In response to the threat posed by North Korea, Australia has decided to equip its future frigates with an advanced missile defense system.
Speaking at a maritime conference in Sydney this week, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that the nine frigates Australia is purchasing will feature the American-made Aegis combat management system. “Recent events in our region have proven that Australia’s future frigates must be equipped to defend Australia from the threat of medium and long-range missile attacks,” Turnbull said, the Australian reported. “This technology will enable the future frigates to engage missiles at long range.”
According to the U.S. Navy , the Aegis combat system “is a centralized, automated, command-and-control (C2) and weapons control system that was designed as a total weapon system, from detection to kill. The heart of the system is the AN/SPY-1, an advanced, automatic detect and track, multi-function phased-array radar.” It can engage over a hundred enemy targets at ranges of around 150km. The Australian frigates will feature a unique tactical interface built by Saab Australia, which will allow the Aegis system to integrate with computerized radars developed by the Australian firm, CEA Technologies. The frigates may also employ local rockets.
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As the U.S. Navy notes, the Aegis system can engage a number of different targets including anti-air, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare. However, as Andrew Davies, director of the defense and strategy program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute told The Australian , the system is not very capable at dealing with the speeds of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Indeed, as Davies points out, its best shot at successfully engaging North Korean ICBMs would be to intercept them during boost phase. This would require that the ships be stationed right outside North Korean waters. Still, Aegis is considered one of the best systems in the world for dealing with shorter range ballistic and cruise missiles.
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Under its Future Frigates/Project SEA 500 program, Australia is planning to build nine new frigates to replace its current fleet of eight Anzac-class frigates. The contract is expected to be awarded next year with construction to begin in 2020. BAE Systems, Italy’s Fincantieri and Spain's Navantia are bidding for the contract to build the ships, which is expected to be worth over $24 billion ($35 billion Australian dollars). According to the Wall Street Journal , “Spain’s Navantia is the front-runner to win the contest, people in the defense industry and people close to the selection process say, having offered a vessel design based on Australia’s new destroyer fleet.” Despite the presence of the Aegis systems, the frigates primary purpose is expected to be anti-submarine warfare.
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As The Diplomat's Franz Stefan Gady points out , the new frigates will not be the only Australian warships equipped with Aegis combat systems. “The new Hobart-class of air warfare destroyers, based on the Navantia-designed Álvaro de Bazán-class frigate (aka F-100), have been built around the Aegis combat management technology,” Gady writes.
He has previously written about the Hobart-class destroyers, “Each ship will be equipped with the AN/SPY-1, an advanced, automatic detect and track, multi-function phased-array radar system, which will be paired with the MK 41 Vertical Launching System, capable of firing Raytheon’s Standard Missiles (SM) of all variants as well as the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile. The SPY-1 is the heart of the Aegis combat system.”
Australia has also signed on to purchase seventy-two F-35 Joint Strike Fighters . This is notable because the F-35 can greatly enhance the range and effectiveness of the Aegis combat systems. As Second Line of Defense’s Robin Laird explained back in 2012:
Upcoming tests will support a launch/engage-on-remote concept that links the Aegis ship to remote sensor data, increasing the coverage area and responsiveness. Once this capability is fully developed, SM-3 missiles––no longer constrained by the range of Aegis radar to detect an incoming missile––can be launched sooner and therefore fly farther to defeat the threat.
Imagine this capability linked to an F-35, which can see more than 800 miles throughout a 360-degree approach. U.S. allies are excited about the linkage prospects and the joint evolution of two highly upgradable weapon systems. Combining Aegis with the F-35 means joining their sensors for wide-area coverage.
In other words, the superior ISR capabilities of the F-35 will be used to enhance the Aegis combat system’s effectiveness. That’s because data collected by F-35s would be sent back to Aegis-equipped vessels out at sea, which would use their missile and missile defense capabilities to greater effect. In order to realize this capability, however, Australia would have to purchase SM-3 missiles, which some local news reports have suggested Canberra was considering in the past. Regardless, Australia’s adoption of the Aegis system will more closely integrate it into the regional U.S. alliance system. Japan and South Korea also have Aegis-equipped ships, and Tokyo is considering augmenting this with a land-based version. Moreover, both those countries also are buying F-35s.
In this way, America is locking in and enhancing its military alliances through technological means. It is also enhancing these allies ability to work amongst themselves. Of course, these capabilities could be used against a country like North Korea, but also one like China as well.
Zachary Keck ( @ZacharyKeck) is a former managing editor of The National Interest .
Image: A Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) is launched from the guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie (CG 70), during a joint Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Navy ballistic missile flight test. Approximately three minutes later, the SM-3 intercepted a unitary (non-separating) ballistic missile threat target, launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Barking Sands, Kauai, Hawaii. Within moments of this launch, the USS Lake Erie also launched a Standard Missile-2 (SM-2) against a hostile air target in order to defend herself. The test was the eighth intercept, in 10 program flight tests. The test was designed to show the capability of the ship and its crew to conduct ballistic missile defense and at the same time defend herself. This test also marks the 27th successful hit-to-kill intercept in tests since 2001.