ABU DHABI — A second letter of request (LoR) from the Saudi government detailing requirements for the Eastern Fleet replacement program was delivered to the US Navy in February, barely a month after an initial request was sent, according to sources here at the International Defence Exposition show.
The move highlights a heightened pace in developments related to the Saudi Naval Expansion Program, a project that could be worth as much as US $16 billion.
Competition has been fierce between French suppliers, who hold the preponderance of contracts in support of Saudi Arabia's western, or Red Sea fleet, and the US. Transmission of the LoRs to the US Navy's International Program Office could indicate the Saudis are leaning strongly toward a US buy.
If so, the Eastern Fleet plan also offers the strongest potential case yet for the first foreign sale of a version of the US Navy's littoral combat ship (LCS).
The February LoR offered a few more details and clarified some issues from the January document, sources said. As before, the Saudis did not list specific ship designs, but rather gave guidelines for their requirements. Among the highlights:
- Four 3,500-ton "frigate-like warships" capable of anti-air warfare, armed with an eight-to-16-cell vertical launch system (VLS) capable of launching Standard SM-2 missiles; fitted with an "Aegis or like" combat system using "SPY-1F or similar" radars; able to operate Sikorsky MH-60R helicopters; with a speed of 35 knots.
- Six 2,500-ton warships with combat systems compatible with the frigates, able to operate MH-60R helos.
- 20 to 24 fast patrol vessels about 40 to 45 meters long, powered by twin diesels.
- 10 "maritime helicopters" with characteristics identical to the MH-60R.
- Three maritime patrol aircraft for coastal surveillance.
- 30 to 50 UAVs, some for maritime use, some to be shore-based.
The Saudis are said to be not interested in developing new designs, but rather want "proven capability" in their purchases.
Some reports indicated the Saudis want the shipbuilder to be the prime contractor for the program, but not to exclude Lockheed Martin, prime contractor for the Freedom-class LCS built at Fincantieri Marinette Marine. Such a requirement, however, is not in the LoR.
Lockheed Martin and Austal USA have offered versions of their littoral combat ships fitted with VLS and phased-array radars, including the SPY-1F, both for export and most recently for the US Navy's Small Surface Combatant (SSC) competition conducted in 2014. In December, the US Navy chose to forgo Aegis and VLS on its SSCs, now designated as frigates.
Other than the LCS/SSC/frigate designs, there are no other US designs in production that would fit the 3,500-ton parameters of the Saudi frigate.
The Saudis have long been said to be interested in the Lockheed LCS fitted with Aegis, SPY-1F and VLS, and the details in the LoR closely match characteristics of Lockheed's Multi-Mission Surface Combatant Ship (SCS) using the same 118-meter-long hull as that on current LCSs for the US Navy. The Saudis are widely reported not to be so interested in the ship's modular capabilities, although a reduced version of the mission bay features of the ships is expected to be part of the design.
It is not clear what ships the Saudis might have in mind for the 2,500-ton warships, although a stripped down LCS might fit those parameters. There is some thought, sources said, that the ships could be versions of the LCS but without Aegis. Earlier reports indicated the Saudis were asking for 12 of these ships, but those reports were either wrong or the number has been modified.
It is also not clear what the fast patrol craft could be. The US Navy has begun buying the Mark VI patrol boat, a craft that fits many of the Saudi parameters, but those craft are distinctly smaller, at 25 meters.
Another question mark is the maritime patrol aircraft. The Saudis may be interested in the Boeing P-8A Poseidon now being fielded by the US Navy, or some other aircraft.
Driving the apparent sense of urgency in Saudi Arabia, sources said, is the approval of $3.5 billion for the Eastern Fleet in the 2015 defense budget. The Saudis reportedly wish to decide on the four frigates this year and use the 2015 allocation as payment; the rest of the program would follow in subsequent years.
The initial LoR was transmitted to the US shortly before the Jan. 23 death of the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah. His successor, King Salman, however, was the defense minister at the time of the LoR's transmission, and sources here said the new regime continues to strongly favor the Eastern Fleet plan.
It is not clear from the LoR where the ships are expected to be built, although the frigates would likely be built in the US.
The only other significant US design built in recent years for a foreign customer is the 500-ton Ambassador Mark III class of missile corvettes recently completed for Eqypt. Those four ships, intended to defend the Suez Canal, were built by VT Halter Marine in Pascagoula, Mississippi, but their details don't seem to fit the Saudi LoR.