By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2021
“O, hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea.” — William Whiting, 1860, from The Navy Hymn.
“An experimental weapon...Let’s experiment.” — British actor Alan Rickman, Quigley Down Under, 1990.
“The XSV 17...might be the coolest boat we’ve ever seen!” — Dailymotion video, March 2, 2018.
The Safehaven Marine (SHM) Limited shipyard in Youghal, 25 miles east of Cork, Ireland, produces high-speed, interceptor/patrol boats for various military, police, and search-and-rescue (SAR) services, with their stealthy, Barracuda-series, SV 11 and SV 13 gunboats serving as their first entries into this unique, specialty market. According to their web site, “Safehaven Marine designs and manufactures a range of high-speed, low-RCS (radar cross-section), patrol craft and interceptors...capable of up to 60 knots (69 mph)...Always at the forefront of new technology and designs, we continuously develop our range, and push the frontiers of design.
“Established in 1996, we have built over 138 vessels, supplied to 27 countries worldwide, with nearly 50 pilot vessels in operation globally, and have become leaders in our field.” Their managing director, Frank Kowalski, states that their vessels, “are used by coastguards, lifeguards, and port authorities as high-speed, rescue vehicles around the world.”
Their first successful entries into this market were the Barracuda SV 11 (Stealth Vessel, 11 meters long), a 36-foot, Special Forces interceptor boat, in May 2015, with a top speed of 40 knots (46 mph), a watertight cabin and self-righting hull that allows it to roll over or capsize completely and remain dry inside, and a Kongsberg (Norwegian company) Sea Protector remote weapons station (currently known as the Protector RS4 Naval system) with a fully-retracting, gyro-stabilized, FN M3M(GAU-21/A) heavy machine gun on the foreword deck, with twin, manually-fired, FN MAG (M240B) medium machine guns at the stern.
Next came the slightly-longer Barracuda SV 13 soon afterward, a 45-foot, armed, interceptor boat with the same top speed, range, and overall capabilities, except that the forward machine gun was now manually operated from a hatch in the foredeck.
Then, in 2017, came their top-of-the-line, Special Forces Craft/Interceptor/Patrol Boat, the long (59 feet), sleek, ultra-modern, Barracuda XSV 17 (eXperimental, Stealth Vessel, 17 meters long), a very-high-speed, wave-piercing, low-RCS, interceptor/pursuit vessel for military or law-enforcement applications. It retains the retracting, hideaway, gun system of the SV 11, but the two rear gun positions are sacrificed in the interest of stealth. The initial, XSV 17 prototype was nicknamed “Thunder Child” by Frank Kowalski, after the fictional boat from H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds.
Safehaven states that, “The vessel is constructed from advanced, lightweight, FRP (fiber-reinforced polymer, with extensive use of carbon-fiber) cored composites. The radical and innovative, hull design (factory-finished in a light-gray, gel coating)...incorporating twin chines (pop-out, side fins), capable of 60 knots, with a wave-piercing, bow form...designed to run clear of the water at very high speeds...for high levels of both static and dynamic stability. The design is fully self-righting, capable of recovering after capsize by a large, breaking sea...(and) the (hydraulic, anti-submersion) fins are adjustable for wave height and craft speed.
“The design of the XSV 17 utilizes various stealth technologies to produce a lower RCS, allowing it to operate with a very high degree of invisibility to an adversary’s radar...to deflect radar beams away...to produce a vessel with very significantly lower-than-normal RCS from all aspects. Safehaven’s ‘stealth’ capabilities have been independently (Irish) Naval Service tested, and proven to offer a ‘very significantly’ lower RCS than conventional craft.”
This beautifully-streamlined craft is powered by a pair of huge, 9.2-liter, Caterpillar C12.9 turbo-supercharged, diesel engines, each producing 1,000 horsepower, with five-blade propellers, driving dual, MJP Hybrid 350 water-jet, surface drives by Metamarine (of Italy), and capable of a maximum, sustained speed of 54 knots (62 mph), with a cruising speed of 40-43+ knots (46-50+ mph.)
The vessel is so amazingly swift (Aidan Lonergan of The Irish Post wrote that she was “ludicrously fast” in 2018) that she set a new, UIM (World Motorboat Federation) world’s record for the circumnavigation of Ireland in 2017, via remote, Rockall Island, covering 1,347 miles counterclockwise in just over 34 hours, at an average speed of 34 knots (40 mph.) That’s very fast, indeed, for any seagoing craft.
This shallow-draft (just two feet, nine inches) vessel displaces 20 tons, and carries 1,320 gallons of fuel in long-range tanks, allowing for an operational range of more than 750 nautical miles at 40 knots. The engines are nestled very low in the stern, providing an exceptionally-low center of gravity.
Frank Kowalski states that keeping the boat upright in very rough seas required some design tweaks: “It’s a combination of three factors: A very low center of gravity, the buoyancy of the cabin, and the cabin must also be completely water-tight. The area of the cabin must contain enough air to keep the vessel afloat, and it’s important (that) no water gets into the cabin.” He added that the engine air inlets close automatically to prevent water from being ingested under capsizing conditions.
The XSV 17 was methodically tested for capsizing, using a crane to flip the boat over 180 degrees, even with Frank and other Safehaven employees aboard. It always righted itself automatically, and is so stable that it can routinely withstand 20-foot waves and still carry out its missions, and is survivable up to Sea State 8, with 30 to 46-foot waves, categorized as “very high.” (There are only nine sea states, with Sea State 9 being the worst, with waves aptly rated as “phenomenal”.)
The fully-air-conditioned (27,000 BTU), climate-controlled, watertight cabin holds six high-tech, carbon-fiber-shelled, AMP Power (Dutch company) Wavebreaker, shock-mitigation, suspension seats for the primary crew, which dramatically increase crew endurance in rough or high seas.
The crew normally consists of a helmsman, with five-spoke steering wheel, in the right front seat (right-hand drive, like an Irish or British automobile), a navigator/communications/FLIR sensor operator in the left front seat, an engineer directly behind the helmsman, a weapon systems operator when the vessel is armed, and two more seats for extra crewmembers, such as a possible payload/cargo specialist. There is also bench seating at the rear of the cabin for four more people, such as a security detail, boarding party, or rescue/medical technicians. The windscreens are steeply-raked, 18mm laminated glass, with 12mm hard-coated, polycarbonate side windows.
The main cabin also houses the advanced instrumentation systems, with three large, 12-inch and 15-inch, Garmin 8000 full-color, GPS displays at the helm and navigator’s station, two Garmin VHF radios (port and starboard), one handheld, Icom M235 VHF radio, Comar CSB 200 automatic identification system (AIS) for vessel tracking, high-definition radar displays, FLIR (infrared) sensor monitors, and an onboard, four-zone, CCTV monitoring system for the engines and equipment, with dual controls and Caterpillar 15-inch, touchscreen displays. The overhead, radar unit is a Garmin 18” xHD or 24” xHD, with a range of 48 nautical miles (55 miles.) The roof-mounted, IR sensor in use is Raymarine FLIR Ray T200 Fixed-Mount, Thermal Camera. A range of sonar equipment may also be installed, to monitor the underwater situation.
A very-spacious, lower, forward cabin beneath the foredeck has room for up to six more optional seats for passengers, such as a small, commando team, or rescued personnel, providing space for a total of 16 people aboard, with a toilet and small shower in the far, forward area, near the bow. There is also accommodation for a sleeping area, cargo space, and the retracting, gun system that lowers into the forward cabin.
In military configuration, the XSV 17 is defended by the unique, Rheinmetall (German) ROSY (Rapid-Obscuring System), with 40mm launchers for generating a rapid smoke screen to conceal the vessel from enemy forces. Due to its integrated, infrared- jamming and decoying capabilities, ROSY can counter all TV-, EO-, IR-, IIR-, laser-, and SACLOS-guided (essentially all types of optical guidance) weapons fired at the vessel.
Next, there is a pop-up, Hyperspike HS-18 RAHD (Remote-control, Acoustic, Hailing Device) beneath the foredeck, forward of the gun system, which may be used either as a long-range, verbal, hailing device for law-enforcement or drug-interdiction purposes, for example, or it may be utilized as a non-lethal, acoustic weapon (or “deterrent device”), projecting a constant, piercing, 156-decibel (about the painful, noise level of a Colt M4A1 carbine in 5.56mm being fired, without hearing protection) blast of sound on a narrow, 10-degree-wide beam out as far as 10,000 feet (1.65 nautical miles.)
The primary weapon is a Kongsberg (Norwegian) Protector RS4 Naval remote-control weapon system that raises and lowers from inside the forward cabin, beneath the foredeck, equipped with a single, .50-caliber, FN (Belgian) M3M (GAU-21/A) heavy machine gun that fires at a rate of 20 rounds per second, weighs 80 pounds, and has a 36-inch barrel, with an effective range of about 1,800 meters.
An advanced, 5th-generation, fully-stabilized, four-axis, sensor suite and fire-control system is provided, including electro-optical and FLIR cameras, a laser rangefinder, and aside from the M3Mmachine gun, other weapons may be substituted, including M240 or M249 machine guns, the M134D Gatling gun, and Mk. 19, Mk. 47, or H&K (German) GMG 40mm grenade launchers, as well as small, anti-tank missiles such as the 43-inch-long, Raytheon/Lockheed Martin FGM-148F Javelin 127mm weapon (at a whopping $175k each), with an effective range of nearly three miles.
Another possible alternative is the larger, Protector RS6 system, designed to accommodate a low-recoiling, 30x113mm cannon, such as the M230LF-2 Chain Gun, which fires 3.3 rounds per second from a 60-inch barrel, weighs 160 pounds, and has an effective range at least 250 to 500 yards greater than the M3Mmachine gun, but uses much harder-hitting, very-accurate, high-explosive, anti-tank ammunition instead. This system has the same optics and fire-control electronics as the RS4 version, and may also be used with an FN MAG machine gun and Javelin anti-armor missile, in addition to the mighty, M230LF-2 cannon, for maximum versatility and firepower.
This weapon system is normally concealed beneath the foredeck, to maintain a low radar signature and non-hostile appearance in most situations, and to protect the gun and its optics from the harsh, maritime elements, and it’s raised in combat scenarios via an elevator mechanism through large, watertight, carbon-fiber hatches in the forward-cabin roof, to be deployed as a startling, surprise package when it’s needed most.
The only faster, military vessels in the world are the Abu Dhabi MAR WP-18 Special Forces Interceptor armed speedboat, at 65+ knots top speed, with only three delivered to the Mozambiquan Navy in late 2014, but they were apparently too complex, and never entered actual, naval service, and the Norwegian Navy’s Skjold (“Shield”)-class corvette, at 60+ knots top speed, with six in active service (the first in 1999, and the other five since 2010) as the fastest, fully-operational, combat ships in the world.
Surely all of this advanced technology, innovation, and breathtaking speed must come with a hefty price tag, but surprisingly enough, the original, “Thunder Child” prototype vessel successfully made a trans-Atlantic crossing, and is currently available, as of early 2021, for purchase (slightly used) from Horizon Yacht Sales at Nanny Cay Marina in Road Town, Tortola, in the picturesque, British Virgin Islands, for the comparatively low price of $1.1 million U.S. dollars!
The tragic irony here is that the U.S. Armed Forces, and most foreign militaries, for that matter, are unfortunately preconditioned to believe that a weapon system must be outrageously expensive in order to be any good, so the astounding, Barracuda XSV 17 armed speedboat is simply too inexpensive for rational consideration.
By comparison, the Mark V Special Operations Craft currently used, since 1995, to support U.S. Navy SEALs is much larger (82 feet long, and 57+ tons) and more heavily-armed (at least five weapon stations, including Mk. 48 25mm cannon), costing $3.7 million each a quarter-century ago, but it’s not nearly as stealthy as the XSV 17, has only two-thirds the range, twice the draft depth, and only 83-percent of the speed, so in many ways it’s less-capable, and the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) could only afford 20 of them, with 12 based at Coronado, California, and eight more at Little Creek, Virginia.
That same Mark V purchase of $74 million total in 1995 dollars, based upon the documented rate of inflation since then at 74 percent, equates to about $129 million in 2021. Even we effectively double the current value of the unarmed, XSV 17 prototype to $2.2 million in today’s dollars to account for a brand-new, fully-armed, production craft, USSOCOM could readily afford 58 new Barracudas, nearly three times the number of Mark Vs, which is far more cost-effective for the Navy.
The XSV 17 may serve equally as well, however, as an unarmed, search-and-rescue (SAR) craft, with much faster response times than conventional boats, virtually doubling their speed capabilities, and since statistically 90 percent of maritime, rescue incidents occur in moderate conditions, the Barracuda’s speedy response time can make a significant and crucial difference in saving lives at sea.
The high-technology, exceptionally impressive Barracuda XSV 17 would be ideal in any of a variety of roles or missions, including Special Forces insertion and extraction, covert surveillance, drug interdiction, coastal patrol, peacetime or wartime SAR response, harbor protection, scientific research, law enforcement, or many other vital roles, but so far, it remains a one-of-a-kind, technology demonstrator, a striking example of the endless possibilities of an ultra-swift, essentially unsinkable, wild, Irish gunboat that’s almost invisible to enemy radar. For a seafaring, swashbuckling, special operations crew or emergency SAR team from any country in the world, what could possibly be cooler than that?!
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe (has visited Ireland twice) and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.
Photo credits: All XSV 17 photos are courtesy of Safehaven Marine, the manufacturer. The Kongsberg RS6 weapon system photo is courtesy of Kongsberg Defence (British spelling) and Security.