When German engineers from ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, who are building Israel’s next-generation Sa’ar-6 class missile corvette, showed Israel Navy engineers the first blueprints for the strategically vital vessel, the Israelis realized there was a problem.
The plans outlined a ship based on Germany’s own sea platforms, and was similar in design. Yet Israel must deal with a far more challenging environment, in which Hezbollah is stockpiling radar-guided shore-to-sea missiles that can target the navy, offshore gas drilling rigs in the Mediterranean and strategically vital sites, such as civilian sea ports – just the type of threat the Sa’ar-6 will be designed to counter.
“From our perspective, the designs did not match our requirements, such as the need for a low radar signature,” a source from the navy’s Weapons Department told The Jerusalem Post in recent days. “Our challenge was: How do we now create a platform with a radar signature that suits our needs?” The radar signature issue is not merely technical; it impacts the ability of the navy’s future ships to evade detection and destroy the enemy before being hit themselves.
“Radar signatures dictate the range in which enemy radars, or the radars of other forces that we do not necessarily want detecting us, can see us. The more we decrease the detection, the lower the chances of us being hit,” the officer explained.
Even if detected, a more stealthy vessel stands a much better chance of avoiding radar-guided missiles, after they are fired from the Lebanese or Syrian coastline by Hezbollah mobile launchers.
On the other hand, the source said, the Israel Navy needs to have a “robust structure” for the four Sa’ar- 6 corvettes, a requirement that seems to contradict the stealthy aspect. With the ships due to begin arriving at Israeli naval bases from mid- 2019, the engineers faced a dilemma, and they had to solve it quickly.
Members of the naval Weapons Department went to work, redesigning the vessel.
Two members of the division led the process. One is a brilliant designer for whom “physics is a hobby,” the source said, and the second is an electronics engineer.
“They worked around the clock, interacting frequently with the German engineers. At first, it was hard for the Germans to envisage this working. Then, we could begin to see their enthusiasm about reaching our goals,” the source recalled.
The end result is a low-signature missile corvette, the largest yet to serve in the navy, which will guard the offshore rigs with two air defense systems on board. They will be able to fire guided, accurate sea-to-surface missiles back at Hezbollah’s launchers, if necessary.
The story is one of the latest involving some of the 160 engineers from the Weapons Department, who are responsible for developing and installing all of the arms, sensors and navigational equipment on board Israel’s sea platforms.
Time is never on the side of the engineers, the source said. Foes like Hezbollah are rapidly increasing their strike capability, smuggling arms into weapons depots and forcing the navy to fast-track its own development programs.
“The rate at which new threats arrive in our arena is high. New risks to our platforms, and to Israeli strategic assets, force us to be in an arms race,” the source stated.
The arms race means naval engineers have to “think outside of the box,” said the source. “This is a critical story for our sailors who operate our systems. If I don’t provide solutions in reasonable time, we might find that by the time our systems have matured, the threats have changed, rendering our systems irrelevant. We must shorten the development time.”
One way of doing that is by using existing building blocks – components of systems that exist on other, currently serving missile ships, and adapting them to the Sa’ar-6, the source said. Sometimes, defense industry representatives and the Defense Ministry pitch in, to help make the tight deadlines. This is one of the ways in which the navy will have ready a phased array digital radar, made by IAI Elta, in time for the Sa’ar-6’s roll out. The radar will control the Barak-8 surface-to-air missile system, a seabased version of Iron Dome, and other, classified weapons.
The radar will also detect threats in ways current radars are not capable of doing.
“The Sa’ar-6 is the main driving engine behind the navy’s development programs,” the source said. “It is the central combat platform of the navy, and will bring many new technologies,” he added. This includes new command and control systems, based on older ones but adjusted and upgraded for the larger corvettes. Additionally, new satellite communications systems will appear on board.
The navy is in the process of selecting a new cannon for the ship. For close-range defenses, it will keep the Typhoon remote weapon station that is on the older ships.
One of the big challenges in designing the ship, the source said, was figuring out how to install dozens of systems and sensors that broadcast and receive signals, and “reach an optimal situation in which they do not interfere with each other. Otherwise, there will be one big mess on board.”
The Sa’ar-6 will have an upgraded counter-electronic warfare system.
“These systems really are a breakthrough,” the source added.
“The IDF views these ships as a central component in offensive and defensive operations,” he said. After they arrive, the ships will become part of a digital IDF network, enabling them to integrate fully with the air force and ground forces.
In the meantime, the engineers from the Weapons Department will continue to race against the clock, and against Hezbollah’s quietly growing stockpile of advanced missiles.