WASHINGTON — Manufacturers are pitching new products for neutralizing torpedoes, the most dogged enemy of surface ships, as those weapons are becoming smart enough to tip the balance of power in naval battles.
Judging by the offerings at the Euronaval trade show in Paris last month, there is a trend among developers to offer kinetic, or hard-kill, interceptors capable of overcoming the seeker trickery that large, modern torpedoes now boast to sniff out targets.
The concept of blowing up torpedoes as they approach follows a trend of decoys becoming increasingly ineffective against torpedoes capable of turning around and reengaging a ship after missing it on the first pass — potentially for hours, said Johannes Peters, a naval analyst at Kiel University in Germany.
The global proliferation of torpedo-carrying submarines makes the challenge all the more grave, he said. “Submarines are the weapon of choice to challenge a superior surface navy,” he explained.
Germany’s Atlas Elektronik, which is part of ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, exhibited the state of play of its SeaSpider anti-torpedo torpedo at Euronaval. The firm aims to begin production of the surface vessel version in 2025, with a submarine-borne variant following a few years later, a company official said.
In practice, the SeaSpider would launch within seconds of detecting an incoming torpedo, and then destroy the weapon at short range, said the official. The surface variant could fit aboard large surface vessels like frigates, as well as smaller vessels like corvettes and offshore patrol vessels, and be installed in dedicated fixed launchers.
Also at Euronaval, Israel’s DSIT Solutions presented a new counter-torpedo suite for submarines. It combines the company’s hull-mounted sonar sensor and parent company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems’ anti-torpedo defense system. The setup involves a decoy named Torbuster, launched at a safe distance from the ship, designed to “seduce” the incoming torpedo with acoustic signals, only to blow up when its near, Rafael explains on its website.
According to Hanan Marom, a Rafael vice president of marketing and business development, the company has an “internal project” to make Torbuster work from aboard surface ships. The variant must be smaller, lighter and deployable by way of existing rocket launchers on vessels, Marom said.
But the technology may not work against more advanced seekers programmed to find and follow a ship’s wake. Simply put, those wake-homing torpedoes are feared because they are impossible to seduce through song. The weapons engage their targets by aligning themselves with the bubbles of a ship’s propulsion system — it may take several passes to identify the right ship — and approach from behind.
“Torpedoes are no longer the simple impact-fuze weapons we know from classic movies like ‘Das Boot,’ ” Peters said. Modern torpedoes are typically connected by long wires to submarine operators, enabling eccentric maneuvers, he explained. Some can also travel stealthily on electric propulsion.
Rather than directly hitting targets, they are programmed to explode below a ship, launching the vessel upward and causing it to break apart up on the fall, according to Peters.
In naval warfare, once a torpedo is fired, “you normally don’t have much a of a chance,” he added.
Still, companies like Atlas, DSIT and Rafael claim they can change the odds with their packages of sensors and interceptors.
According to a ThyssenKrupp official at Euronaval, more than a half dozen navies are interested in the new technology when it comes to market, including the United States and the U.K.
The German Navy was interested, but an acquisition fell through for “political” reasons, according to Peters. It remains to be seen if the service’s new ships, like the F126 frigate, will feature the SeaSpider, particularly as Germans have a new threat perception of Russia following Moscow’s assault on Ukraine, he added.
Atlas previously advertised the SeaSpider’s utility in shallow waters, like those of the Baltic Sea — Germany’s maritime connection with Russia.
For now, SeaSpider may have more luck on the other side of the Atlantic. Atlas and ThyssenKrupp in 2019 struck an industry partnership with rocket engine-maker Magellan Aerospace, based in Canada, to further develop the technology.
A ThyssenKrupp spokesman told Defense News the company is keeping an eye on the Canadian Surface Combatant program — estimated to cost $62 billion to design and buy 15 of the envisioned multirole ships — as a prospective user. But no sale had been made to that end.
According to American contractor Lockheed Martin, the program nears a key design review milestone at the end of the year. The Royal Canadian Navy wants those vessels to start replacing older ships ships in the early 2030s.
Seth J. Frantzman in Jerusalem and Vivienne Machi in Paris contributed to this report.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.