Will the Saudis Go Nuclear?

October 16, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: Saudi ArabiaNuclearTechnologyStrategyWar

Will the Saudis Go Nuclear?

Under what circumstances might Riyadh conclude that the clandestine and rapid acquisition of a nuclear arsenal would help address the challenges the country faces?

Lastly, the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi badly damaged MbS’ reputation as a competent and farsighted leader with an ambitious but plausible agenda of political and economic reform. In the eyes of his critics, both international and domestic, the killing and the carelessness with which it was executed reinforced the notion that MbS is not too different from his predecessors. So bad was the fallout that the U.S. Congress tried to use the incident to take a hardline stance and block arms sales to Saudi Arabia. To the most cynical of realists, the Khashoggi incident appears to have satisfied Talleyrand’s much-quoted phrase, “It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder.”

Critics at home have taken notice of this apparent inability to produce results. MbS and his domestic allies, now on the defensive, may conclude that the rapid acquisition of a nuclear arsenal would be the most effective way of transforming Saudi Arabia’s current circumstances. A similar rationale was employed by Charles de Gaulle during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In de Gaulle’s view, France should acquire the bomb on the basis that it resided in what was then a dangerous neighborhood; could not afford a large, technologically-advanced, combined-arms force; and could not afford to trust others (namely, the United States) to provide a reliable extended deterrent. De Gaulle was further motivated by the idea of enhancing France’s international prestige and that of her armed forces. Pakistan’s national security elite employed a similar logic behind their own decision to develop a nuclear deterrent in the late 1990s.

ALTHOUGH NORTH Korea might at some future date be prepared to sell nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia for the right price, it is much more likely that Pakistan would be the source of Saudi Arabia’s rapid acquisition of nuclear weapons capability. At this point in time, Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government face a full-blown balance of payments crisis precipitated by the previous administration of Nawaz Sharif. Seeking to elevate Pakistan’s economic profile, Sharif “bet the farm” on a massive injection of Chinese capital to rapidly modernize Pakistan’s transportation and energy production infrastructures under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Hopes for rapid success have come up short though, due to corruption, internal resistance from within the key province of Balochistan and the rising interest costs of acquiring Chinese debt.

Currently, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are negotiating a five-year, $6–11 billion financial assistance package for Pakistan. More recently, during a summit in Islamabad with Pakistan’s political and military leadership, MbS concluded $20 billion worth of investments in Pakistan’s energy and minerals sectors. Despite these new investments though, the Khan administration is hard-pressed for cash. It has had to negotiate for another financial bailout by the International Monetary Fund to the tune of $6 billion at the cost of limiting economic sovereignty. Yet even that isn’t enough to pay down the current crisis.

The Khan administration and its military allies, therefore, will soon search for an additional source of loans from the international community. Might there not be an opportunity for a much more massive cash injection if Pakistan could provide MbS with a nearly instant operational nuclear arsenal? In fact, is it not possible that this very idea was considered and discussed in secret during the Islamabad summit?

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have an enduring security relationship that goes back decades. Examples include Pakistani military training provided for the Saudi National Guard, or when Islamabad dispatched a battalion-sized security force to Saudi Arabia to help pacify the domestic turmoil unleashed by the 1979 militant attacks on Mecca. There have also been reports that it was Saudi Arabia that provided Pakistan with the financial assistance necessary for the latter to develop its nuclear weapons program. That Riyadh might turn to Islamabad for assistance in acquiring the bomb is actually rather plausible.

Moreover, public reports over the past several years suggest that China has provided Saudi Arabia with a new generation of rapid reaction, solid-propellant intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), the DF-21, to replace the obsolete liquid-propellant Chinese IRBMs, the CSS-2s. Currently, the Royal Saudi Strategic Rocket Force (RSSRF) relies on China to provide precision-guided warheads to supplement the Saudi air force’s ability to reliably conduct long-range offensive operations and present a viable military threat to Tehran. Although it had a longer range, the CSS-2 relied on an early generation inertial guidance package, resulting in the missile being, at best, a “city-busting” terror weapon. In contrast, the DF-21, armed with a modern and accurate variant of a Maneuverable Reentry Vehicle, can accurately strike key strategic targets—to substantial military and economic effect.

One of the practical legacies of the original Chinese missile transfer is the set of hardened launch sites at Al-Watah, Al-Jufayr and Al-Sulayyil to the south and west of Riyadh. With these, the personnel of the RSSRF can now train with the ground-mobile DF-21 to become combat-ready. It is important to note that, to date, there is no evidence that the RSSRF has launched any of its DF-21s, much less its older CC-2s, in a lofted trajectory as part of an operational exercise similar to the tests carried out by North Korea during 2017—tests which caused an uproar within the Trump administration and with the international community. The RSSRF has so far only conducted training simulations. These are useful but are not a substitute for actual live-fire training. With nuclear warheads, there is the potential to radically transform this nascent long-range missile capability.

THE CURRENT Saudi regime could secretly negotiate with the Khan administration and the Pakistani high command to rapidly acquire operational nuclear warheads for either the Chinese DF-21 or its Pakistani variant, the Shaheen-III. If the Chinese stand in the way of arming the DF-21s with nuclear weapons, Pakistan could provide the Shaheen-III over time to be comingled with the Chinese IRBMs. Alternatively, the Shaheen-III could be deployed in a new series of launch sites out of sight of Chinese technical advisors. It is, in fact, technically more plausible that the Pakistanis would mate their nuclear warheads to their missiles rather than try to modify a similar but distinct Chinese missile. In either case, the outside world could be led to believe that the RSSRF only operates precision-guided, non-nuclear armed, long-range missiles. The increased military effectiveness of using precision-guided warheads would be part of a public cover story that the Saudi regime had no interest in a nuclear arsenal.

With the delivery vehicles in place, several nuclear warheads could be delivered overnight via a handful of large jet cargo planes owned and operated by the Pakistani government. The new Saudi nuclear arsenal could be made combat-ready or, at least, appear to be combat-ready, in a matter of hours, thereby presenting the major military powers of the globe—particularly the United States, Israel and India—with a strategic fait accompli. To be sure, the operational effectiveness and technical prowess of Saudi Arabia’s new nuclear arsenal might be questioned, but the brandishing of nuclear weapons has more often been a matter of symbolic and threatening posturing rather than technically-solid positioning.

Having cast the die with this flagrant act of nuclear proliferation, the Saudi regime would be free to double down and announce that it will negotiate a new and more robust economic and military alliance with Pakistan. This could include providing oil at discounted “friendship” prices and receiving a wave of Pakistani military “advisors”—including elite special forces to act as MbS’ own Praetorian guard. Pakistan could also promise to sell to Saudi Arabia a range of guided weapons, including long-range air/sea/ground-launched land-attack cruise missiles.

THE NUCLEAR proliferation scenario described above is a nightmare for those in the U.S. government and international community who are struggling to sustain the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has already been greatly weakened by the apparent inability of the United States (despite negotiations and threats) to affect the complete nuclear disarmament of North Korea. 

Although there would be a global furor over these events in the Middle East, the negative consequences for Saudi Arabia—especially for MbS, his foreign allies and his energy clients—might be muted. The rapid acquisition of an operational nuclear force by Saudi Arabia might be rationalized by much of the international community rather quickly. After all, this was the international response after the 1998 nuclear weapon tests by Pakistan and India. Initially, the United States led a campaign to punish both Pakistan and India, but that faded due to “reasons of state”—i.e., higher national interests. Washington perceived it had more important geostrategic equities with both countries, with Pakistan being a key player in the emerging conflict with global Islamic terrorism, and India being an emerging power and, more recently, an emerging center of gravity against a rising China. In the current context, Saudi Arabia would continue to rely on its role as the leader of OPEC and as the key swing producer of petroleum to dampen any punitive international response. 

Even if it fielded a nuclear arsenal, both China and India would remain significant clients for Saudi petroleum products. Russia might privately be upset about the geostrategic implications of this Saudi “move of greatness,” but Moscow would want to continue its partnership with Riyadh and their joint efforts to manage the global price of oil in the face of the unconventional hydrocarbon supply-side revolution that originated from North America.