By far the smallest branch in the IDF, the Israel Navy has made an impressive
leap in its capabilities in recent years, turning into a major player in the
country’s military operations.
But at the same time, its future hangs in
the balance as the IDF General Staff deliberates whether to approve an ambitious
plan to purchase two new large vessels that the navy has requested to meet the
challenges it faces in the region.
The purchase was supposed to happen
several years ago; it was approved by the General Staff under the “Tefen”
multi-year plan, which will expire by the end of the year.
In 2007, close
to $500 million was set aside to buy the two new surface combatants, with the
navy’s eye originally set on the US Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), under
development by Lockheed Martin. By 2009, though, Israel decided to pull out of
the program due to rising costs and began searching for an
The first idea was to buy the new ships from Germany’s
Blohm+Voss, but that plan was also abandoned due to lack of funding. The current
idea, which the navy favors, is to purchase designs from Blohm+Voss and to have
the vessels built by Israel Shipyards, a privately owned company based in Haifa
that already builds the navy’s smaller Shaldag patrol boats.
for each ship, including accompanying weapons and command systems, is expected
to reach around $300m.
But the question now is whether the navy needs the
ships to begin with. At the core of the question is an ongoing and heated debate
at the military’s top levels over the navy’s raison d’être and the role it is
supposed to play in times of war – and also of peace.
For decades and
under consecutive prime ministers, defense ministers and IDF chiefs of staff,
the navy has always been viewed as something of a “stepbrother” to the rest of
the military’s branches, and has been particularly under-budgeted in comparison
to the air force and the ground forces.
This was done despite the fact
that Israel’s sea lines of communication are a strategic asset for the small
country and span the length of the Mediterranean and around North Africa’s
Some 99 percent of all goods arriving in Israel come by
sea, as do over 90% of security-related supplies and military hardware. The
coast is also lined with strategic installations, such as power plants, ports
and oil refineries, as well as a significant percentage of the country’s seven
In Israel’s first years as a state, the navy consisted of
a mere five vessels, and this neglect contributed to the loss of the Eilat
destroyer, which was hit by Egyptian anti-ship missiles off the coast of Port
Said in 1967. By the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the navy had transformed itself
into a force to be reckoned with after it received a new generation of Sa’ar
fast missile boats armed with Gabriel anti-ship missile systems.
innovative tactics and electronic deception, the navy succeeded in wreaking
havoc on opposing Syrian forces in a sea battle off the coast of Latakia, which
proved to the world that it was on par with other branches in the
But then the investment in the navy stalled. Peace with Egypt and
Jordan raised the assessment that threats to Israel were mostly by land from
Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon – which has accumulated tens of thousands of rockets
– and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The threat from the sea was perceived as
The navy also had difficulty integrating itself into larger IDF
operations like the Second Lebanon War in 2006. While the army was fighting
Hezbollah on land, the navy attempted to fight from the sea and imposed a sea
blockade on Lebanon.
Unfortunately, though, it disregarded the other side’s capabilities, and on July
14, 2006 – two days into the war – Hezbollah and Iranian operatives fired a
radar-guided, Chinese-made C-802 anti-ship missile at the Sa’ar 5-class Hanit
missile ship. Four soldiers were killed in the attack, and while little damage
was caused to the vessel, the strike resonated throughout the IDF.
thinking then was that the navy was doing more bad than good.
was discovered that the soldiers aboard the Hanit had not activated its Barak
missile defense systems due to a gap in intelligence regarding Hezbollah’s
The major change came two-anda- half years later
during Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, launched in late
During the operation, the navy positioned itself as an integral
partner in the land battle laying siege to Gaza to prevent weapons smuggling,
and at the same time exercising sea-ground support while demonstrating a close
level of interoperability with IDF infantry units ashore.
teams of commandos from the Navy’s Flotilla 13 – better known as the Shayetet –
were employed in a wide-range of missions, sometimes on classified operations,
but other times as part of larger-scale IDF ground maneuvers.
example was the navy’s decision after the Gaza operation to bolster its
amphibious landingcraft capabilities to land ground forces in places like
Lebanon and Gaza by sea in a future conflict.
It is also undergoing an
unprecedented procurement phase, with new submarines, fast patrol boats,
unmanned sea vessels and the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into
By 2013, for example, it is slated to receive two new
Dolphin-class attack submarines, which are being built in Germany to join the
three it currently has in its fleet. In April, the Defense Ministry concluded
negotiations for the purchase of a sixth submarine as well.
equipped with the ability to launch cruise missiles tipped with nuclear
warheads, Israel’s submarine fleet is purported by foreign analysts to be its
second-strike capability and viewed as a strategic asset in the face of Iran’s
race for nuclear power.
Another change following the Second Lebanon War
was the understanding in the IDF that the navy was integral to combating Iranian
weapons smuggling to Hezbollah and Hamas.
One of the known smuggling
routes is in Eastern Africa, where boats unload weaponry onto trucks that then
drive up through Sudan to the Gaza-Egyptian border, where it is smuggled into
Gaza via a network of tunnels.
As a result, the navy is operating more
frequently in the Red Sea and has sent a number of vessels, including a
submarine and Sa’ar 5 class corvettes, through the Suez Canal over the past
couple of years.
In addition, rumored operations far from Israel that
succeeded in thwarting smuggling plans to Gaza and Lebanon have been attributed
in the press to commandos from the Shayetet.
BUT THE question now comes
down to the new surface vessels and whether they are really needed, or whether
the Navy could instead continue to rely on its current fleet of three Sa’ar-5
class corvettes and a number of Sa’ar 4.5 corvettes for long-range
V.-Adm. Eliezer Marom, the current commander of the navy, has
pushed hard for the new ships. He believes they are key to the navy’s efforts to
keep Israel’s shipping lines open and to effectively conduct operations far from
Marom’s argument is backed by a number of officers in the
IDF who are concerned with the growing instability in Egypt and believe Israel
needs to reinforce its navy to counter the massive Egyptian Navy one day if
On the other hand, former navy commanders like Yedidya Ya’ari –
the current head of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems – is opposed to purchasing
the new ships at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars and instead
believes the money should be invested in the weapons systems the ship will
“The type of ship is less important,” one senior officer who
agrees with Ya’ari explained recently.
“The question is what weapons will
be installed on the ships, and this can be done with a simple freighter or
Both schools of thought agree, though, that the navy
needs to increase its firepower, particularly when it comes to sea
One such system is the LORA missile developed by Israel
Aerospace Industries, which has a reported range of several hundred kilometers
and superior accuracy.
The US Navy, for example, uses sea-to-surface
missiles such as the Tomahawk missile and similar weapons in growing
The main argument in favor of investing in naval firepower
capabilities is that in a future war, the air force and ground force bases would
come under heavy missile fire from Hezbollah and possibly Syria. In addition,
the IAF would need to focus – at least at the beginning of a war – on
suppressing enemy missile fire.
By contrast, Israel’s current enemies
cannot easily track navy ships and have invested most of their resources in
missiles and rockets.
The ships can also operate out of range of
Hezbollah’s missiles, which is not the case with IAF and IDF bases.
IDF must build its naval force to take advantage of this situation,” V.-Adm.
(res.) Gideon Raz, a former deputy head of the navy, wrote in a recent article
published in Military and Strategic Affairs.
“The naval force would
enhance the inventory of weapons that would be possible to operate at any given
time against targets in enemy territory.”
While two years have passed
since the Gaza operation and five since the Lebanon War, the navy has yet to be
able to sail calm seas, especially in the face of potential war on multiple
Whether he gets new ships or not, Marom and his staff vow to
continue to remain relevant. The navy, these officers say, will stick to its
current procurement plans, will increase training and will fight to participate
in every future IDF operation as it works to retain its status as a key player
in Middle East warfare.