Israeli USV programme hits the rocks
The Israeli Navy has terminated a programme to use unarmed and armed unmanned surface vessels (USVs) for maritime patrol missions.
Unmanned underwater systems remain under evaluation, but there is no alternative plan for Israel to deploy unmanned surface assets.
This poses a problem for Israeli companies that developed unmanned patrol boats in recent years. Examples include the Protector from Rafael, Seagull from Elbit and Katana (pictured above) from IAI Ramta.
Protector has been in operational service since 2004 and the USV has been used to test-fire Rafael Spike missiles. Undisclosed numbers of Protectors are in service with Israel, Mexico, Singapore and other countries.
Unveiled in 2016 at the Singapore Airshow, the Seagull is designed for MCM and ASW operations, with evaluations ongoing in Israel. Katana was announced in 2014 as a versatile platform for harbour security, EEZ protection and coastal patrol.
The Israeli Navy decision to scrap the USV programme is surprising, as at the outset these vessels were considered to represent a revolutionary capability.
RAdm Eyal Harel, head of Naval Operations Command, told Shephard that the Israel Navy identified an immediate operational need for USVs to perform surface patrol missions — but there were major difficulties associated with these vessels.
‘The problems were water getting into the hull, communications problems and other issues that immediately influenced the USVs’ operational availability. After the picture became clear, we closed the project,’ said Harel.
Protector was designed to perform a number of missions, including strikes on enemy targets with Spike-ER missiles. The USV was used to protect natural gas rigs in the Mediterranean and to monitor the Gaza coastline.
A spokesperson for Rafael told Shephard that ‘changing and new operational needs raised by the customer from time to time are addressed, as we do routinely, in order to provide our users with the optimal solutions for their needs’.
According to an Elbit official, the Israeli Navy recently extended its lease on an unknown number of Seagull SUVs. In 2018, Elbit teamed with Leonardo to develop and demonstrate the capability of Seagull to launch lightweight and mini torpedoes. However, there is no recent updated information on this co-operation.
Shortly after the Israeli Navy performed acceptance tests with Seagull, the USV participated in a joint ASW exercise with the Hellenic Navy in May 2019, using a Helicopter Long-Range Active Sonar (HELRAS) dipping sonar.
The IAI Katana was designed to perform a range of naval and homeland security missions, some of which could be executed remotely. According to the company, the Katana design supports dual-mode operations, meaning that the same vessel could be operated as a USV or as a manned platform with a simple and quick switchover.
Sources estimate that Rafael and Elbit will still try to develop advanced versions of their unmanned vessels, but IAI does not expect to invest in new USV designs.
IAI Ramta now focuses on development of land systems following a company reorganisation. An IAI spokesperson told Shephard that Katana is merely a proof of concept, but ‘if a client will show interest, we can manufacture the [USV] systems to answer its operational needs’.
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