UPDATE: Saudi Arabia displays ballistic missiles for the first time

29 April 2014
Saudi Arabia's DF-3 ballistic missiles were displayed for the first time in the parade marking the end of Exercise 'Saif Abdullah'. Source: Saudi Press Agency

Saudi Arabia publicly displayed its Dong Feng-3 (DF-3) ballistic missiles for the first time in a 29 April parade marking the end of what was billed as its largest ever military exercise.

The parading of the missiles will be seen as the latest Saudi step to publicise its ballistic missile capability, which has included media coverage of the opening of the Strategic Missile Force's new headquarters in Riyadh in 2010.

The DF-3 (US designation: CSS-2) is a single-stage, liquid-fuel ballistic missile that was developed by China in the 1960s. It is estimated to have a range of 2,500 km with a 2,000 kg warhead, but suffers from poor accuracy.

It was confirmed in March 1988 that China had transferred an unspecified number of DF-3 missiles with conventional warheads to Saudi Arabia. The estimates of the number of missiles delivered to the kingdom range between 30 and 120.

Saudi television footage of the parade at Hafr al-Batin Airbase in the northeast of the kingdom showed two missiles with DF-3 written on them in Latin script. The missiles were mounted on the same towed erector launchers that have been seen in photographs of Chinese DF-3s. These launchers can only travel on paved surfaces, but provide an adequate level of mobility for firing from the prepared launch pads at Saudi ballistic missile bases.

Speculation that Saudi Arabia is in the process of replacing its DF-3s was fuelled by the circulation of a photograph of Prince Fahd bin Abdullah bin Muhammad al-Saud visiting the Strategic Missile Force headquarters in Riyadh during his brief tenure as deputy defence minister in 2013. The photograph shows senior officers presenting him with a display case containing models of three missiles, including one that looks like a DF-3. There has been speculation that one of the other two missiles in the case is a Chinese DF-25 (CCS-5) with a pointier nose for a conventional warhead.

In January, a Newsweek story cited an unnamed "well-placed intelligence source" as saying Saudi Arabia began replacing its DF-3 from 2007, when it bought solid-fuel DF-25 missiles. The source said the United States approved the transfer after CIA analysts inspected the missiles and were satisfied that they were not designed to carry nuclear warheads.

Other weapons and platforms that were not previously known to have been acquired by Saudi Arabia but which featured in the parade included Oshkosh Mine Resistance Ambush Protected - All Terrain Vehicles (M-ATVs) and M113s that had been upgraded by the Turkish company FNSS into the M901A TOW anti-tank missile launcher variant.

The parade, marking the end of Exercise 'Saif Abdullah', was attended by dignitaries from various countries, including the king of Bahrain, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the Kuwaiti defence minister, and Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif.

Saudi Chief of Staff General Hussain al-Qubail stressed the defensive posture of the Saudi armed forces, saying: "By conducting this exercise, we are preparing our forces to defend our holy places and our achievements ... we don't intend to attack anyone because it's not the kingdom's policy."

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