HAIFA PORT, Israel — Israel's Elbit Systems unveiled on Monday a prototype of what it claims is the world's first unmanned system for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) missions.
Developed in less than three years with technical and performance input from the Israeli Navy and Israel's Ministry of Defense, the self-funded Seagull can complement or even replace expensive, manpower-intensive frigates or aircraft currently used to hunt submarines at sea, according to executives in Israel.
Outfitted with built-in networked C4I and a remote-controlled crane that operates a variety of sonars and sensors, Elbit said its unmanned Seagulls can perform deep-water missions for four days at a time at line-of-sight ranges of up to 100 kilometers.
"Today, everything in the market used to perform ASW involves very serious and heavy investment, whether we're talking about other submarines, large frigates costing hundreds of millions of dollars, or expensive aircraft like the P-8," said Elad Aharonson, director of Elbit's ISTAR Division.
"Seagull changes the dynamics of anti-submarine operations by creating an inexpensive, unmanned threat to submarines. By transforming small, remotely operated surface platforms into advanced, highly autonomous networked systems, we're bringing asymmetry to the advantage of our customers," Aharonson said.
Ofer Ben Dov, vice president of the Elbit ISTAR Division's naval system and unmanned systems business line, said company research of the proliferating threat tallied some 135 nuclear submarines, 315 diesel or air-independent propulsion submarines, and an "unnumbered" amount of mini and macro subs, more than 50 percent of which are operated by non-NATO nations.
"We're seeking to reverse the ASW equation and gain advantage over submarines, with significantly reduced costs and no risk to crews," Ben Dov said.
Briefing reporters on Monday, Ben Dov said two Seagulls could perform an ASW mission comparable to that of a single frigate and its crew of dozens, at a fraction of the estimated US $220 million cost of the large, manned surface ship.
Aside from the ASW role, executives here said Seagull is also optimized to scour the seas for mines. In its countermine configuration, Seagulls are equipped with a modular mine countermeasures (MCM) suite, which includes dipping sonars and robotics to identify and neutralize undersea threats.
"We want to take the man out of the minefield," Ben Dov said. "Seagull provides unmanned end-to-end mine-hunting operations, from mission planning to on-line operations in known and unknown areas, including area survey, search, detection, classification, identification, neutralization and verification. It's equipped to search the entire water volume and operate underwater robotic vehicles to identify and neutralize mines."
Elbit executives said Seagull, with its modular mission suites, can be used for a variety of other missions, including electronic warfare, harbor protection, and defense of pipelines and offshore energy platforms from frogmen and other threats. Two Seagull USVs can be operated by a single mission control system, which can be located on shore or aboard a mothership, executives said.
The 12-meter-long vessel is powered by twin engines, travels at a top speed of 32 knots and is designed to carry a payload of 2.5 tons. Elbit currently has one operational prototype, which recently completed a series of tests with the Israeli Navy.
For purposes of testing in conditions close to shore, Elbit's USV has accommodated a manned crew that transitions to fully autonomous operations at a press of a button. A second, fully unmanned prototype is expected to be ready soon for sea trials, executives said.
Elbit's Seagull program is based on knowledge gained from Silver Marlin, the firm's first USV initiative launched in 2007; more than 30 years of experience with unmanned aerial vehicles and the company's heavily-honed C4ISR portfolio.
"Silver Marlin was a great learning experience for us. We realized that it's not enough to offer high-performance capabilities for less risky, less costly coast guard and patrol-type missions. We needed to demonstrate to our customers not only the operational and force protectional value, but the enormous savings that can be achieved by opting for the unmanned alternative," Aaronson said.
"That's what we're now fully prepared to demonstrate with Seagull," he added.
Neither Aaronson nor Ben Dov were willing to discuss how much money the company has invested in its Seagull program. However, both executives said they were confident that the investment would pay off, given interest already shown by potential customers in Israel and around the world.