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 currently 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 wouldn't 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.
Capt. Cate Mueller, spokesperson for the U.S. Navy's acquisition office, 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 II 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."
A seagoing BMD capability would minimize terrorist threats to the system, said one senior retired naval officer.
"It's much more difficult to defeat it - a truck bomb doesn't matter," the retired naval officer said. Moreover, "you can move a ship to a particular threat axis. It's much harder for the other guy to plan against."
But Iran, the primary threat in the region, already operates three Russian-built Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines and is acquiring more small subs, all able to threaten ships at sea. But identification of the target may prove difficult, particularly if an Iranian sub was trying to target Saudi but not U. S. ships.
The addition of BMD-capable ships in the gulf would help the United States, which already maintains at least one such ship in the region.
"If the Saudis always have one in the gulf, it makes it easier for the U.S. Navy to meet its commitments in the region," the retired senior naval officer said.
Several other countries already operate the Aegis system or are building it into new warships, and Japan's four Aegis destroyers are BMD-certified. But the transfer of such high-level technology comes with risks - which could become a concern in Congress, particularly after this year's "Arab Spring" featured anti-government uprisings in several countries.
"If you think the kingdom isn't long for this world, a fundamentalist takeover could put a system in the hands of the enemy," the retired senior naval officer observed.
He harkened back to the late 1970s when prerevolutionary Iran, led by the shah, was a U.S. ally. Several highly capable destroyers were under construction for Iran when the shah fell.
Those ultimately were not delivered, but earlier, the U.S. had certified Iran as the only ally to receive F-14 Tomcat fighters equipped with the Phoenix air-to-air missile, then a state-of-the-art capability. Those aircraft and missiles all fell into the hands of the anti-U.S. Iranian government.