Saudi Arabia has long been a backroom player in the Middle East’s nuclear game of thrones, apparently content to bankroll the ambitions of Pakistan and Iraq (under Saddam Hussein) to counter the rise of its mortal enemy, Iran.
But as the West and Iran have moved closer to a nuclear accommodation, signs are emerging that the monarchy is ready to give the world a peek at a new missile strike force of its own – which has been upgraded with Washington’s careful connivance.
According to a well-placed intelligence source, Saudi Arabia bought ballistic missiles from China in 2007 in a hitherto unreported deal that won Washington’s quiet approval on the condition that CIA technical experts could verify they were not designed to carry nuclear warheads.
The solid-fueled, medium-range DF-21 East Wind missiles are an improvement over the DF-3s the Saudis clandestinely acquired from China in 1988, experts say, although they differ on how much of an upgrade they were.
The newer missiles, known as CSS-5s in NATO parlance, have a shorter range but greater accuracy, making them more useful against “high-value targets in Tehran, like presidential palaces or supreme-leader palaces,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, tells Newsweek. They can also be fired much more quickly.
The poor accuracy of the old DF-3s rendered them impotent during the first Gulf War as a counterstrike to Saddam Hussein’s Scuds, according to Desert Warrior, a 1996 memoir by Saudi Prince Khaled bin Sultan, then-commander of the Riyadh’s Air Defense Forces. King Fahd declined to fling them at Iraq because the likely result would have been mass civilian casualties, and “the coalition’s air campaign being waged against Iraq was sufficient retaliation,” Khaled wrote.
When that war ended, the Saudis went looking for something better. In China, they likely found it. But unlike in 1988, when they royally annoyed Washington with their secret acquisition of DF-3s, this time they decided to play nice. And the CIA was their assigned playmate.
CIA and Saudi air force officers hammered out the ways and means for acquiring the new Chinese missiles during a series of secretive meetings at the spy agency’s Langley, Va., headquarters and over dinners at restaurants in northern Virginia during the spring and summer of 2007, a well-informed source tells Newsweek. The arrangements were so sensitive that then-deputy CIA director Stephen Kappes ordered the CIA’s logistical costs, estimated at $600,000 to $700,000 buried under a vague “ops support” heading in internal budget documents – prompting loud complaints from the head of the agency’s support staff.
Aside from technical personnel, among the few CIA officials let in on the deal were the agency’s then-number three, Associate Deputy Director Michael Morrell, a longtime Asia hand; John Kringen, then-head of the agency’s intelligence directorate; and the CIA’s Riyadh station chief, who Newsweek is not identifying because he remains undercover. Two analysts subsequently traveled to Saudi Arabia, inspected the crates and returned satisfied that the missiles were not designed to carry nukes, says the source, who asked for anonymity in exchange for discussing the still-secret deal.
The CIA declined to comment, as did current and former White House officials. The Chinese and Saudi embassies in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
Reports that the Saudis have upgraded their missile fleet, however, are not new. Former CIA analyst Jonathan Scherck, for example, who managed intelligence reports on Saudi Arabia as a contractor from 2005 to 2007, claimed in Patriot Lost, an unauthorized 2010 book, that China began supplying a “turnkey nuclear ballistic missile system” to the kingdom with the covert approval of the George W. Bush administration, “no later than December 2003.”
Lewis discounts Scherck’s “nuclear” claim, which Scherck says he based on reports he saw from CIA spies and technical collection systems.
Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA and White House National Security Council expert on the Middle East, also dismisses Scherck’s nuclear scenario, as well as recent claims by the BBC and Time magazine – citing a former head of Israeli military intelligence – that the Saudis had placed Pakistani nuclear warheads “on order.”
“Nonsense and disinformation,” he told Newsweek.
But Lewis says that other small but important details in Patriot Lost checked out. “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,” Lewis explains, “but when Scherck sticks to the details about monitoring foreign missile shipments and deployments, he’s believable.”
An engineer on a U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser before joining the CIA, Scherck was fired in 2008 for pursuing details out of channels at the National Geospatial Agency, the satellite imagery service helmed then by James Clapper, now director of National Intelligence. Then the Justice Department pounced on Scherck, seizing the modest revenues from his self-published book and prohibiting him from writing or talking further about the matter. Now 39, Scherck works as a night manager of a hotel in Southern California while he works on a screenplay.
Meanwhile, the Saudis have been acting like they want people to take notice of their previously furtive missile program.
“Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia has started talking a lot about its Strategic Missile Force,” Lewis writes in the draft of an upcoming piece for Foreign Policy that he showed Newsweek. “And, in the course of doing so, Riyadh seems to be hinting that it has bought at least two new types of ballistic missiles.”[Full article-Newsweek]