RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, April 12 (UPI) -- Saudi Arabia has recently shown interest in medium-sized U.S. warships as part of its naval buildup to counter Iran, particularly surface vessels capable of countering asymmetric and air threats.
This is a key element in Riyadh's program known as Saudi Naval Expansion Program II, worth as much as $23 billion over 10 years, which saw the light of day after the 1990-91 Gulf War triggered by Iraq's conquest of Kuwait.
The U.S. Navy disclosed April 8 that Riyadh's Ministry of Defense and Aviation had asked Washington for surface warships with integrated air and missile defenses, helicopters, patrol craft and base infrastructure, such as hardened command centers, docks and training facilities.
The Navy said it could probably put together a rough cost estimate by May.
As far as is known, the Saudis made no mention of specific classes of ship. But they have long been interested in the U.S. Littoral Combat Ship, a corvette-size warship, but want it to be armed with Lockheed Martin's Aegis air-defense system.
There are two U.S. LCS designs, both fast and maneuverable to counter asymmetrical operations such as those that the naval wing of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is known to favor.
They carry two SH-60 Seahawk helicopters and Mk 110 57mm guns and have a top speed of 47 knots.
Lockheed Martin has the Independence-class version, while the Freedom-class ship is built by General Dynamics. Both variants are in service with the U.S. Navy for evaluation.
No U.S.-built medium surface craft is currently armed with Aegis. But Lockheed Martin's vice president for business development, Paul Lemmo, has said his company would offer a multi-role version of its LCS built by its maritime systems division, possibly fitted with Aegis.
The potential size of the initial Saudi order is likely to be around a dozen vessels. It's likely that U.S. shipbuilders would offer a new frigate-class ship armed with Aegis rather than an LCS.
The only frigate types equipped with Aegis are Norway's 5,200-ton Nansen class and Brazil's 6,200-ton Bazan class.
These are designed for deep water operations, while the Saudis are looking more at vessels to be used in the shallower and more restricted waters of the Gulf, across which any Iranian naval threat would come.
It's entirely possible that the field could be widened to include non-U.S. vessels if the Americans cannot produce what Riyadh wants.
It is not clear whether Riyadh's SNEP requirements fall within the $67 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia proposed by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama in October 2010.
That sale, with deliveries over 15-20 years, covers 84 Boeing F-15S fighters, upgrades for another 70 currently in Saudi service, General Dynamics Land Systems Abrams M1A2 tanks and more than 120 helicopters.
It is the largest arms sale in U.S. history and has a naval component that is believed to involve advanced helicopter-carrying Offshore Patrol Vessels. That could include the new LCS ships.
Saudi Arabia's 13,500 man navy has two fleets, one, the bigger of the two, based at Jubail on the kingdom's eastern coast on the Persian Gulf; the other western fleet in the Red Sea headquartered at Jeddah.
The western fleet's primary mission in the event of hostilities would be protect Saudi Arabia's oil export facilities which are concentrated on the gulf coast in the Eastern Province.
It would also have to ensure, along with the naval forces of other Gulf Arab states, that the chokepoint Strait of Hormuz, the only way in and out of the Gulf, is not closed by the Iranians and a fifth of the world's oil supplies cut off.
The Saudis have also indicated they planned to upgrade their marine and naval special forces, again largely to counter potential threats from Iran.
Right now, the Royal Saudi Naval Forces' principal combat ships are three French-built al-Riyadh-class destroyers armed with MM-40 Exocet anti-ship missiles and four Madina-class F3000 La Fayette stealth frigates built by France's DCN yards in Lorient.
Riyadh at one point considered acquiring 6-8 submarines, with a price tag of $4 billion-$6 billion. But the program was shelved
However, Iran has four Russian Kilo-class submarines, so the Saudis will have to maintain, if not beef up, their anti-submarine warfare capability.