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.


[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

Options for the Philippines in the South China Sea

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:  Sovereign Rights of Economic Exclusion Zones (EEZ)[1] in the South China Sea (SCS) and the legitimacy of the international system to enforce them.

Date Originally Written:  January 18, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 23, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is an active duty officer in the U.S. Army.  This article is written from the point of view of the U.S. towards the Philippines, with a desire to ensure the legitimacy of the international system.

Background:  The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is occupying and developing islands in the SCS based on the historical claim of its nine-dashed line.  These occupations have resulted in the direct challenge of the Philippine EEZ, an internationally recognized right of sovereignty, which fully includes the disputed Spratly Islands (Mischief Reef).  In 2016, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled that the Spratly Islands are technically rocks, and upheld that they are wholly within the Filipino EEZ.  Therefore, the PRC is in a “state of unlawful occupation[2].”  Countries especially impacted by the PRC’s expansion in the SCS, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam, do not currently possess the military or political capability to challenge the PRC’s actions independently.

Significance:  The stability of security and diplomatic relations in the SCS is important because of the economic trade routes which pass through the waterway, and the potential value of natural resources in the region.  The PRC’s willingness to ignore the UNCLOS ruling on the sovereignty of the Filipino EEZ is an affront to the legitimacy and credibility of the international system and the security status quo.  Further unchecked aggression by the PRC could embolden other states, creating further instability in other parts of the world.  The PRC’s disregard for the ruling, along with their military modernization and investment in power projection capabilities, will enable them to continue to challenge the sovereignty of EEZs throughout the first island chain.  Because the international system cannot enforce its decision, and the Philippines cannot enforce its own EEZ, the credibility of both international and state authorities will be questioned.

Option #1:  The U.S. facilitates Filipino acquisition of low-cost defensive capabilities which will enable them to enforce their own EEZ.  Examples of low-cost defensive capabilities include anti-ship missiles such as the RBS-16 which has a 100-200 nm range, coast guard equipment, and sensors.

Risk:  If the U.S. is not directly involved in the continued procurement and operations of the weapons given to the Filipinos, there may be an increased risk of mistakes or miscalculations being made by untrained and inexperienced Filipino weapons operators.  This includes the integration of sensors and shooters into an organized system in which commanders, with the authority to decide whether or not to fire a system, have enough information and time to make a good decision.  Because of the potential presence of Filipino Islamist or communist insurgents in areas likely to be chosen for weapon system employment, the security of the weapon sites must be emphasized.  If weapons are stolen or obtained by such actors with malign interests, this could destabilize the regions crucial shipping lanes and local maritime economies.  Additionally, inability or lack of political will on the part of the Philippines to use the capability to protect its citizens, or enforce EEZ claims, may perpetuate internal destabilization of the state.  Also, given the PRC’s positioning of military forces on these islands, the provision of weapons to the Philippines risks war over sea lanes through which 25% of global trade passes.

Gain:  Enforcement of the EEZ would enhance the legitimacy of the international system, even if the Filipinos themselves enforced it, as opposed to an internationally sanctioned coalition.  Option #1 would change the cost/risk calculation for the burgeoning PRC navy that may result in a deterrent effect.  Such a capability may also enable the Filipino government to protect its fishermen and economic interests in the EEZ from harassment from the PRC’s maritime militia.  This option would allow the Filipinos to demonstrate resolve, garnering regional and internal credibility, if they decisively utilize these capabilities to deter or defend.  Land based anti-ship missiles are easily maneuverable and concealable, therefore adding to the survivability and resilience of a force that could be in place for a long time.

Option #2:  A U.S.-led coalition defense strategy composed of states surrounding the SCS that is supported by U.S. foreign military funding centered on facilitating procurement, training and information sharing.

Risk:  A U.S. led coalition of SCS states could polarize the region and lead to a less effective Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN).  This coalition may also stimulate a regional arms race that would be expensive over time for the U.S., despite the somewhat low-cost of capabilities involved.  The cost of building partner capacity could also be expensive over time where countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, not accustomed to working with the U.S., would require courtship.  Direct U.S. involvement and partnership in mission command and the integration of sensors and shooters into an organized system would require increases in the forward presence of U.S. forces.  This would expose the U.S. to a higher diplomatic commitment than previously held.  This higher level of presence would be necessary to mitigate the risk of mistakes in the use of the capability, as well as the security and posture of the systems.

Gain:  The primary advantages of a U.S.-led coalition are two-fold; it would ensure the credibility of the international system to assist in the enforcement of edicts (though the U.S. is not a signatory of UNCLOS, it does have a vested interest in the stability of the international system), and it would build a broader foundation of deterrence against further PRC expansion in the SCS.  If the U.S. used a strategy similar to the one for which the RAND Corporation advocates, in their report titled Employing Land-Based Anti-Ship Missiles in the Western Pacific[3], coalition states could work towards building the capacity for a “far blockade” of the first island chain.  This would significantly increase the PRC’s naval risk when operating within firing range of any coalition state, challenging the cost imposition and aggression paradigm, while also building capacity and knowledge that may be useful in future conflict.  Similarly, the U.S. could use such partnerships to develop its own capacity and institutional knowledge in land-based maritime denial systems.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  China and the Philippines have both signed and ratified the UNCLOS. Part five of the convention, article 55 through 75, cover economic exclusion zones. UNCLOS Part V, Article 56, which can be found at http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/unclos_e.pdf, states that; ” In the exclusive economic zone, the coastal State has:

(a) sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living, of the waters superjacent to the seabed and of the seabed and its subsoil, and with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone, such as the production of energy from the water, currents and winds;

(b) Jurisdiction as provided for in the relevant provisions of this Convention with regard to:

(i) The establishment and use of artificial islands, installations and structures;

(ii) Marine scientific research;

(iii) The protection and preservation of the marine environment;

[2]  Graham, E. (2016, August 18). The Hague Tribunal’s South China Sea Ruling: Empty Provocation or Slow-Burning Influence? Retrieved January 07, 2017, from http://www.cfr.org/councilofcouncils/global_memos/p38227

[3]  Kelly, T., Atler, A., Nichols, T., & Thrall, L. (2013). Employing Land-Based Anti-Ship Missiles in the Western Pacific. Retrieved January 07, 2017, from http://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/TR1321.html

Allies & Partners China (People's Republic of China) Joshua Urness Maritime Option Papers Philippines South China Sea