As Houthi rebels step up their long-range assault on both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the latter is quietly progressing on its own ballistic missile program, according to threat analysts.
The Saudi program, which is something of an open secret in the defense community, appears to be a direct response to the Iran-backed Houthi strikes of recent years, including more than 200 ballistic missiles that have been fired at the Kingdom since 2015. The goal, is to develop a reliable ballistic missile arsenal which could hold Iran at threat — creating a deterrent factor that, Saudi officials hope, will cause the Houthi strikes to end.
“The current Saudi defense strategy aims at achieving strategic deterrence on so many levels, which requires launching several defense programs, including a program to develop and build advanced ballistic missiles with various ranges to protect its territories,” said Abdallah Ghanem Al Kahtani, a retired Major General from the Royal Saudi Armed Forces and regional defense analyst.
“Iranian ballistic missiles can reach all parts of Saudi Arabia and beyond,” said Al Kahtani. “That is why Saudi Arabia must have its own ballistic missiles that can hit any part in Iran. This is the best way to achieve equal and effective deterrence.”
CNN reported last December on satellite imagery of a facility in Saudi Arabia which, according to US intelligence agencies, was built with technical help from China. That factory, CNN reported, is “actively manufacturing” solid-fuel ballistic missiles.
Saudi Arabia already possesses an undisclosed number of two Chinese-built ballistic missiles, the DF-3 and the DF-21. The first model was a liquid-fuel missile acquired in 1987, with a maximum range of 4,000 kilometers, while the DF-21 is a solid-fuel missile that is more modern, with better accuracy but a maximum range of 1,700 kilometers. Both missiles fall under the command of the Royal Saudi Strategic Missile Force.
“Saudi Arabia is obliged, and duty-bound to build a strong ballistic missiles arsenal to create a balance of power with Iran and eventually have a reliable deterrent against Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal,” said Khaled Dakheel, a prominent Saudi sociologist, political commentator and columnist.
Like many critics of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement, the believe that former US President Barack Obama’s decision not to go after Iran’s ballistic missile programs “allowed Tehran to push ahead with its missiles’ program and build large numbers and proliferate them throughout the Middle East region.”
As a consequence of this policy, Iranian ballistic missiles technology is now in the hands of many groups threatening regional security as well as US bases.
Iran has managed in the past three decades to build a formidable ballistic missile force that comprises many models with ranges up to 2,000 kilometers. It has even carried out several tests to put a satellite in space using its own multi-stage missiles. The results of those investments were perhaps most publicly seen when Iran fired several Al Fatih-110 ballistic missiles at US troops in Ain Al-Assad Air Base in Iraq in 2020, in retaliation for the assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
Reportedly, the US is now including Iranian ballistic missiles in the number of issues raised at the indirect talks with Iran in Vienna, aimed at reviving the nuclear deal with Iran, which President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. However, Iranian officials have refused to include their ballistic missiles program in the nuclear talks and insisted that the missiles were vital for its national defense capabilities.
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