Key decisions on the future of Australia's medium-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) requirement are to set to be made by senior defence committees within the next four weeks.

Current plans call for the release of an invitation to register (ITR)in late March, provided the requirement is cleared by the defence capability and investment committee, and by a still-to-be finalised cabinet-level review of Australia's 10-year defence-capability plan.

The ITR is expected to outline a requirement for a medium- to long-range system scaled to fit within aA$350-450 million ($207-266 million) budget. Prospective contenders are describing the requirement, which will replace the Australian Army's MBDA Rapier systems, as "mini-Patriot" or a "Patriot-lite". Candidates include the Euromissile Aster 30, MBDA Vertical Launch Mica, Raytheon surface-launched AMRAAM and Saab Bofors BAMSE.

Release of the ITR has been delayed already from late 2002. The project office advised potential candidates that its selection would be from a choice of up to four bidders.

Contenders are now being advised that if the ITR is released next month, a shortlist of no more than two contenders is to be selected by September, with both being awarded risk-mitigation contracts ahead of a final selection late next year or in early 2005.

The project is due to receive funding approval in the May 2004 defence budget. The project was expected to have a budget of A$1.2 billion, but this was reduced to A$300million in a review in 2000. A 2002 review saw funding raised to the current level. Industry observers say the project's future is in doubt given the limited budget and high level of capability being sought.

Source: Flight International