February 10, 2014: It was recently revealed that the United States agreed to allow (or at least not try to interfere with) Saudi Arabia replacing its older Chinese DF-3 ballistic missiles with more reliable and accurate Chinese DF-21s. This was done in 2007-8 on condition that the Saudi DF-21s were modified so they could not carry a nuclear warhead and American experts could inspect the missiles to ensure compliance. China bought about a dozen launchers and over a hundred DF-3s in the late 1980s. The DF-3 was liquid fueled and had a guidance system that would land the warhead within 300 meters of the aiming point. This sort of accuracy was OK for a nuclear warhead but seriously lowered effectiveness when the missile was carrying a conventional warhead, which was all the Saudis could use. It was believed the Saudis would use these missiles to attack cities and large military bases, where a two ton explosive warhead or one carry bomblets could do some significant damage despite the poor accuracy. The DF-3 has a range of 3,000 kilometers. The DF-3 weighed over 70 tons, used 1950s technology and entered Chinese service in the 1970s and was gradually retired from service during the last two decades. The DF-3 was based on the Russian SS-5, which entered service in the early 1960s and was retired by 1989. Since the DF-3 was liquid fueled it required several hours to prepare for firing.
The DF-21 is a 15 ton solid fuel missile that is ready to fire in minutes and can hit within 30 meters of the aiming point. It only has a one ton warhead and a range of 1,700 kilometers. The DF-21 is accurate enough to be fired at smaller targets like headquarters, or compounds where senior leaders live. It’s not known how many DF-21s the Saudis bought, but they apparently still have at least a dozen launchers. The DF-21 can also be fired from a mobile launcher, but the Saudis do not appear to have any of these. The Saudi ballistic missiles have always been stationed at tightly guarded bases out in the desert.
Iran is the main target for the Saudi missiles. Iran has several dozen ballistic missiles that could reach the Saudi missile bases, but Iran’s official position is that their ballistic missiles are meant for Israel. The Saudis also indicate that their ballistic missiles are meant for Israel as well as Iran. In 2013 satellite photos of a Saudi Arabian ballistic missile base showed some of the launching pads (for the Chinese ballistic missiles) touched up with arrows painted on the pavement, one pointing towards Israel and the other towards Iran. Mass media picked up on this and began running headlines of Saudi missiles aimed at Israel. That gave a distorted view of current Arab-Israeli relations. While the Saudis would certainly point their missiles at Iran, the arrow pointing towards Israel is probably their more to placate Saudi extremists than as an indication of Saudi military strategy.
For over a decade now, Israel has been building relationships, often in secret, with its neighbors, especially Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). Although the decades of “hate Israel” propaganda in these countries makes it difficult to openly negotiate, the growing threat of Iranian nuclear weapons has made Israel an attractive ally for the Arab Sunni states threatened by Shia Iran. The U.S. is currently trying to broker a secret military alliance involving Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. This would include giving Israel access to data from Arab and Turkish radar stations near Iran, while also providing these nations with data from the Israeli missile early-warning system. There would also be arrangements on how Israel could participate in defending its new allies if Iran attacked. Finally, there is the fact that Israel is a nuclear power and once this proposed alliance is revealed (or even if it is known but officially denied), Iran would have to worry about Israeli retaliation even if only the Arab Gulf states or Turkey were threatened. Thus, the Saudi missile base arrow pointing at Iran made sense, the arrow towards Israel was a sop to the many Saudis who have not updated their enemies list lately.
While working out the details of this new alliance is the easy part, making it public and implementing it completely could be a problem. Arab governments have officially demonized Israel for so long that a large segment (probably still a majority) of their populations would react violently and be instinctively hostile to formal announcement of an alliance with Israel. Thus some of the diplomats involved are suggesting a secret treaty. This is not a new concept, as such secret deals have been used for thousands of years. But in the age of the Internet and speedy and abundant global media, such deals can have explosive consequences once revealed and are difficult to keep secret. The proposed deal would only be made public when it had to, as during a crisis with Iran. At that point, fear of Iran would calm many Arabs who would otherwise hit the streets to violently protest any deals with Israel.
This sort of deal making is not new. Israel has had official and unofficial arrangements with all these nations over the years. Jordan has been quite open about their security and intelligence arrangements with Israel, which go back over 30 years. The unofficial intelligence sharing has been more common over the last two decades. The reason is the growing threat of Islamic terrorism, although before the 1990s the Arabs were more concerned with secular Moslem terrorists. But these have largely been replaced by the religious fanatics, who still get a lot of unofficial support (cash and sympathizers) from Arabia, where most modern Islamic radicalism has been nurtured and encouraged for centuries. Many educated and entrepreneurial Arabs would also like access to the Israeli market (for goods, technology, and joint ventures). But the Arabs will have to work through their anti-Semitism first. The arrow pointing towards Israel shows that there’s still a ways to go.
In any event the Saudis have expressed more hostility for Iran than Israel over the last few years and given that Israel has ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads, intentionally targeting Israel would be very foolish. If anything the Israeli nuclear missiles help protect Saudi Arabia from Iran because the Iranians know that the Israelis would not hesitate to nuke Iran if the Iranians fired their missiles towards Israel, or Saudi Arabia. To Israeli missile-defense radars a ballistic missile aimed at Saudi Arabia looks just like one aimed at Israel, at least as the missile rose some 500 kilometers into the edge of space and then turned west.