Giving Saudi Arabia Guided Munitions Tech Could Have Huge Consequences
The Saudi-led war in Yemen continues to be a point of contention between the Trump administration and a rare bipartisan group within Congress. Citing malign Iranian influence, the Trump administration issued an emergency authorization on May 24, directly confronting Congress by fast-tracking previously blocked arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan. This move angered numerous Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz who supports the substance of the deal, yet told Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper to “follow the damn law.” The proposed arms deal now includes provisions beyond the technical support for aircraft and 120,000 precision strike munitions originally included. The Trump administration also granted the U.S. defense contractor Raytheon permission to engage in technology transfers and support the domestic production of critical guidance components and equipment in Saudi Arabia for the Paveway smart bombs that are being used extensively in Yemen. While both the Senate and House have already moved to block the deal, it is unclear if they will be able to override a likely presidential veto.
Beyond the debate over the ethical and strategic concerns over how these weapons are used in Yemen, the transfer of sensitive military technology will likely contribute to the increasingly alarming proliferation of advanced missile and guided munitions throughout the world. Saudi Arabia is hungry for strategic technology. Part of the “Saudi Vision 2030” plan is to turn the kingdom into a major producer of advanced military goods and other strategic technology. This plan includes nuclear technology transfers from the United States — which have drawn close scrutiny — and a renewed interest in a domestic ballistic missile production capacity. This new arms deal has the potential to help jumpstart the Saudi missile program and contribute to the rampant proliferation of ballistic missiles and related technologies. The Trump administration is not only fueling a Saudi missile program, it also risks undercutting its own “Buy America” arms policy by helping to create a less discerning potential competitor. If Congress cannot overcome a presidential veto, it should work to, at the very least, eliminate the domestic production portion of the deal. Such a change will not impede the ability of Saudi Arabia to continue its fight against Iranian aligned Houthi forces in Yemen and will protect the Trump administration’s “Buy America” policy.
While the Paveway is a bomb rather than a missile system, the guidance systems it employs can be applied to both types of weapons. Paveways are conventional bombs that are equipped with a kit to make it a precision strike weapon. Think of the Paveway as a guidance “kit” that can be installed on pre-existing “dumb bombs.” These kits include both software and hardware with advanced guidance algorithms, laser-guidance technology, GPS guidance technology, and digital signal processors to analyze large amounts of guidance information quickly. All this technology is important to broader missile production endeavors, whether they are cruise missiles or ballistic missiles.
So why is this a problem? Some technologies are more readily applied to strategic arms programs than others. Ballistic missiles, not surpisingly, can be applied to a nuclear weapons program. Academic research has found that there is a spillover effect between different types of military production efforts. Military production programs can fuel one another. Scientists, technicians, and managers don’t operate in a bubble. What they learn about producing guidance technology can be beneficial for other projects because the organizational, technical, and scientific demands are often similar or even building blocks for more advanced weapons. Tacit knowledge — which is hard to transfer or teach — and explicit knowledge from one arms program can bolster the human capital states can bring to bear on other proliferation efforts. Policymakers and academics are increasingly seeing this proliferation spillover. Research has shown this spillover effect in space technology, cruise missiles, nuclear weapons, and ballistic missile programs. What Saudi Arabian scientists, technicians, and program managers learn from guidance technology production can translate into advances in other realms, such as missiles and even nuclear weapons technology. By approving this deal, Washington is granting Riyadh immensely valuable knowledge and experience and providing a key cog in its growing missile production endeavor.
The spillover effects from this deal may prove to be particularly powerful given Saudi Arabia’s growing interest in missile and nuclear technology and the lack of a proper strategic trade control infrastructure. Saudi Arabia has been investing significant resources in the development of a domestic ballistic missile production capacity, including secret missile deals with both Ukraine and China. The deal with Ukraine included the Saudi-financed production of a new missile system, the Grom 2, which has already begun to enter critical test phases. Recent research has also found that Saudi Arabia may have begun to construct missile production facilities. The new facilities at the al-Watah missile base seem to include engine production and test facilities to accommodate advanced solid-fuel engines. Together, these efforts indicate that Saudi Arabia’s desire for missile technology has gone beyond simply purchasing foreign systems.
Riyadh has also recently benefited from a nuclear technology transfer deal with Washington. This deal includes civil nuclear technology and the all-important technical support and training. What is particularly troublesome is Riyadh’s refusal to accept a “123” safeguards agreementnine nonproliferation principlesThe rejection of the 123 safeguards agreement, Saudi demand for enrichment capabilities, and a long simmering interest in acquiring nuclear weapons — especially if it looks like Iran will do so first — greatly increases the risks of this deal. So, within a single year, the Trump administration could be jumpstarting both the missile and nuclear legs of a Saudi strategic weapons program. Granting Saudi Arabia access to guidance technology will advance their missile production efforts, adding another potentially destabilizing supplier of missile technology into the world. This is particularly worrisome given mounting evidence that U.S. weapons given to Saudi Arabia may not be fully secure.
The backdrop of Saudi Arabia’s new focus on advanced arms acquisition and production feeds a classic security dilemma with Iran. The proxy war in Yemen is only one facet of this. Iran’s missile programs and now renewed nuclear enrichment have undoubtedly pushed Saudi Arabia to try and keep up. Even before the recent confusing crisis in the straits of Hormuz, there is little doubt that Iran, and its proliferation efforts, have contributed to the instability and security concerns in the region. It has an advanced ballistic, cruise, and anti-ship missile program, which have rightfully drawn American ire. It has used this program to support proxiesthroughout the Middle East. Iranian-developed missile systems, albeit the older and less advanced ones, have even been used by Houthi forces in Yemen to conduct deep strikes into Saudi Arabia and target surface vessels. Hizballah has also made use of Iranian missiles. Yet while the Iranian missile program deserves the concerns it raises, a Saudi program could very well mirror Iran’s in both capabilities and proliferation and regional security concerns. Saudi Arabia already possess Chinese built DF-3 IRBMs and has a history of providing clandestine support and equipment to proxy agents throughout the Middle East.
Many view the “Saudi Vision 2030” plan as unlikely to meet its lofty goals of reforming the Saudi economy and society. Reforms under the plan that are aimed at attracting business, supporting private economic development, and even tourism have already been derailed by familiar concerns over repression and government control and increased scrutiny following the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi arms production is part of this initiative and faces equally daunting challenges. Even still, ballistic missile production may prove more successful than other parts of the “2030” plan. Ballistic missile proliferation is no longer as difficult as it once was and Saudi Arabia has surpassed some of the research, technical, and production barriers it once faced, and still faces in the production of other advanced conventional weapons.
Missile proliferation experts have pointed out that ballistic missiles aren’t beyond the budgets or capabilities of states if the demand is high enough. The best way to prevent ballistic missile proliferation is therefore by reducing demand and increasing the cost. Increasing costs can take the form of slowing proliferation by reducing access to critical technology and equipment through export controls and sanctions as well as sanctions that punish a state beyond proliferation efforts, such as many of the sanctions leveled at North Korea. Since technology acquisition is such a major component of missile proliferation, the Trump administration’s recent arms deal would significantly lower the cost of such efforts. Political pressure is another way to increase the costs. The United States has frequently used such tactics to limit the proiliferation ambitions of allies, such asSouth Korea. With this arms deal and the nuclear deal, the United States is doing the opposite: providing invaluable technology and signaling that is is tacitly accepting Saudi actions. The “Saudi Vision 2030” plan may be an expensive and futile project, but Trump’s deal and the signal it would send would help Saudi Arabia achieve one of the plan’s steps, with strategic consequenecs that are not proportional to the costs Riyadh would normally have to bear.
The United States is not the only producer of advanced guided weapons. Russia, China, Japan, India, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, as well as other Western European NATO members can produce at least limited precision-guided munitions. The United States does not have a monopoly on the proliferation of this technology. Even NATO member states don’t always see eye to eye on the export of such munitions, as illustrated by the French and U.K. export of the Storm Shadow cruise missile that irked the United States (at least initially). Saudi Arabia is seeking to take advantage of this competition by diversifying its arms imports to increase its ability to leverage better deals. In fact, many of these states have a history of transferring military technology, including for missile systems. However, transfers of this nature and caliber are often strategic. Without U.S. support, Saudi Arabia will likely struggle to gain access to advanced guidance technology, let alone permission to produce it. And even if it does, access to the technology and production methods behind Paveway guidance units, given their advanced nature, would be a coup for the Saudi missile program.
Given what we know about Saudi Arabia’s broader proliferation objectives and the spillover of capabilities between related proliferation realms, the U.S. arms deal should not include technology transfer or domestic production guarantees. And while full details of the technology transfer and domestic production guarantees have yet to be negotiated by Raytheon, guidance technology is so critical it will help to jumpstart the growing Saudi missile program. Such a program will likely have broader consequences to regional and global security, as it may be only one leg of a future strategic weapons program. Congress should continue in its bipartisan efforts to block at least the guidance technology portion of the deal. Given Saudi Arabia’s broader production ambitions that will benefit from this deal, it would be in the best interest for both Raytheon and the Trump administration to re-think it as well.
Nolan Fahrenkopf is a research fellow at the Center for Policy Research’s Project on International Security, Commerce, and Economic Statecraft (PISCES) at the University at Albany.
Image: State Department