Israeli Navy Ship 311.
(photo credit: Jorge Guerra Moreno)
ASHDOD - Israel's huge new offshore gas resource offers its enemies an obvious target and gives its navy, long overshadowed by other branches of the Israeli armed forces, a big job that will require extra spending.
On patrol boat 836, circling two gas platforms in choppy Mediterranean waters, Captain Ilan Lavi flipped through pictures of the possible threats: boat bombs, drones, submarine vessels, rockets and missiles.
"We have to build an entire new defensive envelope," said Lavi, head of the navy's planning department who talks as knowledgeably about the financial aspects of the gas industry as he does about security. "But you can't have a defense system that costs more to build than the gas itself."
The discovery of large natural gas deposits in its offshore economic zone in 2009 came as a welcome surprise to Israel, transforming the energy security outlook of a country that used to rely heavily on imports. A burst of exploration followed, and by the end of 2013 18 new wells are expected to be drilled at a cost of $1.8 billion.
The government from the outset committed to helping protect the gas fields being developed by private companies.
"The gas fields are a strategic asset and Israel will defend them," Lavi yelled above the wind and the engine roar.
The navy says it is under-equipped, however, to defend a maritime area larger than Israel itself.
Israel estimates there are about 950 billion cubic meters of gas beneath its waters, enough to leave plenty for exports. A successful attack could threaten export revenues and harm domestic energy supply.
A suitable defense system will cost $700 million to build and $100 million annually to maintain, Lavi said. That is a tough sell in a country facing sharp spending cuts and tax rises after the government overspent in 2012, he acknowledged.
A senior naval commander, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that simply to patrol the area Israel needed four new ships and that it had already been in touch with eight or nine foreign firms.
Amit Mor, chief executive of Eco Energy and a former World Bank consultant, said Israel need not reinvent the wheel. Lessons on security can be learned from areas such as Nigeria and the North Sea and adapted for Israel's situation, he said.
"I trust that the Israel Defense Force has the ability to provide adequate protection for the new offshore activity and that the required funding will be allocated," he said.
Energy-rich countries have for years been searching for the best tactics to defend their offshore assets, often isolated and vulnerable in the deep seas. Attacks have become more frequent.