Once the nine Project SEA 5000 Future Frigates are all in the water at the end of next decade, Australia should possess the largest fleet of Aegis-equipped vessels outside the US Navy, substantially more of the advanced vessels than operated by Japan, South Korea, Spain and Norway.
From the outset, the nine Future Frigates will all be equipped with the latest configuration of Lockheed Martin’s Aegis combat system – known as Baseline 9 – while the three Hobart class DDGs will be upgraded to the same standard.
This brings some very significant new capabilities, most notably a likely ability to shoot down ballistic missiles. That controversial capability will require some deep thinking and additional funding by Government, including the acquisition of Raytheon SM-3 or SM-6 missiles, or both.
Currently, the first of the new DDGs HMAS Hobart, is undergoing sea trials to assess the full capability of Aegis and to train its crew on what is a vastly more sophisticated maritime combat system than Australia has ever before operated on any warship.
Vessel two, NUSHIP Brisbane will be commissioned in the middle of this year, and vessel three, NUSHIP Perth late next year.
The Future Frigates are further off. Government’s key decision on SEA 5000, ie which of the three competing designs will be chosen, is currently expected early in the second quarter. Construction is due to start in Adelaide in 2020, and the first vessel will enter service in the mid to late 2020s.
But Government has already made some key decisions. The radar will be an advanced iteration of the Australian-designed and built CEA CEAFAR, now in use aboard the older Anzac frigates, rather than the US SPY-1D(V) as on the three DDGs. As well as CEAFAR and Aegis, the frigates will also be equipped with an Australian 9LV tactical interface developed by Saab Australia.
“By bringing together the proven Aegis system, with a cutting edge Australian tactical interface developed by Saab Australia, our Future Frigates will have the best capability to defeat future threats above and below the surface, while also ensuring we maintain sovereign control of key technologies, such as the Australian-designed and built CEA phased array radar,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in the announcement at the Pacific naval conference last year.
Plenty isn’t yet known about how this will work, specifically, how the three systems will operate together in a vessel design which is yet to be selected. The three ship designers – Navantia of Spain, Fincantieri of Italy and BAE Systems of the UK – all say integration challenges are understood and this won’t be a problem.
In a briefing on Aegis and Baseline 9, Lockheed Martin Director of Business Development for Mission Systems Neale Prescott said Aegis provided protection not just for the Aegis-equipped ship, but for other high value assets in a task force such as the Navy’s large Canberra class landing helicopter dock (LHD) ships.
“You need to have this advanced long-range surveillance and you have to be able to counter any attacks, not just on your own platform but on vessels like LHDs,” he said.
Lockheed Martin Surface Maritime Program Manager Rod Milligan added that, in the very worst case the air threat could be multiple inbound missiles. “That layered defence is the security blanket cast by Aegis over not only its own ship but the task group,” he said.
He said Aegis was specifically designed to track and target multiple missiles simultaneously, using either the ship’s SM-2 missiles for longer range threats, or ESSM or CIWS for ‘leakers’ or closer threats. Just how many targets can be tracked at one time remains classified.
Prescott said a key feature of Aegis was that it could make a determination of the degree of lethality and immediacy of each threat. “The first one detected might be subsonic and so you’ll focus all attention there. But the next one might be supersonic, and that changes your priorities completely.
“Some weapons fly unusual flight profiles,” Prescott added. “The key thing is it is dynamic in that allocation of priorities.”
Milligan said Aegis made that determination on a case by case basis. “The thing that is most likely to kill you first is what Aegis is paying the most attention to. It can do that essentially simultaneously.”
The three Aegis DDGs plus nine Future Frigates would give Australia the largest fleet of Aegis-equipped warships outside the US Navy, Milligan said, thus giving Australia significant leverage into the future Aegis development process.
“With Aegis ships, either you were a ballistic missile shooting ship or a surface-to-air ship,” he said. “What Lockheed has done with Aegis Baseline 9 is to bring those two capabilities together.
“You can have those capabilities simultaneously. Future Frigates will be very capable ships, (and) in the future the DDGs will likely also be brought up to Aegis Baseline 9.”
That does raise the prospect that the first of the Future Frigates, intended to be anti-submarine warfare vessels, could go to sea with a more capable version of Aegis than the DDGs which were designed from the outset to be specialist air warfare vessels.
Milligan said it would be reasonable for Australia to bring the DDG and Future Frigate capabilities into alignment.
So why weren’t the three DDGs equipped with the latest version of Aegis at the outset? The reason goes back to the start of the AWD program. In 2004, long before construction actually started, Defence specified Aegis, with three systems acquired under an FMS deal and then placed in storage while the ship construction program was delayed due to quality control and integration issues.
Those were the latest configuration then available, which was COTS Refresh 2 (Baseline 8), with the SPY-1D(V) radar and AN/SPQ-9B horizon search radar. But it’s not Baseline 9, which is a significant step forward.
Government has scheduled an upgrade to the three DDGs under Project Sea 4000 Phase 6, and the Defence Integrated Investment Program says that will be run over the period 2017-28 at a cost of $4-5 billion.
Prescott said it could be Defence was budgeting for a range of other upgrades to the vessels’ weapons, infrastructure and training, and other capabilities in that particular project. “The actual Baseline 9 upgrade is substantially less than those budgeting figures.”
Outside defence circles in the broader community, it isn’t well understood just what Aegis does and also why it forms a significant element of the cost of each vessel. Of the $35 billion global cost for the nine new frigates, the combat system will certainly consume several billions.
At its most fundamental, Aegis is the core of the ship’s overall combat system. It is a whole series of electronic boxes which receive then analyse data from sensors, particularly the main radar, and presents it to the ship’s commander for appropriate action.
Aegis itself isn’t the radar, although until now, it and the Lockheed SPY-1 phased array radar have gone together on all US, Japanese, South Korean, Spanish and Norwegian ships as well as the Australian DDGs fitted with Aegis.
Aegis – in Greek mythology the shield wielded by the God Zeus – was the result of a long-running and complex development program which resulted in the first Aegis-equipped vessel, the guided missile cruiser (CG) USS Ticonderoga, going to sea in 1983.
That there have been nine ‘Baseline’ iterations of Aegis shows how the system has evolved, with each adding new levels of capability and complexity.
Early baselines featured MilSpec computers, but Baseline 6 went to fully commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware and featured significant new capabilities, including theatre ballistic missile defence (BMD) and cooperative engagement capability (CEC), the ability to network US and allied vessels by sharing threat, targeting and engagement data.
Baseline 7 added the latest SPY-1D(V) radar, while Baseline 8 brought COTS and open architecture systems to older Aegis vessels, mainly the US’s Ticonderoga class CGs.
Baseline 9 is a very significant upgrade, with a true open architecture computer framework which allows much easier integration of new capabilities.
It also adds three major warfighting improvements:
* Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) allows aircraft such as the F-35 and Block III Super Hornet to identify and provide targeting solutions for ship-launched missiles over the horizon and over land.
* Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD) provides a much more versatile capability for air defence, Aegis’ primary mission. Its centrepiece is the new multi-mission signal processor (MMSP) software package.
* Enhanced BMD capability features what is called launch-on-remote (LoR) and engage-on-remote (EoR), with tracking data for targeting incoming missiles provided by remote sensors which could be on other ships or aircraft, on land or in space. That improves the capability to intercept longer-range and faster missiles.
Baseline 9 features what the US Navy and Lockheed term a common-source library which permits easier, cheaper and faster integration of new capabilities.
“It doesn’t matter which navy you are, it doesn’t matter what sensors and weapons, all the software elements are stored in common source library,” Milligan said. “We use a fairly ingenious system to essentially…compile a set of software relevant to your ship.
“The code re-use is the important thing,” he added. “You’re not developing new code every time a new sensor or weapon comes along. There is 98-99 per cent code re-use each time.”
Lockheed Martin says it has already worked with the three SEA 5000 contenders on shipbuilding projects around the world, and has no preference at all on who should win SEA 5000. “For us, what we have to be able to do is understand the specific characteristics of that ship,” says Prescott. “The shipbuilder is obviously going to be the prime contractor.”
Added Milligan; “We are working with all three. Genuinely, the company has no preference. The government will make a decision and we will work effectively with whomever wins.”