Saudi Arabia concluded a large-scale military exercise with a display of its Chinese- made Dongfeng 3 ballistic missiles this week, showcasing the missiles for the first time in a veiled warning to Iran, a defense expert told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
The Dongfeng 3 (DF-3) has a range of up to 3,300 kilometers, and can carry two-ton warheads. It can be used to strike targets that are much closer than the maximum range, said Tal Inbar, head of the Space Research Center at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies.
In 2013, a satellite photo of a Saudi missile base showed launch pads that pointed at two cites – Tehran and Tel Aviv – but the intended recipient of Saudi Arabia’s missile warnings is Iran, Inbar said.
The D F-3 missiles have been in Saudi Arabia’s possession since 1988, when Riyadh purchased them from China, but until now, the Saudis have refused to acknowledge possession of them. On Tuesday, that policy dramatically changed.
“Saudi Arabia’s power has been known for years, but until yesterday, they never displayed these missiles,” Inbar said.
The fact that the missiles are old does not mean they are inactive, he stressed. They must be fueled right before launch, and loaded onto trucks that serve as launch vehicles.
Inbar listed three reasons behind the highly unusual display of Saudi firepower.
The first is a Saudi wish to boost deterrence against Iran, which continues to advance its nuclear program, conduct proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Syria and remains Riyadh’s principal regional nemesis.
A second reason could lie in Saudi Arabia’s desire to signal support for fellow Sunni Gulf states, which are also threatened by Iran’s aggressive regional designs.
Lastly, the missiles could have been used to broadcast dissatisfaction to Washington over how negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program are going.
“This could be telling the Americans: ‘Take note, we can defend ourselves, and we can look after our own interests,’” Inbar said.
In 2007, the world learned (likely through a CIA leak) that Saudi Arabia purchased more modern Chinese missiles, Dongfeng 21s (DF-21), which have a range of 1,500 km., and are considered to be substantially more advanced than DF-3s, Inbar added.
DF-21s have their own launch pads, and they don’t require a transfer to vehicles before being fired.
The Saudis have yet to put any DF-21s on display, but Inbar said he would not be surprised if, after Tuesday’s parade, “We might see Saudi Arabia conduct a missile test.”
That could have implications for a regional missile arms race, as other Arab states have concealed ballistic missile programs, Egypt foremost among them.
Through its display this week, Saudi Arabia has advertised its ability to inflict destruction on Iran without needing to deploy a single fighter jet, Inbar said.
“And that’s the point of showing the missiles,” he said. “This is a signal of their offensive conventional capability, which goes beyond standard fighter jets.”
Asked if Riyadh’s decision to lift the curtain on the missiles might be interpreted as a warning that Saudi Arabia would begin its own nuclear weapons program, should Iran go nuclear, Inbar said such a message cannot be ruled out.
“Rumors of secret Pakistani-Saudi nuclear deals have been known for years,” he said.
“The Pakistani chief of army staff [Gen.
Raheel Sharif] was present at this military parade. He sat next to the Saudi defense minister [Crown Prince Salman].”