The only truly secure and open border Israel has is its coastline, stated Israel
Navy Cmdr. Oren Hagag.
Hagag, commander of the INS Eilat fast missile
boat, was sitting at navy headquarters in Haifa Port, as an array of naval
vessels – including the Eilat – docked outside, and the long pier teemed with
sailors and technicians.
Most – though not all – of Israel’s land borders
are fraught with security issues.
Some, like the Syrian and Lebanese
borders, are sealed shut, while others, like the border with Egypt, have seen
stepped-up terror activities, Hagag noted.
From his unique perspective,
Hagag argued that Israel has always faced geographic isolation – with the sea,
or as he calls it, “our western border,” being the exception.
majority of Israel’s commercial imports arrive through naval shipping, and it is
up the navy’s Flotilla 3, made up of Sa’ar-class missile corvettes like the
Eilat, to ensure that these vital sea arteries remain open and
“If the shipping companies feel insecure, insurance premiums will
rise so high that they will become prohibitive,” he said. Such a development
would cut Israel off from its critical import and export routes.
As Israel sets up natural gas drilling
rafts in the Mediterranean, it will be up to the navy to safeguard these assets
as well from potential Hezbollah suicide bomb boats or missile
“To know what goes on in the sea, we must be at sea,” Hagag
said, describing a doctrine that is at the heart of the navy’s continuous
security missions. These involve coastline patrols, the stopping and searching
of suspicious ships, and intercepting arms shipments from Iran to
But the navy has, in recent years, also taken on long-range
strategic missions involving more distant locations, of which little can be
Hagag’s sailors aboard the Eilat are exposed to so much
sensitive information that they must sign a secrecy pact.
waters, not all of the sailors even know what their ship is doing, though all
know their location.
“The crew is divided into parts, and each part does
its job,” Hagag explained.
The approximately 1,000- ton Sa’ar 5-type fast
missile boat under Hagag’s command is packed with arms and
These include Barak sea-to-air missiles, sea-to-sea missiles,
long-range missiles, harpoons capable of striking submarines, heavy cannons for
striking targets on shore and a helicopter landing pad.
It also carries
advanced electronic warfare equipment.
“You won’t see space so
efficiently utilized in any other navy in the world,” Hagag said. “We exploit
every yard to deal with a range of threats and future threats,” he
added. “We have to cover all the scenarios, from missile fire, to shore
shelling, to nighttime combat.”
The Sa’ar 5 is the only Israel Navy
platform that can fight on three “dimensions,” – land and sea, underwater and
air, he added.
On board are 75 sailors and 25 officers, graduates of
Israel’s Naval College who are highly qualified in a range of specialized
They spend months sleeping in cramped quarters, sharing
facilities and embarking on top-secret missions.
“If a sailor hits the
wrong button, the whole mission could be ruined,” Hagag said, stressing the
heavy responsibility placed on the young men. “We are only as strong as our
weakest link. Hence, the training is so intense.”
Many former navy
sailors later told Hagag that challenges they faced in civilian life after
completing their service appeared small and surmountable by
Despite its critical role in ensuring Israeli national
security, the navy still only receives a small fraction of the total defense
budget, with the air force and ground forces swallowing up the
Additionally, the number of vessels has actually decreased, as
Israel Navy commanders are told to do more with less.
increase we’re hoping for isn’t happening,” Hagag said dryly.
the navy made headlines when one of its missile boats was spotted crossing
Egypt’s Suez Canal and heading out to the Red Sea.
But Hagag said the
mission was a “planned routine operation.”
“How many 18-year-olds can
sail through the Suez Canal in full uniform under the Israeli flag?” he
Whether engaged in continuous security or on a classified mission
far from shore, the crew aboard the Eilat must remain alert at all times to
developing threats, Hagag said.
This was one of the lessons of the Second
Lebanon War, when Hezbollah launched a ground-to-sea missile attack on the INS
Hanit, also a Sa’ar 5 ship, claiming the lives of four crew
Alertness had been at the forefront of navy training well before
the incident, Hagag said, but the attack underscored the growing sophistication
of arms in possession of the enemy.
“We must always expect surprises,” he
said. “When we’re out at sea, and the sun rises and dolphins swim by, we must be
ready to be surprised.”