The Buzz

Watch Out, Iran: Israel's Missile-Firing Robot Ships Are Coming

Back in 2012, the U.S. Navy made history when, for the first time, a robot ship fired missiles.

The robot ship used in the joint American-Israeli project was a thirty-six-foot-long American design called the Unmanned Surface Vehicle Precision Engagement Model, or USV PEM. But the Spike missile it fired was Israeli.

Now the Israelis themselves have just fired their own missile from their own robot ship. The missile was still the Spike, made by Israeli manufacturer Rafael and used primarily as an antitank weapon by ground troops and helicopters. It has a range of up to five miles as well as a fire-and-forget guidance system.

But this time, the drone boat was Rafael's Protector model, which Israel already uses to secure its coast. The test involved a Protector firing multiple Spikes, according to a Rafael spokesman cited by IHS Jane’s. “The spokesperson said that all of the engagements were successful and included firing on-the-move, adding that during the trials Protector operated in seas with waves of up to 1.5 meters [five feet] in height, and that the company believes the armed platform will be capable of using the Spike system in up to Sea State 5 [eight- to thirteen-foot-waves].”

A photograph of the test showed what appeared to a Protector fitted with a Typhoon MLS-ER missile launcher, which includes up to four Spike ER extended range missiles, plus an electro-optical director and a fire control system, according to IHS Jane’s.

Why is this test significant? First, it shows that missile-armed drone ships are coming.

For now, the robots that have fired missiles in combat have been unmanned aircraft, most commonly the Predators and Reapers that comprise the backbone of America's drone war against terrorism. True, the U.S. Navy is developing the DARPA-designed Sea Hunter (formerly known as the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, or ACTUV), a yacht-sized autonomous ship that is armed—for now—only with sensors to track submarines.

But there is no reason why unmanned surface vessels can’t be weapons platforms, and platforms that are more efficient in many ways than aircraft. An MQ-9 Reaper weighs just 2.5 tons, while a Protector USV is four tons and the Sea Hunter a whopping hundred tons, which means the naval robots can carry more payload. And just like aircraft carriers and submarines, a drone ship can also linger off an enemy coast for months, rather than having to return to an airfield to refuel.

However, the real reason the Israeli missile test is a game-changer is simply because the Israelis did it. As far as I know—and the U.S. Navy confirms this—unmanned ships have not fired weapons in combat. But if the ships are Israeli, there is a good chance that they will be used—if they haven’t already—to strike Hamas in Gaza, or Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, or even Iran (though fortunately for Iran, they don’t share a sea border with Israel). Which means we may soon see these vessels in combat for the first time.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Image: F-16CJ. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force