There are two contenders – Lockheed Martin’s Aegis or Saab’s 9LV – with Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne tipped to reveal the winner during PACIFIC 2017.
For that winner, the deal is worth potentially billions, considering the Future Frigate program is costed at some $35 billion.
Aegis is the integrated naval weapons system now aboard the Navy’s three new Hobart class air warfare destroyers, of which the first, HMAS Hobart, was commissioned on September 23 and is now embarking on a lengthy program of sea trials.
It’s the US Navy’s peak naval warfighting system, first deployed aboard USS Tioconderoga in 1983 and now used by five other navies, including Australia. In that time it has much evolved but has always been paired with a version of Lockheed Martin’s SPY phased array radar.
Saab’s 9LV was chosen for the Anzac frigates near the start of the Anzac program. It too has much evolved and has now been integrated with the Australian CEAFAR phased array radar on the Anzacs. 9LV is also in use on the two Canberra class LHDs and was chosen for the two new Cantabria class replenishment oilers.
The Commonwealth has mandated CEAFAR for the Future Frigates. All three of the contenders for SEA 5000 – Navantia of Spain, Fincantieri of Italy and BAE System of the UK – say they could integrate CEAFAR onto their vessels with whatever combat system was chosen.
Lockheed Martin’s Gary Feldman said Aegis was a proven system enabling maximum interoperability with coalition forces by integrating advanced capability such as cooperative engagement and the MH-60R Seahawk ‘Romeo’ helicopter.
He said the Hobart combat system was a unique blend of weapons, sensors and equipment to meet the specific operational needs of the RAN.
On HMAS Hobart Aegis is fully integrated with the Australian tactical interface and other Australian domestic sensors and weapons.
“Having Aegis capability on the Australia’s Future Frigates would provide commonality with Hobart and provide and provide Australia with 12 highly capable and interoperable surface combatants,” he said.
A spokesman for Saab Australia said over the last 18-months it had undertaken risk reduction activities on behalf of the Commonwealth and also established a relationship with Lockheed Martin to develop a solution for the SEA 5000 Future Frigate combat system.
“It is important to remember that at this point in time the only mandated system on the Future Frigates is the CEAFAR 2 radar,” he said.
“Our 9LV Mk3E system is currently the only CMS in the world that has been integrated with this radar, resulting in the highly effective anti-ship missile defence capability on the Anzac class frigates. We have a close relationship with CEA and have also already completed integration work between 9LV and the CEAFAR 2 radar.”
So which is best? A recent analysis by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) says each has advantages.
The combination of 9LV and CEAFAR on the Anzacs has demonstrated exceptional, even world-leading capability, in short to medium-range air defence, with standout performance against sea-skimming missiles.
Aegis has stunning ability against multiple targets at longer ranges, out to around 150-kilometres, plus cooperative engagement capability (CEC) for networked air defence operations in a coalition taskforce, and eventually even ballistic missile defence (BMD).
The government says CEC would be a desirable capability for the Future Frigates but that only comes with Aegis. BMD might be best reserved for the new AWDs but the government could take the view that in an uncertain world, all major surface combatants should eventually possess this capability.
The ASPI study, by analysts Dr Andrew Davies and James Mugg, said integrating CEAFAR and Aegis for a BMD capability would be possible but challenging.
However, the Future Frigates are intended first and foremost for anti-submarine warfare and 9LV on the Anzacs is already well integrated with the sonar and other sensors.
“The tight integration that has been achieved is beneficial for ASW operators, and there are good reasons to carry that forward into the future frigates,” they said.
Davies and Mugg suggested there was a potential third path – a hybrid which builds on the strengths of both systems.
That would entail a substantial systems integration challenge but CEA, Saab Australia and Lockheed Martin had all demonstrated they could make things work.
“It’s an enticing prospect – Australia’s future frigates could become some of the most capable vessels in the world,” they said.