China is helping Saudi Arabia manufacture its own ballistic missiles, US intelligence agencies have determined, according to CNN.
While Saudi Arabia has purchased ballistic missiles from China before, the Middle Eastern nation has never been able to build its own, but satellite images obtained by CNN indicate Saudi Arabia is currently making the weapons itself in at least one location.
The satellite photos, taken by the commercial imaging company Planet, show a facility near Dawadmi, Saudi Arabia, researchers at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies told CNN, adding that it is “the first unambiguous evidence that the facility is operating to produce missiles.”
“The key piece of evidence is that the facility is operating a ‘burn pit’ to dispose of solid-propellant leftover from the production of ballistic missiles,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies who reviewed the images.
“Casting rocket motors results in leftover propellant, which is an explosive hazard. Solid-propellant missile production facilities often have burn pits where leftover propellant can be disposed of by burning. Burn operations are, therefore, a strong signature that the facility is actively casting solid rocket motors,” he added.
Classified intelligence further revealed that China and Saudi Arabia have engaged in multiple large-scale transfers of secret ballistic missile technology, two sources familiar with the information said. Numerous US officials, including those at the National Security Council at the White House, have been briefed on the exchange.
“While significant attention has been focused on Iran’s large ballistic missile program, Saudi Arabia’s development and now production of ballistic missiles has not received the same level of scrutiny,” Lewis told CNN.
“The domestic production of ballistic missiles by Saudi Arabia suggests that any diplomatic effort to control missile proliferation would need to involve other regional actors, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, that produce their own ballistic missiles,” he added.
A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told CNN in a statement that China and Saudi Arabia are “comprehensive strategic partners” which “have maintained friendly cooperation in all fields, including in the field of military trade.”
“Such cooperation does not violate any international law and does not involve the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” the spokesperson continued.
CNN first reported in 2019 that Saudi Arabia was escalating its ballistic missile program thanks to support from China. Three sources familiar with the matter said the classified intelligence revealed the Saudi Arabia was expanding both its missile infrastructure and technology.
“A robust Saudi missile program would introduce new challenges to constraining other missile programs in the region. To take just one example, Iran’s missiles, which are a major concern to the U.S., would be more difficult to constrain in the future without parallel constraints on a growing Saudi program,” Ankit Panda, a nuclear policy and weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told CNN.