The changing face of anti-submarine warfare

I recently learned with interest of Elbit Systems’ Seagull unmanned surface vehicle (USV).  It’s designed to hunt both underwater mines and submarines, operating at sea in the same way that an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operates in the air.

According to initial reports, a Seagull system consists of two vessels and a control station, which can be either ashore or on another ship.  The USV’s are about 40′ long, can cruise at up to 30 knots, and can operate for four days at ranges of up to 62 miles from the control station.  Each can be tailored to carry whatever systems a client needs, whether anti-mine or anti-submarine.  Payloads can include, for example, the Katfish towed sonar platform from Canada (shown below), which allows high-resolution seabed mapping (essential to locate mines on the sea floor) among other functions.

A complete Seagull system (both vessels and the control station) is said to cost about $30 million, but in littoral waters can do the job of a naval vessel such as a minesweeper, corvette or frigate that would cost many times more to buy and much more to operate (including a crew at least several dozen strong).  Here’s an Elbit promotional video showing the system in operation in an anti-mine scenario.

This development isn’t unique, of course – it’s merely the latest to be announced in the field.  However, such developments indicate how fast the anti-submarine and anti-mine-warfare fields are developing.  Until relatively recently, such operations required large, dedicated warships, such as the US Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates or the newer (and seemingly much less capable) Littoral Combat Ship program, or Britain’s Sandown class minehunters, or equivalents in many navies.  Each ship would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and require large crews.

In littoral waters at least, the cost of one such ship will buy up to ten Seagull systems (i.e. up to twenty USV’s and ten control stations).  The latter will be able to patrol a much wider area, much more frequently, at a vastly reduced running cost compared to conventional vessels;  and if one is lost to enemy action, no highly trained crew members are endangered.  Their higher-technology sensors (and, presumably, weapons such as lightweight missiles like the US Hellfire, stabilized light cannon and machine-gun platforms like Israel’s Typhoon, and lightweight torpedoes like the European LCAW, none of which require a crew to operate them) will render minelaying or submarine operations in such waters much more hazardous, and may deny access to them altogether.

Even relatively poor countries that can’t afford the expense of a ‘proper’ navy may be able to afford multiple Seagull systems or their equivalents, thereby protecting themselves against underwater intruders at a much more reasonable cost.  This can (and probably will) affect submarine operations by the major powers, who will no longer be almost sure to have freedom of movement in parts of the world where no major anti-submarine warfare capability has existed before.  This applies particularly in shallower waters, affecting activities such as recent intrusions into Sweden’s territorial waters or the US Navy’s famous Operation Ivy Bells in the Sea of Okhotsk during the Cold War.  A series of Seagull-type units guarding such waters, backed up by a few more conventional warships, might have made such operations impossible.

I think we can expect to see anti-mine and anti-submarine operations become much cheaper, much more effective, and much more widespread in littoral waters.  That, in turn, is likely to force a complete re-evaluation of many tasks currently allocated to or carried out by submarines.  What will take on those roles in future, and what new equipment and tactics will evolve to deal with such new threats?



  1. Interesting… I'm assuming it could also be operated as a manned vessel…otherwise, why have windshields and wipers? 🙂

  2. For $3.6 billion, which is the cost of just two Arleigh Burke class destroyers, the US could buy over 100 of those and put two of them in each of the 35 largest coastal cities in the US, with a few left over. Those two vessels could sanitize the ocean within 60 nautical miles of those cities.
    The crew it would take to staff those 100 drones is less than the crew required to staff those two destroyers, which have a complement of 300 each.
    Think about the cost savings, and the advantage of allowing those destroyers to be used elsewhere.

  3. There are a 'few' minor issues… Sea keeping being one, rules of the road, and 'weapons' release… Other than that, it's an interesting application of multiple technologies! 😀

  4. Since the system retails for $20 mil plus, I'm willing to bet your average military will have a couple of trigger pullers on board. Guarding the merchandise, and dealing with the occasional mechanical issue.

  5. This always pops up.

    Did you ever see them try to sell an unmanned remote operated tank?

    MCM isn't tough. It's boring and takes a bit of time if you do it right. A little bitty place only really needs one sweep and I've operated MSOs with as few as 18 people onboard for 4 days underway.

    ASW in the littorals is dead easy. Put in a good fibre optic bottom laid array and launch on detection with something like an ASROC. The fun that you could have!

  6. 30 million for just one?

    Another prime example of the military/industrial complex sticking it to the taxpayer.

    A hull, a motor, sonar, radar, comm equipment, and some remote control stuff. Don't try to tell me that the electronics cost all that money, it doesn't.

    Motor: Found any almost any marine vessel.
    Sonar: Found on almost any fishing vessel, probably with a bit better range and resolution.
    Radar: Ditto. just like the sonar.
    Comm: Get serious… off the shelf stuff.
    Control: Equipment used for your kids drone.
    Computer stuff: The computer I'm using right now without doubt more powerful and a 100 times cheaper than what the military buys.

    Stick an off-the-shelf 50 cal on the front deck and Viola! It's an advanced military craft!

    Yeah, sure. I'm getting a bit tired of being ripped off by all this B. S.

  7. I think that the biggest danger from subs is to our carriers…and they (carriers) don't operate in littoral water. With the newest "ship to ship" missiles, launched from say 100 N Miles away from vertical launchers on subs, the carriers are sitting ducks. The Chinese, for example, wouldn't launch one or two missiles at a carrier from their subs…they'd launch a swarm that will overwhelm the defenses of the task group. And in a real shooting war, I'd bet they'll be nuclear tipped missiles.

    Just as the Navy was relying at battleships at the beginning of the last big naval war, the Navy is now putting all of their money on the big flattops. Our attack boats will be expected to take out the enemy subs before they get within that 100 N Mile range and launch. In the 80's, I would have thought it was doable. But now…with most of the world catching up on sub design…makes my stomach hurt to think about…

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