Israeli unmanned boats deliver firepower on the high seas

African states are increasingly confronted by maritime crime and insecurity. One way to address the security of a country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) could be unmanned surface vessels, which are being developed at a rapid pace, including by Israeli companies.

To protect the natural resources in the EEZ, which stretch 200 nautical miles from a country’s coastline, countries need almost constant presence in the open seas. One option is unmanned surface vehicles (USVs).

Israel recently discovered huge reservoirs of natural gas in the Mediterranean and these are threatened by the Hezbollah terror organization in Lebanon. This threat accelerated the development of advanced USVs by some Israeli defence companies. Rafael was the first to develop such a system. The company’s Protector USV last year proved its capability to launch Spike ER missiles.

According to Rafael, this new capability allows pin-point attack of land or naval targets, enabling safe vessel operation from a remote-controlled vessel, with no risk to the operating force.

The Protector USV has been in use since 2004. Rafael has recently supplied a significant number of Protectors to a number of navies and civilian bodies around the world, in accordance with the growing need for a remotely-operated vessel with modular payload carrying capabilities.

The Protector can carry a variety of weapons and equipment, including a water cannon, electronic warfare systems for protection and escort of naval vessels, mine countermeasures equipment, the Toplite electro-optical long-range detection and tracking system, and Spike missiles – these can be launched in sea state 3 when waves are 0.5 to 1.5 meters high. It can also fit the Mini-Typhoon stabilized gun mount.

Rafael does not release data on clients, but a company source mentioned the situation in the Bab al-Mandab strait that separates the Arabian Peninsula from east Africa and that links the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. “The Houthis rebels in Yemen control the strait and have caused heavy damage to navy and civil ships mainly by launching missiles and rockets.”

Some Western navies operating in the troubled area are confronted by a growing threat as the rebels have expanded their presence into western Yemen around a vital maritime corridor that controls access to the Red Sea, a potential threat for some of the 8 per cent of global trade that runs through the Suez Canal. About 4 per cent of the global oil supply, much of it from Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, passes through the strait.

On July 29, 2017, pro-Houthi forces, referring themselves as the “Yemeni Navy,” released a statement taking responsibility for an attack, which they said occurred in the Red Sea off the coast of the port city of Mocha, Yemen.

According the Houthi-controlled SABA news agency, the next day, the insurgents killed 12 UAE personnel, wounded another 23, and damaged a nearby minesweeper at the same time. There was no information about the method of attack.

The Houthis attacks against navy and commercial ships are performed by Chinese made C-802 missiles and other weapons like anti-tank rockets launched from speed boats.

“In such an arena, the protector with the Spike ER missiles is the best solution for protecting such a vital connection between seas,” the Rafael official said.

Intelligence sources say that the Houthis have been building capabilities to perform “Swarm Attacks” using a number of high speed boats.

Rafael reached the conclusion that all the existing defence methods against such attacks are not effective. “We decided to use an unmanned vessel as the platform for such a protection system. The Protector was designed from the start as an unmanned platform and therefore is the ideal platform for such a mission.”

According to Rafael, the Protector has proved itself so far mainly in performing Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR).

Elbit systems, another Israeli major defence company has developed the Seagull USV. This is a 12-meter long vessel that can be operated from a mother-ship or from shore stations. It provides multi-mission capabilities including Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Mine Counter Measures (MCM), Electronic Warfare (EW), maritime security and underwater commercial missions.

An Elbit systems source added that the Seagull provides mission endurance of more than four days and features C4I capabilities for enhanced situation awareness.

Last year the Seagull participated in MCM trials held by the Dutch and Belgian navies in the North Sea, and according to Elbit systems demonstrated superior performance in sea state 6, at winds exceeding 35 knots and 1.5 meter high waves.

In late 2017 the Seagull participated in a joint exercise between the Israeli Navy and the British Royal Navy in Haifa Bay.

During the exercise the USV performed a Mine Counter Measure (MCM) mission, scanning and charting a secure path for HMS Ocean, the Royal Navy helicopter carrier. Once encountering mine-like-objects, the Seagull alerted HMS Ocean to avoid them, thus securing its safe route. The Seagull performed the mission while being remotely operated from a Mission Control Station onshore. Additionally, the Seagull took part in a tactical manoeuvring exercise and sailed in formation with the Navy vessels.

Earlier this year the Seagull took part in a joint anti-submarine warfare exercise with the Israeli and French navies in the Mediterranean. An ASW force that included two Israeli ASW vessels, a frigate and an ASW helicopter of the Marine National and the Seagull, performed ASW missions against an Israeli Navy submarine.

Elbit said the Seagull offers navies a true force multiplier delivering enhanced performance to naval operations, reducing risk to human life and dramatically cutting procurement and operating costs.

And Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) has also joined the trend and developed the Katana USV that supports a wide range of applications for homeland security and protection of exclusive economic zones, including harbour security, patrol of shallow coastal and territorial waters, surface warfare and offshore platform protection.

An IAI source told defenceWeb that the system’s dual operational mode allows fully autonomous capabilities, controlled via an advanced command and control station, as well as a manned combat operational mode. “Based on a proven operational implementation of a USV system, Katana allows for execution of a wide variety of missions, including provision of an early-warning situational picture, classifying, identifying and tracking distant targets, and their eventual interception if required,” a company source said.

IAI’s says that the Katana’s features include autonomous navigation, collision avoidance, and an advanced control system. The vessel can be equipped with various payloads including electro-optical devices, line of site (LOS) and Non-line-of-site data link communication systems, advanced maritime radar system and different kinds of integrated weapon systems.

The IAI source said that the USV has completed sea trials and that there are negotiations with potential customers.

Meteor Aerospace, a new Israeli company has also understood the potential in USVs and developed the Orca. The Orca vessel is a 13 metres long, and weighs eight tons. According to Meteor Aerospace to enable manned operation of the Orca vessel at the flip of a switch, Orca has an advanced cabin for a crew of two – a navigator and a systems operator.

Powered by two diesel engines and a surface drive, Orca can achieve speeds of over 60 knots under favourable sailing conditions. Range is over 700 nautical miles. Orca also carries an independent diesel electrical generator and batteries, enabling it to keep station while operating its sensors and communications for many days, with its main engines shut down – conserving fuel.

The Orca can carry a wide range of mission systems, including a remote weapon station (RWS) on its bow, a stabilized observation system on a telescopic mast, maritime radar, and different types of data links.

The Israeli company says that the Orca has provision to deploy a sonar sensor at the stern. In addition, Orca is configured to carry and launch Meteor Aerospace’s long range strike missiles.

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