Surface Forces: Third Generation Robotic Warship

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November 15, 2019: After several years of development, an Israeli firm began marketing its new Seagull USV (unmanned surface vessel) this year. The last development task was completed in early 2019 when the Israeli navy successfully tested the use of HELRAS (Helicopter Long-Range Active Sonar) active low-frequency dipping sonar that is normally used by a helicopter to pinpoint the location of a submarine before launching a lightweight anti-submarine torpedo. Seagull can carry and launch one of those torpedoes in addition to HELRAS.

While Seagull development concentrated on mine detection and destruction, the remotely controlled boat can carry 2.5 tons of specialized equipment and has been tested with many systems, usually in the presence of officers from various navies as well as representatives from the European and American companies that build the mine-clearing, anti-submarine, EW (Electronic Warfare) and anti-swimmer (frogman) systems Seagull users can purchase and use. Improved relations between Israel and the Persian Gulf Arab states make those nations potential customers. Iran is a mutual enemy and Iran poses several naval threats to its Arab neighbors. Seagull offers a cost-effective way to deal with numerous Iranian threats like small submarines, naval mines and armed speedboats. Standard equipment on Seagull enables it to operate safely in areas containing other ships, both large and small. Seagull navigation sensors can automatically detect and avoid other ships as well as underwater obstacles.

In mid-2017 Seagull demonstrated its ability to perform MCM (mine countermeasures) missions (finding and destroying bottom mines) off the Belgium coast in rough weather. Seagull was designed to operate in Sea State 5 (six meter waves and 38 kilometer an hour winds) conditions and survive Sea State 7 (nine meter waves and 59 kilometers an hour winds).

Each Seagull system consists of two Seagulls and a base station. The Seagull is based on a small manned boat and retains the wheelhouse. From a distance, it looks like a manned boat. In fact, Seagull is either operating autonomously or remotely by human operators using base station control equipment that can be up to a hundred kilometers away on land or a manned ship. The base station crew includes the three people needed to operate Seagull and its equipment. For MCM work, one Seagull carries several types of sensors (onboard, towed and autonomous sonars) while the other Seagull carries a minisub for getting a closer look at bottom mines. Small wire-guided torpedoes are used for destroying subs or bottom mines.

A Seagull USV is 12 meters (39 feet) long, has a top speed of 57 kilometers an hour and can stay at sea for up to 100 hours (four days) at a time. Each Seagull system will cost from $12 million to $30 million depending on installed equipment. Seagull can do the work of a manned MCM (mine countermeasures) ship costing three times as much or, when it comes to ASW (anti-submarine warfare) operations, a frigate or corvette costing ten times as much. Seagull is a lot cheaper to maintain and operate and puts far fewer personnel at risk.

Seagull also has an RWS (Remote Weapons Station) armed with a 12.7mm machine-gun. When a threat is detected an operator can control the machine-gun or if Seagull communications are jammed the USV can be programmed to fire on certain types of targets autonomously. This makes Seagull an effective way to guard ports and offshore facilities. The Israeli Navy plans to use them to guard Israeli offshore natural gas wells in addition to the pipeline carrying the gas to shore.

Seagull is not a radical new concept but rather the result of decades of unmanned aerial, land and naval vehicle development. The Israelis have been in the lead in most categories. The American Predator UAV was based on Israeli designs. Israeli firms continue the development of these autonomous systems. For example in 2013 an Israeli firm presented a larger (11 meter/34 foot) version of their original nine meter Protector USV. This one was armed with a water cannon and Spike missiles. The 2013 model was more stable in rough seas and can stay out for over 12 hours at a time.

The original Israeli USV was the 2005 version of the Protector, a four ton, 9 meter (30 foot) long speedboat that could move at up to 72 kilometers an hour and was armed with an RWS 12.7mm machine-gun using night vision and a laser rangefinder. Both versions of Protector were equipped with radar, GPS, and vidcams, as well as a public address system, to give orders to boats that should not be there. All these features were carried over to the Seagull.

Protector has been used since 2005 in places like the Israeli coast, the Persian Gulf, and Singapore for port and coast patrol. Protector can be controlled from an operator ashore or in a nearby ship, usually out to the horizon or at least 10-20 kilometers distant. The original Protector could stay out eight hours at a time. The one big shortcoming was Protector being built for speed, not rough seas. So when the weather turns bad, and the waves get higher, Protector has to be brought in. Protector is used to patrol the Gaza coast and the waters around the Lebanese border. These USVs were also used off Gaza during the 2009 and 2012 wars with Hamas.

Seagull development was driven in part by the need to guard the new Israeli offshore natural gas fields and the pipelines moving the gas to shore. Most of these natural gas operations are near the maritime border with Lebanon. Seagull is being offered to trusted allies who need a less expensive way to deal with MCM and ASW operations. NATO nations, especially those with coasts bordering the North Sea and Baltic Sea are particularly concerned about MCM and ASW capabilities now that Russia has become more aggressive.

 


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