Anzac ships field cutting-edge defences

Australia's Anzac frigates were once labelled floating targets, but are now being fitted with a new defensive system regarded as the best in the world.

"My God, it's a missile," the watch officer exclaimed aboard British destroyer HMS Sheffield, four seconds before an Argentinian-launched Exocet slammed into the hull, killing 20 crewmen and dooming the ship.

The 1982 attack during the Falklands War proved a pivotal moment in naval conflict: a relatively inexpensive and readily available weapon fielded by a Third World air force sank a modern warship operated by a highly competent navy.

For it's time, the Exocet was sophisticated technology, and upgraded versions remain in use by navies around the world.

Launched beyond the horizon and flying at speeds up to 1100km/h, the Exocet skims a few metres above the ocean to strike a ship's side.

Australia has long fielded a comparable missile, the US-made Harpoon.

Modern supersonic anti-ship missiles, travelling up to four times the speed of sound, are far more deadly.

So what would have happened had such a missile been fired at one of Australia's Anzac frigates?

It doesn't bear thinking about. In 1998, then junior defence minister Bronwyn Bishop described the Anzacs as "floating targets" because of their limited defensive capabilities.

Now Australia's eight Anzacs are being upgraded with perhaps the best small warship defensive system in the world, and the central element is all-Australian technology.

This is the world's first operational, fully digital phased-array radar, and it's been wholly developed by Australian firm CEA Technologies in a quiet corner of Fyshwick, Canberra's industrial area, which is better known as home of the national capital's sex industry.

Coupled with an upgraded SAAB Technologies Australia computer combat system and the US-made Raytheon Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, Anzacs will be able to defend themselves against even supersonic missiles.

In trials on US Navy ranges off Hawaii in August, HMAS Perth - the first ship equipped with the new system - left senior officers "gobsmacked" by its ability to track and respond to multiple threats, Defence Minister David Johnston says.

The Perth easily downed a Coyote sea-skimming missile target travelling at near three times the speed of sound. It's a far tougher threat than an Exocet and typical of Russian and Chinese anti-ship missiles now entering service.

At that speed, ships have just seconds to respond or die.

Johnston, who showcased the technology to ambassadors and their defence advisers in Canberra last week, said it was a huge achievement, providing Australia's navy with a significant capability edge and had great potential for exports.

"When we see people who have cutting-edge, successful internationally competitive technology, we have got to get out of our seats, shake their hand and seek to promote them and give them some support in cash terms to go forward," he told reporters.

Central to this is the CEAFAR radar. Unlike conventional radars that employ a rotating antenna, this uses six fixed radar panels that provide constant 360-degree scanning out to 60 nautical miles.

Whereas the previous Anzac system could respond to just one threat at a time, the new system can detect, classify and respond to multiple threats in seconds.

This is most comparable to the Aegis combat system aboard US warships, which is also being installed on Australia's new air warfare destroyers.

Aegis can cover a larger area and defend against a ballistic missile attack, but CEAFAR is regarded as cheaper and well suited to smaller vessels and even land defence. About $20 million a system, CEAFAR is about one-third the price.

CEA chief executive Merv Davis said Aegis remained king, but the gap would close as his system was further developed.

"There is not a lot to it," he said. "It fits quite comfortably into relatively small ships. To retrofit is very simple."

The "genuinely world-leading technology" is all-Australian, with the exception of a couple of components that can't be sourced locally.

Commodore Stuart Mayer, chief of staff at navy headquarters, describes it as a game changer.

"This system gives us an order-of-magnitude increase over what we currently have," he said.

CEA was founded in 1983 by a pair of former navy officers, David Gaul and Ian Croser, who are regarded as the geniuses behind the development of digital solid-state phased array radar.

But taking the technology from drawing board to warship hasn't been easy. The 2000 Defence White Paper pointed to the need to improve Anzac defences, and the $675 million upgrade was launched in 2003.

As with other projects involving developing new technology, problems emerged and in 2008 it was placed on the projects-of-concern list for special attention.

It was decided to proceed with installation on a single vessel to prove it worked.

The key test was proving effectiveness against a supersonic threat, which it has.

Work on the next vessel, HMAS Arunta, is near completion, and all Anzacs will be upgraded by mid-2017.

Source AAP

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