Saudi Arabia Eyes Purchasing BMD-Capable Destroyers

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WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia, which has long considered the purchase of American littoral combat ships (LCS) with a lightweight Aegis combat system, is contemplating the acquisition of new DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers that could be fitted with ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability.

The U.S. Navy briefed Saudi officials in late May on the capabilities of the destroyers, which would be far more powerful than any ship in the kingdom’s service.

The U.S. Navy would not confirm whether the brief included BMD options, but sources did not deny that it was part of the presentation.

Saudi Arabia has been looking at Aegis-equipped LCS designs from both Lockheed Martin and Austal USA since mid-2008. Those designs, which range in size from 3,000 to about 4,000 tons, would be equipped with SPY-1F lightweight Aegis radars similar to those fitted on Norwegian frigates. But the SPY-1F lacks the fidelity and software to perform the BMD mission, and the ships probably would not have the electrical capacity to power a BMD radar.

The U.S. Navy’s 9,100-ton DDG 51s are the heart of the fleet’s BMD force. About 20 U.S. cruisers and destroyers have had their SPY-1D Aegis systems upgraded to perform the BMD mission, and more are being backfitted. Future DDG 51s will be built with the BMD capability.

A land-based Aegis BMD system also is under development by the U.S. for deployment in Europe as part of that continent’s missile defense shield.

U.S. Navy acquisition office spokeswoman Capt. Cate Mueller confirmed that the “non-binding price and availability (P&A) rough order of magnitude estimate was delivered in May” to the Saudis.

The brief, she said, included information on the capabilities and prices of “medium surface combat ships with integrated air and missile defense capability, helicopters, patrol craft and shore infrastructure.”

Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a major weapon upgrade for its armed services. The Saudi Naval Expansion Program 2 is said to be considering the purchase of up to a dozen new warships worth, according to various media accounts, between $20 billion and $23 billion.

The recent U.S. brief provided options that included buying a mix of destroyers and LCS vessels, sources said. One source said the Saudis were considering the purchase of two destroyers plus an unknown number of LCS vessels.

No decisions have been made by the Saudis. Back-and-forth talks are continuing between the countries, a Pentagon source said, with no deal imminent.

The Navy and Lockheed Martin are awaiting feedback from the Saudis, Paul Lemmo, Lockheed’s head of Mission Systems and Sensors, said June 10 through a spokesman. He confirmed that Lockheed supported the U.S. Navy’s presentation.

Acquisition of Aegis BMD would provide the Saudis with a considerable anti-missile capability, possibly in excess of any other gulf-region country, including Israel.

“The DDG 51 is the most capable destroyer on the planet,” said one naval expert. “If the Saudis get anything like that, it would be quite significant.”