JERUSALEM, Israel — Late last month, the U.S. 5th Fleet began a three-week event called Digital Horizon, an exercise aimed at incorporating unmanned surface vessels into operations in the Gulf of Oman.
Among the companies that sent platforms is Israel’s Elbit Systems, one of Israel’s three largest defense companies. Elbit sent its Seagull Unmanned Surface Vessel, or USV, one of the largest of the uncrewed platforms to participate. Elbit is one of 17 industry partners for Digital Horizon operating fifteen types of systems.
U.S. Naval Forces, Central Command said that during Digital Horizon, “U.S. 5th Fleet’s efforts are focused on improving what U.S. and regional navies are able to see above, on and below the water.”
“Admiral Brad Cooper has a strong vision of focus on innovation and partnership,” said Jeff Hoyle, Elbit America’s Vice President of Naval Systems, who leads the company team taking part in the operation in Bahrain. “We are partners of the U.S. and Israel Navy so we align with that vision.” He described Task Force 59 as “defining the future of naval operations and working hard to make it successful.”
The Seagull USV has been deployed with the Israeli navy for seven years and Hoyle says it is also used by an unnamed navy in Asia.
“Seagull is unique at Digital Horizon as it is the only multi-mission vessel participating,” he said. “Digital Horizon is focused on maritime domain awareness but Seagull can do mine countermeasures and [anti-submarine warfare] and swap between those missions.”
The USC has the appearance of a small patrol boat, unlike some of the other smaller unmanned platforms including the Saildrone, which resembles a wind surfboard and sail. It can take personnel on board and this can aid in navigating out of congested harbors.
A former submarine commander, Hoyle sees value in different types of unmanned platforms.
Larger vessels “can carry more sensors and payloads,” he said. “Seagull is largest vessel participating and it gives them the ability to do multiple missions. Smaller vessels are good for maritime domain awareness and can tow maybe a passive anti-submarine warfare sensor. And the larger vessel can be used for interception of contacts of interest and in conjunction with smaller vessels in ASW.”
Seagull is also capable of deploying a small unmanned system made by Easy Aerial. Elbit says it can transit several hundred kilometers during a mission at a top speed of 18-20 knots and keep operating for up to two weeks without need to refuel.
“It has significant on-station time for any mission,” Hoyle said. “This vessel in Bahrain is the second generation…it has improved reliability to let it stay on station; it has two electrical generators that provide redundancy, and more fuel capacity and more endurance and reliability.”
Seagull has a 5,000 liter diesel engine made by Cummins and is outfitted it with a new sensor called Spectral which is an Elbit systems product. The sensor has EO and IR and Hoyle says it is the only payload at Digitial Horizon that has a short wave IR capability. The sensor, which has backups on board, can detect and track threats and has automatic target recognition and has artificial intelligence.
Israeli defense companies see new opportunities in the wake of the Abraham Accords, which have provided Israel business opportunities in Bahrain and the UAE.
“This event has been very good for Elbit in that the US Navy invited many countries in the region to observe what’s happening with the exercise and multiple nations in the region and beyond made the trip to Bahrain to see what the US Navy is up to and it gives us exposure of Seagull and its capabilities,” Hoyle said. “There are potentially multiple nations interested in Seagull for missions they are concerned about and they may integrate it into their navies and then the US Navy desires to have an enduring capability for USV operations in the 5th fleet and so we are hopeful Seagull will be part of that and continue beyond Digital Horizon.”
Elbit hopes to take part in follow-up exercises, such as the International Maritime Exercise next year and explore opportunities with other US fleets. The 7th fleet in the India-Pacific region, and the 6th in the Mediterranean and 4th in South America all have needs for unmanned capabilities.
As USVs become more common, the way UAS systems have among ground and air forces, there will be changes in how they are deployed and the types that are procured.
“An analogy I like to use is that these USVs are like the smart phones of the sea,” says Hoyle. “The smart phone gives us a lot of capability and provides a lot of information to us and companies that operate them. You don’t have that at sea; but these types of vessels operate in that fashion and they provide large volumes of information that gives headquarters better decision making abilities.”
The current framework in the Gulf would not be traditional procurement of unmanned systems yet. Instead it may take the form of an operations support agreement,,
“It’s linked to the unmanned programs of record, lessons learned coming out of 5th fleet at cutting edge of operating USVs feed to medium and common USV programs so that is another avenue perhaps [where] Seagull vessels or technology on Seagull could be procured,” according to Hoyle.
Hoyle sees many advantages to unmanned systems like Seagull being deployed. It is less observable than a frigate or destroyer and less expensive to deploy. It can be used for mine clearance and anti-submarine missions, meaning human crew are not put in harms way by these more dangerous missions.
Hoyle points out the de-mining operations are getting increased attention during the war in Ukraine because Russia and Ukraine are using mines in the Black Sea. He also says submarines are proliferating globally.
“ASW is an important mission and can be effectively conducted with unmanned platforms,” he said, adding that that using unmanned platforms to detect submarines is an advantage because a submarine may not want to waste a torpedo trying to destroy a small unmanned vessel.
Seagull can be armed with self-defense measures, including electronic countermeasures to interdict UAVs. It can also be protected in case an adversary tries to capture the vessel and study it.
“There are ways to protect information using anti-tamper procedures to prevent a nation getting their hands on a vessel and doing reverse engineering,” Hoyle said.
The Seagull USV sent to Digital Horizon is unarmed.
Seth J. Frantzman is the Israel correspondent for Defense News. He has covered conflict in the Mideast since 2010 for different publications. He has experience covering the international coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and he is a co-founder and executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.