Threat to Mideast Military Balance : U.S. Caught Napping by Sino-Saudi Missile Deal

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Times Staff Writer

One day in early March, a U.S. official working in a special government office that keeps track of the construction of airstrips around the world looked at a reconnaissance photo of the Saudi Arabian desert and noticed something extraordinary about a newly constructed airfield.

“Doesn’t that look like what the Chinese do with their missile sites?” he asked. Puzzled, he took the picture to some American experts on the Chinese military, who agreed with him.

Within 48 hours, Mideast specialists working in U.S. reconnaissance programs checked and confirmed the first official’s alarming suspicions: Saudi Arabia was in the process of installing Chinese CSS-2 intermediate-range missiles.


The discovery of the missile site has reverberated throughout the U.S. government, forcing a painful reexamination of U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities and raising questions about both the military balance in the Persian Gulf and Chinese intentions around the world.

Nearly two years had elapsed between the Saudi agreement to purchase the Chinese weapons and the discovery of the deal by U.S. intelligence officials poring over photos of the Arabian desert.

U.S. officials now acknowledge that they missed early clues to the weapons sale and were not watching closely enough what the Saudis were doing. They had not been paying much attention to the deserts of Saudi Arabia since the United States sent its warships into the Persian Gulf last summer to escort U.S.-registered oil tankers.

The new missiles now threaten to alter the military balance in the Middle East. The Chinese missiles have a range of nearly 2,000 miles and were originally designed to carry nuclear warheads.

Chinese, Saudi Pledges

Both Chinese and Saudi officials have told the United States that the missiles will carry conventional, not nuclear, warheads. Saudi Arabia recently underlined that assurance by announcing that it would sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and thus pledge not to develop nuclear weapons.

Yet the accuracy of the new missiles is so poor that they are considered of limited use with only conventional explosives. A State Department official wondered: “How can we be sure these missiles will only have conventional warheads?”


Another State Department official pointed out that Saudi Arabia has denied the United States permission to see the missile site and the missiles. “We would like to have had access to them,” he said.

Apart from the missiles’ impact on the Middle East, they have created new jitters within the U.S. government over China’s arms sales.

Even China’s sales of Silkworm anti-ship missiles to Iran was not so serious, U.S. officials said. U.S. objections to the Silkworms were based not on the nature of the weapons system but on their threat to U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. By contrast, U.S. officials say, they objected to China’s selling intermediate-range missiles to any country, whether U.S. interests were threatened or not.

‘Crossing a Firebreak’

“No other country in the world has ever sought to transfer a weapon like that,” said one official. “The Chinese were really crossing a firebreak by selling that kind of weapon to the Saudis.”

What follows is the story of China’s unprecedented sale of intermediate-range missiles and of the belated U.S. discovery of it. It is based on interviews with U.S. officials, some of whom spoke only on condition that neither their names nor their agencies would be identified.

The sale dates to July, 1985, when Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, made a surprise visit to China.


That trip attracted some attention because the Saudi regime is one of the 22 remaining governments that recognize Taiwan’s Nationalist regime as the legitimate government of China. There was speculation in Beijing that China and Saudi Arabia were exploring the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations.

But this speculation was off the mark. The prince wanted to talk about arms, not diplomacy.

At the time, Congress had just rejected the Saudis’ request for new U.S. arms, including F-15 planes and short-range Lance missiles. U.S. analysts now believe that while in Beijing, the prince reached an agreement in principle from Chinese leaders to purchase China’s intermediate-range CSS-2 missiles.

‘Really Big Bucks’ Involved

“Bucks were a factor, really big bucks, multibillion dollars in one sale,” said one U.S. analyst who asked not to be identified. “In addition, this was part of a pattern of Chinese foreign policy, of wanting to play a major role throughout the world.”

U.S. officials say China has shown a particular desire for influence in the Middle East, where it has sought to cultivate relationships with virtually every country in the region. China has had recent arms deals with Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Israel, they say.

Yet never before had the Chinese sold intermediate-range missiles. U.S. officials say they are not sure whether Prince Bandar went to China seeking the CSS-2 missiles or whether Chinese officials took the initiative.


“A decision like that had to be made at the highest levels (in China),” said one U.S. expert. “Maybe no more than eight or 10 people in China knew what was happening.” U.S. officials believe that only Chinese military officials, and China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, knew about the discussions.

U.S. government analysts believe China and Saudi Arabia ironed out the details and struck a final deal on the sale of the missiles in 1986. Soon afterward, some Saudi personnel began traveling to China for secret training on the missiles.

Work Begun Last Year

Construction of the missile site is thought to have started some time last year about 60 miles south of Riyadh. One U.S. source suggested the Saudis may have used a private construction crew from a third country, but other government experts said Chinese workers were imported.

China is thought to have produced no more than 100 of the CSS-2 missiles in their original version, which was first made operational in 1971. U.S. officials say they believe Saudi Arabia purchased between 20 and 24 of these missiles.

What U.S. officials finally uncovered in early March was “a training center,” said one U.S. government expert. The Saudis were preparing to train crews to man the missile sites.

The Saudi missile site presented U.S. policy-makers with an awkward problem. Chinese Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian was about to arrive in Washington in March for a long-awaited official visit, which the United States hoped would ease a series of recent strains in Sino-American relations.


“It was a bad time for the China hands,” said one U.S. official. “Wu was coming to town the next day. All the policy people were saying, ‘Don’t give us another problem.’ ”

State Department Disclaimer

A State Department official involved in the policy discussions insisted this was not true. “There wasn’t any disinclination to address this issue,” he said.

U.S. officials led by Secretary of State George P. Shultz raised the subject of the missile sale during the talks with Wu. Asked whether the United States was satisfied with China’s response, a State Department official replied: “No, but we’re satisfied that if we want to pursue this, we have the means for doing it.”

In early April, Wu publicly confirmed the sale of the missiles to Saudi Arabia. But he said the Saudis had promised China the missiles would not be transferred to other countries and would be used only for defensive purposes. The sale of the missiles “will help stabilize the situation in that country and in the Middle East in general,” Wu asserted.

The discovery of the missiles by U.S. officials produced a quick examination of how U.S. intelligence agencies had failed to detect the missile sale. U.S. agencies prepared a Special National Intelligence Estimate, an internal intelligence report, reviewing the transaction, but the report is classified and could not be obtained.

One official familiar with this review said the United States had failed to uncover the sale at the time the deal was made. He said there were some “early indications” that China was shipping arms to Saudi Arabia, but U.S. analysts mistakenly believed that Saudi Arabia was merely being used as a transshipment point for Chinese weapons sales elsewhere in the Mideast.


‘Looking at the Desert’

The other problem, this official said, was that U.S. intelligence analysts were not paying enough attention to Saudi Arabia, a nation with which the United States has long enjoyed close relations. “Analysts were focused on the gulf and Iran,” he said. “They were not focused on the desert. . . . Now it’s a high priority, and our people are looking at the desert.”

U.S. officials in the executive branch described the discovery of the missile site in March as stemming from aerial or satellite reconnaissance. A source on Capitol Hill said that while this might be true, he believed U.S. intelligence officials might have first received a tip from a human source.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1987, the United States and China were at odds over China’s sales of Silkworm anti-ship missiles to Iran. The regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had installed the Silkworms near the entrance to the Persian Gulf, and U.S. officials had became concerned that the Chinese missiles could be used against U.S. ships.

U.S. officials say the sale of intermediate-range missiles was different from the Silkworm sale--in some ways less serious, in other ways more so.

“The Saudi missile problem falls into a different realm,” said one State Department expert. “No U.S. territory was threatened. It was sold to a friendly country. It raised concerns about Israel’s security, but in all probability, the reason the Saudis bought them had nothing to do with Israel.”

Protection Against Iran

The Saudi regime wanted the missiles as protection against Iran, this official said. Last month, Saudi King Fahd warned in a newspaper interview that his country would not hesitate to use the Chinese missiles in defense against Iran.


But apart from being unprecedented, the sale of intermediate-range missiles introduced a new weapons system into the Mideast, perhaps the most volatile region in the world, raising the question of whether other nations in the region would seek to acquire similar missiles.

“This says a lot about Chinese priorities, about their views on nuclear proliferation and their role in the world,” said one U.S. analyst. “They seem to have different views of what is responsible behavior in the international arena than we have in the West, or even the Soviet Union.”

The principal unanswered question is whether Saudi Arabia intended the CSS-2 missiles to carry nuclear warheads.

U.S. officials say the Chinese missiles are so inaccurate that they seem to be of little use in carrying conventional weapons. A nuclear warhead would ensure destruction of a target even if a missile fell far from where it was intended.

Missile Not Accurate Enough

“You can’t make that (missile) accurate enough to be useful” with a conventional warhead, one U.S. official said. Still, he added, Saudi Arabia’s recent signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has helped persuade him that the Saudis had bought the missile for use with a conventional warhead.

One American analyst said the Saudis might have sought to develop a nuclear program in an unprecedented, backward fashion. “Others build a bomb and then obtain the delivery vehicle,” he said. “The Saudis seem to have bought the vehicles, and maybe they hope the team (to develop a nuclear bomb) will come later.”


If China and Saudi Arabia are telling the truth and the missiles were never intended to carry nuclear weapons, then why did the Saudis buy them? One Capitol Hill source raised the possibility that the missiles could be used with poison gas.

But U.S. officials say there is another explanation--that the Saudis actually intended from the start to use the inaccurate missile with a conventional warhead.

“Maybe the Chinese pulled off the caper of the century,” one expert said. “They took these old missiles they’re probably phasing out anyway, put conventional warheads on them and sold them to the Saudis for use against Tehran.”