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Mideast defense firms fine-tune unmanned surface vessels

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — While aerial unmanned systems were a major focus of the recent UMEX drone fair here, a handful of companies displayed naval variants.

Among them was Elbit Systems Emirates, the Israeli defense company’s branch in the United Arab Emirates, established in 2021. The business showed off a mock-up of its Seagull unmanned surface vessel. The system has been on the market for several years, and the company has sold it to an undisclosed Asia-Pacific navy in its anti-submarine warfare configuration under a contract worth $56 million.

Elbit Systems said it’s working on improvements for its Seagull USV amid tension in the Red Sea, according to a company official.

“We are primarily focused on making it bigger — up to 17-18 meters — more flexible, and increasing its endurance at sea from six to 10 days,” Alon Emir, a naval systems expert at Elbit Systems, told Defense News.

The Seagull took part in the 2022 Digital Horizon event to test underwater tech and enhance regional maritime awareness. The U.S. Navy’s Task Force 59 ran the exercise in Bahrain.

Emir believes the ongoing Red Sea shipping crisis, which has seen Houthi rebels in Yemen attack ships passing through the waterway, may be a catalyst for the USV market.

Hostilities began in November when the Iran-backed Houthi militant group launched a series of attacks on cargo ships and tankers navigating in the area, causing considerable disruptions to global shopping. In response, the United States and the United Kingdom have conducted airstrikes against Houthi targets in Yemen.

“Everybody is watching what is happening in the Red Sea. A lot of countries are currently troubled with issues surrounding attacks carried out by unmanned underwater vehicles, and want a good USV to detect possible threats,” Emir said.

The Emirati defense conglomerate Edge Group is also dipping its toes into the underwater sector. The company has primarily focused on airborne and ground-based autonomous capabilities.

Speaking to Defense News at the trade show, Faisal Al Bannai, who chairs Edge Group’s board of directors, said the company “100%” has plans in the unmanned maritime sector that it will reveal “very soon.”

Following the normalization of ties between the UAE and Israel in 2020, the countries deepened their defense partnership and particularly found common ground in a desire to counter Iranian naval threats.

In 2021, Edge Group signed an agreement with Israel Aerospace Industries to co-develop a USV, which they unveiled last February at the maritime security fair NAVDEX in the UAE. The craft was designed to carry out surveillance, reconnaissance and mine-detection missions.

USV vendors are pitching their systems’ cheaper costs in comparison to other expensive technologies that carry out similar missions.

“In comparing the Seagull to an anti-submarine warfare helicopter, for instance, you can probably buy five Seagulls for the price of a single helicopter that can be just as effective and multipurpose,” Emir said.

Edge’s chairman shared a similar perspective.

“Let’s say you have a cargo ship flowing through the Red Sea. Trying to put manned patrol boats that can escort it is an expensive exercise,” he said. “But if you have your USV that is unmanned, that possesses a weapon and ISR capability, when that other boat is coming in to threaten the cargo ship, the USV can deal with it very effectively and is less costly.”

Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.