Deep in the Mediterranean Sea, commandos from the Israel Navy’s Shayetet 13 unit stealthily move through the water, on their way to a covert mission that will never reach the headlines.
Alongside their training and considerable special operations skills, the commandos have another trick up their sleeve: new diving suits that increase their covertness and make it even harder for enemies to detect their presence.
The suits also have digital decompression sensors that autonomously monitor the pressure surrounding the divers and issue alerts where necessary.
This futuristic scenario is very much in the here and now, and the naval engineers who made it possible work for the navy’s Department for Vessel Engineering.
Some 90 engineers with expertise in a rare field – naval architecture and systems design – work around the clock, not just on diving suits but also on every single navy vessel, from submarines that might intercept an Iranian arms trafficking run to missile boats that could patrol the coast of Gaza.
A senior source from the department told The Jerusalem Post this week that the field of naval engineering “hardly exists” in Israel, with just one such course officered by the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Not all the engineers are Technion-trained; some learn ‘on the job, while a few select officers have studied in the United States.
However, with the advent of offshore gas drilling in Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone, the navy and the department are set to grow, and so will demand for more expert engineers, who will study for years to become national security assets.
The department has its owns shipyard in Haifa, where 1,300-ton Sa’ar 5-class missile corvettes and Dolphin-class submarines are raised like cars in a garage to fit them with an array of weapons, radars, command and control systems, electric grids, and sensors. Before they are sent on missions, some far from Israel’s shores, the vessels stop by the department’s shipyard to be fitted with the mission- specific resources they will need, said the source.
“This is a factory and a garage for boats, submarines and missile ships.
This is where the division’s instructions are turned into reality,” he said.
The division is about to begin upgrading Sa’ar-4.5 missile ships to enable them to carry an upgraded air defense system, the Barak 8, and within one year will complete upgrades to the Sa’ar-5 ships for the same purpose.
The conversions include the installation of heavy phased array radars (which have walls that do not turn).
Israel is the only country in the world to install such heavy radars on ships weighing as little 1,300 tons (the Sa’ar-5) and 500 tons (the Sa’ar- 4.5). Detailed computer simulations and planning are required before the adaptations are made, to avoid upsetting the vessels’ balance at sea, the source said.
Similarly, the division worked with Israel Aerospace Industries to upgrade the Dvora Mark III fast patrol boats, which operate off the coast of Gaza and off the northern coastlines, to equip them with jet vector engines, which enable them to move at high speeds to pursue terrorist targets at sea and to turn on the spot like a water bike.
The division worked with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems on the Protector unmanned sea vehicle. And it is installing 76 mm. machine guns on all of the missile ships, doubling the range of previous machine guns, and narrowing accuracy down to a few centimeters, according to the source.
Other projects include expanding the landing deck on the Sa’ar-5, to enable it to receive new Seahawk naval helicopters, and creating submarine simulators that match the navy’s latest German-made Dolphin vessels.
“When we design naval architecture, we have to make sure that the vessel remains stable at sea, that it doesn’t swing violently on the waves, and that it is stable enough for weapons systems to function or for a helicopter to land,” said the source.
“People live on these platforms. We have to ensure that their facilities are suitable, that the electrical grids are monitored and reliable, and that computers keep an eye on the platforms to make sure that they, or the people controlling them, don’t do silly things,” the officer added.
“When it comes to submarines, it is our job to make sure they don’t emit noise that will make them detectable,” he said. “We do all of this in-house. If a vessel is about to go out on an urgent mission, we will prepare it. This happened, for example, to the vessels used to intercept the Klos C ship, used by Iran to try to smuggle a large quantity of projectiles and firearms to Gaza in 2014.
Despite a shortage in qualified naval engineers, the source said, “Israel is going in the right direction with the Exclusive Economic Zone in the Mediterranean. The gas resources mean there is more naval activity and industry these days. People understand that there is a lot of money at sea, and sometimes, for better or for worse, this is what is needed to drive growth.”