LONDON — The long-awaited deal to choose the frigates for Saudi Arabia's Eastern Fleet modernization program could be closed before the end of the year, a knowledgeable source said, and the choice of ship will come as little surprise — a variant of Lockheed Martin's littoral combat ship (LCS).
A letter of request (LoR) from the Saudi Navy that detailed requirements for the program was signed in early August, the source said, and the Saudis have reportedly asked the US Navy and Lockheed to complete a letter of agreement (LoA) by November. After that, it’s up to the Saudis to agree to the US Foreign Military Sales program and sign.
Competition has been fierce between France and the US for the Saudi Naval Expansion Program. The French hold most contracts to modernize the Western Fleet, based in the Red Sea. Lockheed Martin and the US Navy have been working strenuously to seal an Eastern Fleet deal.
The Saudi Eastern Fleet is based in the Arabian Gulf.
The current LoR — one of several exchanged this year between the Saudis and the US — calls for four frigates able to operate Sikorsky MH-60R helicopters.
A deal for 10 MH-60Rs was announced in August. Sikorsky is in the process of being acquired by Lockheed.
Earlier this year, the Saudis reportedly asked for ships armed with an "Aegis or like" combat system using a "SPY-1F or similar radar." According to the knowledgeable source, the Saudis dropped their requirement for an Aegis combat system as too expensive, and the ship is likely to feature an enhanced version of the Airbus Group TRS-3D radar fitted on US Navy Freedom-class LCSs and US Coast Guard Legend-class national security cutters.
Earlier LoRs also specified an ability to launch SM-2 Standard surface-to-air missiles, and the ships are expected to be fitted with a 16-cell Mark 41 vertical launch system that can accommodate those and other weapons. The ships will carry two fire control illuminator radars.
The Saudi ships are expected to be armed with a 76mm OTO Melara gun, replacing the 57mm found on US LCSs.
The Saudi ships will still feature an aft mission bay with a stern ramp, as in Freedom-class ships, but will do away with the forward two mission bays fitted in those LCSs.
The propulsion plant is likely to be the same as in Freedom-class ships, although the Saudis may choose different waterjets. Top speed is expected to be in the 37-knot range.
Earlier LoRs specified six corvettes of about 2,500 tons, able to operate an MH-60R helicopter. It's not clear what designs are considered front-runners, but the Saudis are said to be in discussions with Spanish shipbuilder Navantia, which builds several designs that could be considered.
The Eastern Fleet expansion program also includes patrol boats, three maritime patrol aircraft, and 30 to 50 UAVs — together with the 10ten ships, the entire program is expected to cost between $16 billion and $20 billion.
The four large frigates are expected to take up about 20 percent to 25 percent of the total. Saudi Arabia earlier this year budgeted $3.5 billion for the program, money that needs to be spent in calendar 2015.
If the deal is agreed upon, it would become the first international sale for any US littoral combat ship.