Jeffrey LewisSaudi Arabia Producing Ballistic Missiles

Zach Cohen has a story on CNN (“US intel and satellite images show Saudi Arabia is now building its own ballistic missiles with help of China”) on China’s assistance to the growing Saudi ballistic missile program. It is, in many ways, the archetype of how we see our collaborations with companies like Planet and CNN.

After we identified this site in late 2018, we continued to work with Planet to monitor the site closely. We knew, sooner or later, it would start producing ballistic missiles. Over the past year, Dave Schmerler noticed a number of indictions that production was about to begin.

Those indications became unambiguous in November, which is when we reached out to Zach, who brought his very formidable reporting skills to the problem. He took the open source information and ran with it, getting three sources to describe a classified assessment that “Saudi Arabia is now actively manufacturing its own ballistic missiles with the help of China.” That’s a huge thing to get officials to confirm, given how tightly held intelligence about Saudi Arabia’s missile programs has been.

The fact that Saudi Arabia was producing ballistic missiles with Chinese assistance would likely never have been available to most US officials, let alone the public, if civil society didn’t have commercial imagery companies like Planet, academic research institutions like CNS or investigative media like CNN. And, frankly, it’s much easier for people who know to ignore information like this when it isn’t on television.

The write-up follows.

Saudi Arabia Producing Ballistic Missiles at Dawadmi

Jeffrey Lewis and David Schmerler

November 18, 2021

Commercial satellite images taken by Planet and analyzed by researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) show that Saudi Arabia is producing solid-propellant ballistic missiles at a production facility near Dawadmi.

Construction of the plant, which appears to have been constructed with Chinese assistance, was first identified publicly by researchers from CNS in 2019, as reported in the Washington Post.  CNN subsequently reported that the US intelligence community was aware of the facility and that the Trump administration had attempted to conceal the existence of the site from Congress.

New satellite images suggest Saudi Arabia is now producing ballistic missiles at the site. The key piece of evidence is that the facility is operating a “burn pit” to dispose of solid-propellant leftover from the production of ballistic missiles.  

Solid-propellant rockets are produced in much the same way you might  make a cake  — you mix the batter, in this case propellant, in a very large bowl and then pour it into a casing. The propellant is then allowed to cure, typically at an elevated temperature. 

Unlike baking a cake, you cannot lick the bowl and spatula. Casting rocket motors results in leftover propellant, which is an explosive hazard. Solid-propellant missile production facilities often have burn pits where leftover propellant can be disposed of by burning.  Burn operations are, therefore, a strong signature that the facility is actively casting solid rocket motors.

Satellite images taken by Planet show a burn operation occurred between 26 October and 2 November. This is the first unambiguous evidence that the facility is operating to produce missiles. (Previous satellite images show what may have been burn operations as early as last year.) In addition to the burn operation, there are a large number of vehicles on site, consistent with the large numbers of workers being present.

Little is known about the missiles that Saudi Arabia is producing at this facility, including details like the range of the missile.  There is a substantial amount of open source information suggesting that Saudi Arabia has been receiving assistance from Ukraine to produce the 300-km range Grom-2 ballistic missile,  which is similar to Russia’s Iskander short-range ballistic missile. The facility near Dwadmi, however, appears to be Chinese in design. It is unclear whether China is assisting Saudi Arabia in producing the Grom-2 or whether this is a separate production line for a different missile supplied by China.

While significant attention has been focused on Iran’s large ballistic missile program, Saudi Arabia’s development and now production of ballistic missiles has not received the same level of  scrutiny.  US government officials have indicated on several occasions that Washington seeks a diplomatic agreement that would address Iran’s development of ballistic missiles.  The domestic production of ballistic missiles by Saudi Arabia suggests that any diplomatic effort to control missile proliferation would need to involve other regional actors, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, that produce their own ballistic missiles.