Drone Boats: Next Big Thing for Israel’s Defense Sector?

Elbit’s Seagull hunts down submarines and mines with nary a sailor on board

Elbit Systems' Seagull.
Elbit Systems

It’s Friday afternoon, and several Elbit representatives are standing at Haifa Port alongside their guests, representatives of a foreign country’s defense establishment. The former are explaining to the latter the advantages of the vessels anchored alongside them, in an effort to zero in on a purchase.

It isn’t immediately obvious why the foreign country should purchase these boats. They’re made of aluminum and are only 12 meters long. They have a small passenger compartment toward the bow, behind a crane from which a metal cable is attached to a pulley. Like many similar vessels, this boat, called the Seagull, can serve as a patrol boat, a torpedo boat, an antisubmarine vessel or a minesweeper.

But a naval expert could probably spot the difference immediately. The passenger compartment is significantly smaller than that of similar vessels, with room for only four people, and it has no bathroom, bunks or galley.

Even more interesting is what’s going on below deck, where most of the space is devoted to the computers responsible for the vessel’s operations. The control room is significantly larger than that of similar vessels, as is its climate control infrastructure to preserve the temperature at which the computers operate. Moreover, almost all this boat’s mechanical and electrical parts – the fuses, generators, batteries and alternators – come in pairs.

The reason for this vessel’s unusual structure and redundancies is that it is meant to operate without any people on board, so there will be no one to replace a burnt fuse or fix the generator. If a component fails, it will continue to operate with the replacement component.

But its most attractive aspect isn’t even visible – its price. While a manned minesweeper, for example, can cost as much as $200 million, a similar autonomous vessel costs between $12 million and $25 million. In addition to obviating the need for space for a crew, an autonomous boat requires less investment in physical or electronic defenses (for example, in the mechanism that reduces the vessel’s acoustic signature, making it more difficult to detect).

The next big thing

Elbit’s decision to pursue the manufacture of autonomous naval vessels destined to battle submarines and search for mines is part of the search by Israel’s defense industries for markets and niches that aren’t saturated. These industries, whose business was always based on the Defense Ministry to a significant degree, are now facing a serious financial challenge.

One of the main reasons for this is government pressure to rein in the defense budget. Even the next multiyear defense budget, which will be set after a new government is formed, won’t have much good news for Israel’s arms industries, given the need to contend with an exceptional budget deficit. Even more important, the newest American military aid agreement, signed at the end of Barak Obama’s term as U.S. president, phases out Israel’s right to use that aid to buy weapons from Israeli arms industries.

The use of autonomous vehicles on the battlefield is currently associated with airborne vehicles – drones – a field in which Israeli firms have an international reputation. Although Elbit, Rafael and Israel Aerospace Industries have all been active in the drone boat field for some time now, it has gotten a lot less PR, although the field is developing rapidly.

Elbit is promoting the Seagull as the first boat in the world that wasn’t converted to an autonomous vessel, but was built that way from the outset, and also the first that isn’t intended to be used as a patrol boat, but was developed to search for mines and submarines.

Last year an autonomous sailboat produced in Norway crossed the Atlantic Ocean without any human intervention. In 2020 an autonomous cargo vessel is slated to begin plying the route between the Norwegian cities of Larvik and Narvik. Such vessels have already been integrated into various armed forces around the world.

Why are autonomous boats even needed? A video shown in Elbit’s control center, filmed by an underwater vehicle moving along the seabed dozens of meters below the surface, explains it well. The video shows a kind of mound in the sand along the seabed. At first it looks like an innocent plant or a rock, but in fact it is an underwater mine, half of which is sunk into the ground. In this case it is a manta mine, named after the manta ray.

This mine is more than 80 centimeters in diameter and contains some 800 kilograms of explosives. It can be set off in a variety of ways – by seismic waves caused by movement in the water, noise, or electromagnetic forces. In other cases the mine might have wires attached that can get entangled in the propellers of a passing vessel. Whatever the method, when a boat or ship passes nearby, it will explode. This will create a huge water bubble that will hurtle the vessel above it into the air, and when it falls back down, it will break apart.

One of the selling points of Elbit’s autonomous vessel is that it will not disintegrate from the explosion’s shock wave because it’s so small.

The most prominent instances of the use of such mines have been by the Houthi rebels in Yemen and by the Iranians in their struggle to assume control of the Persian Gulf. But there are dozens of other countries with maritime borders that could be vulnerable to such mining, from the South China Sea to the Black Sea. The cost of a mine is minimal in defense budget terms – around $5,000 – but it could cause millions of dollars in damage.

The cost factor and the desire to preserve human life – the same reasons that the police use robot sappers to neutralize ground explosives – apply beneath the sea as well.

It’s a drag

The drone boats are meant to identify mines using a sonar device that it drags beneath the water’s surface. After a mine is identified, the device is meant to lower a remotely operated vehicle to the seabed via the cable attached to the vessel. The camera on the vehicle identifies the mine and marks it. If a decision is made to destroy it, a hollow charge will be placed near the mine. A more expensive option is to release a remotely operated undersea vehicle carrying an explosive that will attach itself to the mine and blow up in tandem with it.

The way the sea drones deal with mines is reminiscent of how a robotic vacuum cleaner works. Its operator sets the parameters for the areas in which it will work, the points at which it will lower the sonar and the point at which its mission will end. Elbit’s drone boat carries 3,500 liters of fuel in four tanks, enabling it to work for four days without human intervention. The vessel can be remotely controlled from anywhere; Elbit tells of a demonstration held in Israel that was controlled from Australia via satellite.

The economic advantage of drone boats is even greater in battling submarines. Israel is not the only country that has expanded its submarine fleet in recent years; North Korea has more than 80 submarines, China has over 70 and the United States, around 70. Iran has more than 30 submarines, and Turkey has nearly 20.

In a confrontation between a boat and a submarine, the latter has an intrinsic advantage. As a former naval soldier now engaged in the development of undersea weapons put it, “the ability to harm a submarine is limited while the damage it can do is immense.”

Sea drones can change the rules of the game when it comes to countries defending their borders against submarines. A military that uses a sea drone to search for a submarine is putting $10 million to $20 million at risk, depending on the cost of the vessel. But a submarine that tries to intercept a drone boat with a torpedo will thus reveal its presence.

In financial terms, the military operating the submarine would be risking the exposure of a vessel costing hundreds of millions of dollars to take out a boat costing a tenth of that or less.

Beyond sea-based military threats, the financial interests of all countries in sea travel have increased.

Deep-sea drilling technologies have led to the discovery of undersea treasures, like natural gas. The sharp increase in maritime commerce has increased the need to defend the borders of one’s territorial waters.

Some two-thirds of Israel’s imports are transported by sea. More than a million containers, some 60 million tons of cargo, pass through Israel’s ports every year. Shanghai Port, for example, handles 50 times that. An enemy seeking to undermine the commerce at Israeli ports by planting mines could cause immediate damage totalling hundreds of millions of shekels a year.

As a civilian company, Elbit is still not permitted to operate its drone boats on its own because Transportation Ministry regulations still require the presence of a skipper on deck. In the coming months, however, the company is expected to carry out four autonomous missions, for which it will receive a special permit.

The company believes that within 18 months of receiving an order, it will be able to present a customer with a system comprised of two boats and a control station. But it will have to contend with other global companies that have identified the potential – from the French Thales Group and America’s Boeing, and its local Israeli competitors.