High-speed armed drone boats ready to protect offshore oilfields

P38 Aggressor built by BAE Systems can travel at 60 knots armed with heavy machine guns and ship arrestor nets

The 14-metre P38 Aggressor can patrol for 24 hours non-stop using its sensors to detect potential threats. Photo: BAE Systems
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A high-speed armed drone boat could soon be patrolling the Gulf, protecting oil platforms from devastating attacks, a leading defence company has disclosed.

Travelling at up to 60 knots (111kph) armed with a heavy machinegun and ship arrestor nets, the P38 Aggressor will be among the fastest autonomous boats launched.

Built by BAE Systems, the Aggressor can patrol for 24 hours non-stop using its array of sensors to detect potential threats.

Its key role in the Gulf waters would be to defend oil rigs, ships and renewable energy sites from other unmanned drone or manned attacks including suicide boats.

It can also be placed in a vertical cradle on an oil platform and released in seconds at the pull of a pin, much like lifeboats on the rigs.

The six-tonne boat’s capabilities have attracted the attention of several Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE.

The 14-metre Aggressor can travel up to 650 kilometres if driven at 20 knots, powered by its three Mercury engines.

“A typical scenario would be protecting critical national infrastructure,” Mike Woods, BAE’s chief maritime technologist, told The National. “That’s harbour protection or oilfield protection or renewables protection.”

The prototype on display at the DSEI (Defence Security Equipment International) exhibition in London had been fitted with a ship arrestor.

The twin-barrelled pneumatic system fires a net arrestor into the path of a vessel and acts like a police stinger, bringing it abruptly to a halt within 60 metres by entangling the propeller.

Suicide speedboats have had a devastating impact, most notably on the USS Cole missile destroyer in 2000 in a strike that killed 17 American sailors.

With the growing use of unmanned naval drones by Ukraine against Russian warships or the Kerch Bridge connecting Crimea to the mainland, the demand for unmanned guard vessels will inevitably increase.

“There is a deterrent effect of just being visible on patrol but it also has a significant rapid-response capability, especially in a steep cradle on a rig,” Mr Woods said. “You just pull the pin and this can get out there faster than you can crew-up a manned boat.”

BAE has been developing sea drones for almost a decade and Mr Woods asked “at what point do we decide to make that break from manned boats?”

The Aggressor can also be used in collaboration with human forces for “maritime interdiction”, for example detecting people traffickers or drug runners.

The unmanned boat can also be launched from warships for either extra protection or reconnaissance. There is also understood to be interest in them from special forces.

The basic glass fibre solid infrastructure, with a beam across the top, allows a significant amount of surveillance equipment and other sensitive devices weighing up to 1.5 tonnes to be carried on-board.

The Gulf version would likely be mounted with a .50 calibre machinegun on the front with the ship arrestor nets on the side.

“That gives you maximum utility and under international law the weapons system has a human in the loop,” said Mr Woods. “The weapon will automatically follow a target using optical tracking and is fully stabilised, meaning that even at high speed and in rough seas we can triple the engagement range to any of our competitors.”

The engineer added that BAE planned to make their first sales to a Gulf country next year. “We have people that have been awaiting this development and who are coming to see it in the flesh at DSEI.”

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Updated: September 13, 2023, 1:40 PM