Desert Warrior that includes an entire chapter on the purchase, as well as a discussion of the decision not to use the missiles following Scud attacks by Iraq against Saudi Arabia in 1991. After Iraq fired Scuds at Saudi Arabia in 1991, Khaled claimed the Saudi’s found that the DF-3 missiles were simply too inaccurate to use for retaliation, fearing civilian casualties in Iraq:

Not surprisingly, these attacks prompted us to think of retaliation.  We made ready our Strategic Missile Force under Brigadier General Ibrahim al-Dakhil, a well-disciplined, hard-working officer who had been my deputy, and targeted our weapons on major Iraqi cities. If ever there was  right moment to unleash our Chinese-built surface-to-surface missiles, this seemed to be it.  We felt we needed to hit back in self-defense so as to deter further Iraqi Scud attacks.  According, I gave orders to assemble in the right locations all the various elements of our missiles — save for the liquid fuel, which is pumped in at the very last stage, following which a launch cannot be reversed.  I then waited for Prince Sultan to transmit to me the King’s order to fire.  But, after some anxious hours, King Fahd decided not to escalate the conflict. He made a rational decision to reserve the missiles as a weapon of last resort, thereby demonstrating the Kingdom’s sense of responsibility. He did not want to cause casualties among innocent Iraqi civilians and he no doubt judged that the Coalition’s air campaign being waged against Iraq was sufficient retaliation.

No doubt American attitudes played a role too, but it is hard not to read the phrase: “If ever there was  right moment to unleash our Chinese-built surface-to-surface missiles, this seemed to be it.”  If the accuracy of the DF-3 created political barrier to its use, perhaps Storm Shadow cruise missiles or new ballistic missiles might be more usable if push comes to shove.

I totally recommend Desert Warrior, by the way. General Khaled tells some very funny stories, particularly regarding how a security breach resulted in Al Sulayyil hiring one very well paid Imam.



  1. Juuso (History)

    How about the Pakistani Shaheen-II MRBM? Or the mythical Chinese M18 missile (if it ever existed) used as a basis for the Shaheen-II development.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Yes, I think those are very interesting possibilities suggested by the model held in that picture.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I updated the post to make clear that I think the Saudis bought new missiles, but that they could be DF-21s of DF-15s from China, Ghauris or Shaheens from Pakistan, or some combination of all three.

  2. krepon (History)

    Could anyone help me understand the operational life-span of a DF-3?


    • John Schilling (History)

      On the order of twenty years if you fill the fuel tanks; approximately forever if you store them in a climate-controlled bunker with the tanks empty. Makes one wonder whether the Saudis were motivated to fuel their missiles in 1991…

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Khalid said no — he would have ordered the DF-2s fueled only after receiving an order to launch from the King.

  3. FlamesInTheDesert (History)

    The big question is why have the saudis not displayed these new weapons?,in order for a deterrent to have any value the people you are wanting to deter must first know that you posses this weapon,the other question is how many would they have,the guesstimates of the css2 force ranged from fifty to a hundred.From the looks of those models I would think that the gauri and shaheen would be the most likely contenders and both would be a big improvement over the css2 with its inherent limitations

    • MK (History)

      Visibility is usually necessary to reinforce deterrence… But not always. Ref: Israel.

      1. The threat that leaves something to chance, when not visible, but suggestive, might also deter.

      2. The supplier might wish anonymity.

      3. The recipient might not wish to make life more difficult for friendly nations.


    • Ano N. Ymous (History)

      4. The act of revealing the deterrence might be considered a useful step in managing the escalation of a crisis.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Here too Khaled offers commentary — the Saudis had a plan to disclose the existence of the deterrent after a period of time had the sale not been detected.

      This may be part of a broader rollout of new capabilities for the Saudi Strategic Missile Force.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Here is what Khaled account of his recommendation on secrecy surrounding the 1987 missile purchase from China:

      “The effectiveness of a deterrent capability depends on a potential enemy knowing of its existence. When our Strategic Missile Force was close to being operational, I wrote an analysis for the high command suggesting that, if our acquisition of Chinese missiles were not detected by November 1988, this would be an advantage; if not by February 1989, this would be greatly in our favor; if, however, it was not detected by June 1989, we should consider leaking the news ourselves as the object of acquiring the weapon would not have been achieved. As it happened, we had no need to do so, because the Americans broke the news first.”

      I can’t help but think of this as I look at pictures of Khaled — until recently Deputy Defense Minister — cutting ribbons at the new Strategic Missile Force headquarters in Riyadh last year.

  4. Rene (History)

    What do you think is the raison d’etre of the strategic dyad for the Saudis? In terms of practical considerations, it seems to me that the missiles wouldn’t be of need against Iran, while they might be valuable against Israel. In the case of Iran, it seems to me that if there ever be a conflict, the Saudis can use their air force (which is vastly more capable than Iran’s) more effectively. In the entire region it is only Israel that has a better air force than the Saudis, so in case of a conflict with Israel the Saudis could use the missiles. But then the Saudis are in a sense allies of Israel, so I don’t see why there will be a conflict between them.

    Unless the missiles are a matter of prestige, both in terms of distinguishing the Saudis from other Gulf states and of putting them on a symbolic par with Iran.

    • FlamesInTheDesert (History)

      Prestige is probably a big part of it,but there could also be doubts over how well the saudi air force would actually perform in combat,historically the arab airforces performances have been mediocre so this would give them an alternative tho` how credible would depend on the numbers available,as it stands now its to small to do anything to israel especially with the israeli abm defences,tho` how well they would perform is a big question also and the iranian force is far larger and more capable.It wouldnt be the first time that a military has acquired weapons it didnt need and couldnt really use

  5. P (History)

    The question of why Saudi Arabia has or would modernise its ballistic missile force with new Chinese missiles is even more interesting or even vexing in the light of its large investments in other long range conventional military capabilities. (For more facts on its military spending and arms imports see )

    I’d argue it’s not just a dyad, but more a ‘ strategic triad’ consisting of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and advanced combat aircraft supported by tanker and ISR aircraft and equipped with a range of precision guided munitions, partly supplied by the USA. The Storm shadows have been confirmed by the producer: ‘… upgrade of Tornado is complete. Delivery of Storm Shadow missiles to the RSAF under the TSP is progressing in line with the agreed programme schedule’ ( ) Saudi is receiving new F-15SA combat aircraft (the kind of aircraft Israel acquired and probably used for long range strategic aircraft) from the USA and Typhoons from the UK.

    Reportedly Saudi has also plans to acquire new combat ships which could be equipped with land attack cruise missiles, a common trend around the globe. Would make it a strategic quartet?

    One possible explanation for new missiles from China could be that there are no or few(er) strings attached and no Americans or British watching whether they are aimed at Israel and needed to operate them (Saudi Arabia still makes heavily use of foreign experts to keep its US/UK supplied air force operational).

    Finally, if China did supply ballistic missiles to Saudi in recent years how would this justified in the light of its political commitment to follow the MTCR guidelines?

  6. bob (History)

    Interesting article Jeffrey, but not nearly as interesting as the picture you places at the beginning of it.

    The symbolism is by the book, Crown check, Palm leaves check, Outsize phallic symbol check, Superimpose National symbol check, and last but not least Map of the Nation.

    I can clearly discern the border with Jordan and oh! wait a minute. . .

  7. jeannick (History)

    bob , a bit unfair !
    I find it hard to believe the poor man was aware of the alignment of the (two stage ?) missile tip

    the article and comments were excellent ,
    the Kingdom has after all a very serious security problem
    once the U.S. increasingly a Chinese side too

    as for the Tel-Aviv , Teheran scenario
    yeah sure but so much not the Saudi’s MO ,
    car bombs are more their style

    • bob (History)

      Sorry, my sarcasm obscured my point.

      Look at the map. The vaguely orange sand coloured bit. Is it a good representation of Saudi sovereign territory?

      Hint, have a look at the other photo. There is a map inside the display cabinet holding the model missiles. On that map Saudi territory is green.

      Strategic ambition hidden in plain sight?

  8. Mike Elleman (History)

    Another interesting aspect to the possible procurement of DF-21 (or DF-15,-18, -11??) missiles is the propellant type. The liquid-propellant DF-3 likely has a long service life, especially if stored empty. I can imagine that it is at least 20 years, probably 30 or more, if proper maintenance and refurbishment of components and propellants are undertaken at prescribed intervals, by qualified experts.

    The solid-fueled missiles described as possible replacements or adjuncts to the DF-3 have a more limited service life. I suspect they will remain within service life parameters for 10-15 years if stored properly. Twenty years is possible if one has a vigorous aging program running concurrently to assess the viability and reliability of the missiles as they grow older. This may not apply to the Saudi case.

    If the transfer of the solid-propellant missiles occurred in 2003, they are already near the end of their service life. If acquired in 2006, the Saudis will still have to consider replacing them soon, which means that negotiations with the supplier are likely already in the works.

    Are the Saudis really prepared to acquire replacement missiles every decade? Can the Saudis be certain that China or Pakistan will sell them missiles in the future? It is unlikely the US would supply such missiles, so the Saudi dyad may not be a viable long-term strategy.

  9. Sean (History)

    Avoided the issue of Saudi Arabia having procured the DF-21 already for a few reasons:

    1) Not enough evidence to make the assertion

    2) The idea of Saudi importing “tractor/trailer” TELs for the DF-21 made no sense; they’d want the conventional DF-21C, which uses an “all-in-one” TEL vehicle; the timing would also preclude buying something (DF-21/A) no longer in production, the PRC having switched over to the DF-21C by then. Plus, things called “TEL components” are often ID’ed due to the specific chassis, prior to the missile gear having been added. If you see them at a TEL fabrication plant, they’re probably gonna be TELs. But if you see them after delivery somewhere else, the problem you have is that the same chassis used to mount a missile erector is often used for far more benign purposes like mounting a heavy crane, or something along those lines. Look at how many different things the MAZ-543/7910 is used for.

    3) DF-3 launch pads haven’t fallen completely into disrepair, there are new ones near Al Sulayyil that have been made recently. One option is that they simply rotate their locations, although there are enough concrete pads near the bunkers and whatnot at both this location and Al Jufayr to provide launch points without the big, visible launch pads. Although there is obviously no reason whatsoever why they’d need to use different pads for the DF-21 or something similar. The PRC tends to try and use smaller ones because they’re easier to conceal.

    4) “Credible” reporting (as in repeated through various sources suitable for citing) suggests that actual ballistic missile negotiations for a DF-3 replacement began in 2012. The DF-3 has an effective service life of 30 years for the Saudis, given the length of the support contract with the PRC (although if they’re kept in bunkers and not fueled, they’d probably last a hell of a long time). Combine those two figures and you get something suggesting that they’re looking to replace the DF-3s now, not ten years or so ago.

    Doesn’t mean that they didn’t buy the things before, but hell, I had a word count to stick to so I had to pick and choose the best bits to go in there.

    And I’ve been wrong before Jeffrey, I’m just really good at hiding it! Or at the very least I try correct things and explain why my answer has changed. The ego boost, however, is certainly appreciated.

    • Cthippo (History)

      Hey Sean, are you going to write anything about the Cuban radar parts being sent to North Korea for repair(or so goes the story thus far)? I keep waiting for someone more knowledgeable than your average reporter to comment on the story, but it seems to have flown under the radar (pun intended).

  10. George William Herbert (History)

    Thanks Sean and Jeffrey. Good articles.

  11. @FHeisbourg (History)

    Like bob, I am struck by the iconography, in particular the opening image: this one displays Saudi emblems (crown, sabers etc) but much more than Saudi territory: all of the Arabian peninsula, including Yemen and the GCC partners is in an undifferentiated green zone. Extended deterrence, Saudi style?
    Although I assume Western overhead has much improved since the sale, transfer and deployment of the massive DF-3s from China to Saudi was missed by US intel in 1986-87, I’m surprised at the paucity of public US data on the current ballistic and cruise missile deployments in the Kingdom.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Most transparent Administration in history.

      I will note that when France sells a cruise missile to the UAE, we include it in Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat. When the UK sells the same cruise missile to Saudi Arabia, we omit it.

      I wonder why the French are so cynical.

    • shaheen (History)

      @FHeisbourg: I would not put too much in a crude military symbol that does not differentiate between Yemen and the GCC countries. Saudis dying for Sanaa? I don’t think so.

  12. bob (History)

    FHeisbourg – I’m glad somebody gets it – symbols are important.

    I did wonder about implicit extended deterrence, particularly the GCC partners, but the deal breaker for me was Yemen. I may be missing something, but as far as I know there is not an extant defence treaty area coincident with the map above.

    Besides, if it was indicitive of extended deterrence, the borders would be delineated.

    Does the House of Saud hold a claim to the whole of the Arabian peninsula?

    As I wrote upthread, is this strategic ambition hidden in plain sight?

    P.S. whilst not doubting Jeffery’s intent, I have tried to confirm that this is in fact the official emblem of the KSA SMF from its creation to the current day. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to do so, doubtless because of my own incompetence.

  13. kme (History)

    Gold-plated ballistic missiles ought to be easy to spot, at least!

  14. Leandro (History)

    I can almost hear the comment, Zoolander style, the guy in the middle is telling the round-glassed hipster (?): “This missiles too small! How will us win war with missiles this small? I want them, at least, say… TWO times bigger!”