Australia to fit warships with anti-missile defense systems

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Tuesday nine war ships set for construction in 2020 will be fitted with long-range anti-missile defense systems to counter the threat of rogue nations.

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks at a meeting with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May at Downing Street, London, Britain, July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Australia’s proposed frigates will use Aegis combat systems, produced by Lockheed Martin, in conjunction with SAAB Australia technology, Turnbull said.

Tensions in the region have spiked considerably in recent months as North Korea conducted a series of tests of its medium- and long-range ballistic missiles, some of which flew over Japan, as well as its sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3.

Pyongyang, which ultimately wants to target the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile, has said its missiles could strike Australia.

“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 in a speech in Sydney.

Work on the frigates is set to begin in 2020, with BAE Systems, Navantia and Fincantieri all competing for the A$35 billion ($27.39 billion) contract.

Turnbull said the decision to award the missile defense system contract allows the three bidders enough time to incorporate Aegis technology into their bids.

Australia is expected to announce the winner of the frigate contract in early 2018.

The decision to fit the frigates - also a cornerstone of Australia’s plan to counter an expected rise in submarine activity in the region - suggests Canberra will use the ships in a dual capacity.

“The missile defense will protect Australia’s forward based forces and in a coalition scenario,” said Euan Graham, director of the national security program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think-tank.

Countering submarines requires vessels that move freely in the region, in contrast to static vessels used for detecting missiles.

The decision to use the Aegis ballistic missile defense systems brings Australia in line with U.S., Japanese and Korean vessels, allowing international cooperation, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, Australia’s navy chief, told reporters in Sydney.

“The choice of the Aegis system allows Australia to plug into the U.S. alliance. They will be able to share data from vessels and potentially aircraft,” said Graham.

The frigates will be the next major component of Australia’s plan to increase defense spending by A$30 billion to be worth A$195 billion, or 2 percent of GDP, by 2021-2022 as Canberra seeks to protect its strategic and trade interests in the Asia-Pacific.

Australia selected French naval contractor DCNS last year to build its fleet of 12 submarines, ahead of other offers from Japan and Germany, one the world’s most lucrative defense contracts.

Reporting by Colin Packham in SYDNEY; Editing by Paul Tait and Michael Perry