Options to Manage the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia’s Nuclear Ambitions

Joshua Urness is an officer in the United States Army who has served both in combat and strategic studies roles.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


National Security Situation:  In a notional future the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) Defense Ministry leadership are strongly advocating for initiating a domestic nuclear weapons development program and have begun discussing the issue at King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy.

Date Originally Written:  January 14, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  March 26, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of a non-proliferation and arms control professional working in the U.S. government. This professional was asked to provide recommendations to members of the national security council on how to dissuade the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from pursuing nuclear weapons.

Background:  This background, though containing some facts, is based on the above described notional situation. Key drivers for the KSA on the issue are anticipation of the expiration of the Iranian Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action within 10-15 years and persistent adversarial relations with Iran; likely attributable to continued Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps activity throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council region. This adversarial activity includes perceived Iranian support of Houthi Rebels, by proxy, in Yemen, a force that frequently fires ballistic missiles into KSA territory and has destabilized the KSA’s southern border region.

For this notional scenario we assume that the KSA:

– is a member of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has actively supported the establishment of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East (as recently as May, 2017[1]).

– does not currently possess the technological, intellectual or infrastructural capability necessary to produce fissile material or a nuclear weapon[2].

– has been working to develop a domestic nuclear energy program.

– possesses nuclear weapon capable delivery vehicles which were purchased in 2007 from China (DF-21 ballistic missile variants) and has spent substantial resources developing its Strategic Missile Force[3].

– recently published a plan for state-level economic reformation (“Vision 2030”[4]).

– signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. in 2008 on nuclear energy cooperation, an objective also discussed with France[5].

– has illicit agreements with states such as Pakistan for “off the shelf” nuclear weapons capabilities based on the known fact that the KSA funded work by A.Q. Khan[6].

Significance:  This situation matters to the United States because of the following U.S. national security interests:

– Prevent the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction (National Security Strategy, 2017)

– “Checking Iran’s malign influence while strengthening regional friends and allies” (Defense Posture Statement, 2017) and, therefore, the security of trade within and through the Middle East.

– Support of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the NPT 2020 review.

– Support of weapons of mass destruction free zones and, therefore, the establishment of a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East.

Option #1:  The U.S. focuses on influencing KSA key stakeholder and future king, Crowned Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, to neutralize proponents of nuclear weapons development by supporting his keystone political platform, “Vision 2030.”

“Vision 2030” is an extremely ambitious and aggressive plan that is heavily reliant on both foreign direct investment[7] and non-native intellectual contribution to domestic institutional development. The U.S. could assist the KSA in providing both in a manner that emphasizes domestic nuclear energy and deemphasizes the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Mohammed Bin Salman, author of the plan, is expected to accede the throne soon (to ensure the passing of power under supervision of the current king), and already exercises significant authority regarding the KSA’s future and will be the primary stakeholder in all major decisions.

Risk:  This option accepts that the KSA develops a domestic nuclear energy program which may require more than customary monitoring to determine if this program will become dual-use for nuclear weapons development.

Gain:  This option demonstrates public U.S. support for key allies sustainable economic development in a manner that obscures specific intentions of policy and  will benefit the U.S. economy in long run because of increased ties to development.

Option #2:  The U.S. enhances its current security guarantee and cooperation by expanding the types of weapon systems/services delivered to the KSA and making rapid initial delivery of key systems, which will provide public regional assurance of commitment.

Recent weapons agreement with the KSA totaling $110 billion (bn) U.S. dollars ($350 bn over 10 years) does not include long-range stand-off weapons (land, air or sea) capable of counter-battery fire that could reach Iran. The agreements do include air defense systems (Patriot, THAAD) in limited numbers. This option would expand the current weapons agreement to include such stand-off weapons and increases in air defense systems. This option also emphasizes rapid delivery of equipment currently available to satisfy urgency of KSA military leaders. Expanding service packages with equipment would require forward stationing of U.S. service members in the KSA to train, maintain and develop technical institutional knowledge of new systems, further promoting STEM initiatives of “Vision 2030.”

Risk:  This option only passively addresses KSA nuclear weapon development discussions as it seeks to address insecurity by attempting to conventionally deter Iran.

Gain:  The U.S. Department of Defense is currently seeking acquisition of long-range munitions in significant numbers and funding from this expanded agreement could be used to jump-start production. Rapid delivery would reinforce commitment to all allies in the region.

Other Comments:  Option #1 maximizes benefits for both parties, better than other options. While U.S. national interests are supported in the region, the U.S. will also benefit economically from partnerships built out of acknowledgment and support of the KSA’s effort to achieve “Vision 2030.” Option #1 will also demonstrate U.S. engagement in the region’s key interests and political/economic initiatives. Discussions of nuclear weapons development will be decisively dealt with in a non-public manner; an issue that, if handled publicly, could cause concern in other regional states.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] “United Nations PaperSmart – Secretariat – UNODA – NPT – First Session (NPT) – Documents.” Accessed September 22, 2017. http://papersmart.unmeetings.org/secretariat/unoda/npt/2017-first-session-of-the-preparatory-committee/documents/

[2] “Will Saudi Arabia Acquire Nuclear Weapons? | NTI.” Accessed September 22, 2017. http://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/will-saudi-acquire-nuclear-weapons/

[3] “Why Did Saudi Arabia Buy Chinese Missiles?” Foreign Policy. Accessed September 22, 2017. https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/01/30/why-did-saudi-arabia-buy-chinese-missiles/

[4] “Saudi Vision 2030.” Accessed September 22, 2017. http://vision2030.gov.sa/en

[5] Department Of State. The Office of Electronic Information, Bureau of Public Affairs. “U.S.-Saudi Arabia Memorandum of Understanding on Nuclear Energy Cooperation,” May 16, 2008. https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2008/may/104961.htm

[6] Sanger, David E. “Saudi Arabia Promises to Match Iran in Nuclear Capability.” The New York Times, May 13, 2015, sec. Middle East. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/14/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-promises-to-match-iran-in-nuclear-capability.html

[7] “Goals | Saudi Vision 2030.” Accessed September 22, 2017. http://vision2030.gov.sa/en/goals

Capacity / Capability Enhancement Joshua Urness Nuclear Issues Option Papers Saudi Arabia (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) Weapons of Mass Destruction

United States’ Options to North Korea Missile Development

Mike Dyer is a research assistant at a Washington-based international policy think tank.  He can be found on twitter @mikeysdyer.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  United States’ Options in response to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile developments.

Date Originally Written:  July 22, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  July 31, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of a senior defense/foreign policy advisor to the Trump Administration.

Background:  After decades of development, for the first time in the history of the Korean conflict, North Korea is nearing the capability to hold U.S. population centers on the continental United States at risk with a small nuclear weapon[1].  Nearing this inflection point requires a reexamination of U.S. policy vis-a-vis Northeast Asia.

Significance:  If North Korea’s Kim regime believes it has an effective deterrent against the United States, it may become emboldened to pursue more provocative and dangerous polices.  Such brinkmanship could lead to disaster.  This new fact threatens U.S. extended deterrence commitments to both Japan and South Korea (Republic of Korea (ROK)), depending on the Trump Administration’s policy response.  The Kim regime, while rational, is certainly volatile, and engages in behaviors well outside of international norms.

Option #1:  The United States accepts the reality of North Korea as a nuclear power while maintaining demands for denuclearization.  This option may require adjustments to U.S. defense posture, namely the reintroduction of tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula or the expansion of the ballistic missile defense programs.

Risk:  First, the most salient risk the United States would face is relying on deterrence against a regime for which it lacks an acute understanding.  Relying on deterrence to keep the peace on the Korean peninsula is risky because the Kim regime derives power and legitimacy from propping up the United States and others as an aggressive enemy.

Second, even if the United States does nothing, the Kim regime would still be incentivized to provoke the United States and the ROK if only for domestic reasons.

Third, as previously mentioned, North Korea could work to weaken U.S. extended deterrence commitments by credibly threatening the U.S. homeland.  The United States could work to reduce this risk by demonstrating the effectiveness of its missile defense shield.

Gain:  This option does not risk conflict in the near to medium terms, thus it continues to “kick the can down the road.”  This policy trades tactical and operational risk for increased strategic risk over the long-term.  Otherwise, this option gains nothing.

Option #2:  The United States conducts a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s known nuclear and ballistic missile sites.

Risk:  First, this option risks large-scale retaliation against the ROK and Japan and the U.S. forces stationed there.  There is a significant chance a military strike would miss known or hidden weapons sites or leave North Korea with the capability to deliver a conventional counter strike[2].

Second, a military strike on North Korean nuclear sites is likely to cause an environmental and humanitarian disaster to some degree.  This could result in unnecessary civilian loss of life, increased pan-Korean nationalism at the expense of the U.S.-ROK alliance, and generally loss of support for U.S. leadership/presence in the region.  The illicit transfer of unaccounted for nuclear materiel could also result.

Gain:  If a strike were successful, the Kim regime would effectively be disarmed.  Such a blow to North Korea could lead to a coup against the Kim regime or to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) intervening to stabilize the situation.

Option #3:  The United States increases economic sanctions on the regime to either bring North Korea to the negotiating table or cause the regime to collapse.  This option is not possible without increased support from the PRC a because of its importance to the North Korean economy.

Risk:  First, sanctions need years to take full effect.  During this time, North Korea’s capabilities could grow and the regime would have opportunity to degrade the situation in its favor.

Second, it is unknown what the Kim regime would do if faced with collapse and loss of power.  Some North Korean interlocutors have made the point that North Korea did not build its nuclear weapons only to watch them go unused as the regime collapses.

Third, the regime values security, prestige, and power over a growing economy, it has effective control over its people and they are discouraged from speaking out against the regime even in private.

Gain:  If successful, sanctions have the potential to accomplish U.S. objectives without risking conflict.  Given the Kim regime’s hierarchy of values however, this option is unlikely to work.

Option #4:  The United States and the ROK negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea.  This option accepts the reality of North Korea’s newfound nuclear capability and gives up on past demands for complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear program prior to peace negotiations.

Risk:  First, for a durable peace to exist between the United States and North Korea, both sides would have to reach a mutually acceptable political solution, this may mean both North Korea and the ROK giving up on their objectives for reunification—something both states are unwilling to do.  Durable peace would also require security for all concerned and trust that does not currently exist.

Second, negotiating peace without denuclearization would weaken the nuclear nonproliferation regime and cause allies to lose faith in United States’ security commitments.  This option could result in greater nuclear proliferation across Northeast Asia.

Gain:  The gain is limited by the risk of failure, but a peaceful Korean peninsula would benefit regional security and ease the burden on U.S. defense commitments.

Option #5:  The United States undermines the Kim regime by encouraging the flow of information into and out of North Korea.  The United States works with the PRC and ROK to encourage the further development of independent (black) markets in North Korea at the expense of regime control on civil life.

Risk:  First, this policy would require years to fully carry out, allowing North Korea to expand its weapons program in the meantime.

Second, this policy may just raise the quality of life of the North Korean people and expand the regime’s tax base while not convincing the people to push-back against the regime.

Third, as previously mentioned, destabilizing the regime raises the risks of conflict.

Gain:  If successful, this policy could chance the character and policies of the North Korean regime, ultimately leading to peace and reconciliation.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Ackerman, S., & Jacobs, B. (2017). US commander not confident North Korea will refrain from nuclear assault. the Guardian. Retrieved 22 July 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/26/north-korea-nuclear-attack-south-korea-us-navy

[2]  Your Bibliography: Peters, R. (2017). A New Approach to Eliminating North Korean Weapons of Mass Destruction Is Needed. Washington: The U.S. Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS. Retrieved from http://www.38north.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf/NKIP-Peters-WMDE-062017.pdf  Also see, Bennett, B. (2013). Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse. Rand Corporation.

China (People's Republic of China) Mike Dyer North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) Nuclear Issues Option Papers South Korea (Republic of Korea)