Guarding Israel’s coast during a global pandemic

Aboard the ‘INS Lahav’ during a patrol around the Leviathan gas rig, Brig.-Gen. Eyal Harel explains the necessity of guarding national maritime interests

ABOARD THE ‘INS Lahav’ as it secures the Leviathan gas processing rig off of the coast of Caesarea. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
ABOARD THE ‘INS Lahav’ as it secures the Leviathan gas processing rig off of the coast of Caesarea.
Though cruise ships have been docked at ports, unable to leave because of the deadly coronavirus raging around the world, Israel’s Navy still takes to the deep blue sea of the Mediterranean to guard the idyllic shores of Israel’s coastline.
I had joined the sailors aboard the INS Lahav (a Sa’ar 5 corvette missile ship) for the day as they pulled out of port to secure the Leviathan gas processing rig from the numerous threats in the area. The sea was calm as we sailed out of Haifa Port toward the rig some 10 km. from the coast near the city Caesarea.
It took around an hour to reach the giant rig, which can be seen from shore and is a clear target for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, which has threatened to strike Israel’s offshore gas rigs in times of war.
“This ship is a system of war that needs to be at the ready and be prepared at all times,” said Brig.-Gen. Eyal Harel, the head of IDF naval operations, as we stood on the deck while the ship pulled up to the rig.
“I think it’s the main objective of the Israeli navy to support and defend such infrastructure against rocket and missile attacks from the north, be it Lebanon or Syria. I know it’s one of the three key targets of the other side, to hit these rigs,” he continued, adding that during times of tension the “first thing we do is go to protect our gas rigs.” Despite its small size, the Israel Navy is a key component in securing the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – the lifeline of the Jewish state – and has been entrusted with many missions both close to shore and far from the country’s borders.
“This is our duty, to protect this whole zone, which is double the size of the State of Israel,” Harel said.
A soldier aboard the Israeli Navy's 'INS Lahav' as it secures the Leviathan gas field.A soldier aboard the Israeli Navy's 'INS Lahav' as it secures the Leviathan gas field.
Just north of the border, Hezbollah has an estimated arsenal of 130,000-150,000 missiles and rockets, the majority of them facing Israel’s civilian home front and strategic infrastructure.
One such missile, the advanced anti-ship Russian-made Yakhont (P-800 Oniks), represents a serious threat and can endanger both Israeli commercial vessels in Israeli shipping lanes and Israel’s gas rigs, which supply a large amount of the electricity consumed in Israel. Also at risk are the navy ships that operate in the area.
In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah struck the INS Hanit (another Sa’ar 5 corvette missile ship) with a Chinese-made C-802 anti-ship missile, killing four sailors. It was a devastating surprise for the Israeli defense establishment and is still entrenched in the navy’s memory.
But the Yakhont poses an even greater threat, as it can reach a distance of some 300 kilometers, double the range of the C-802, which can reach 110 kilometers. With that range, all of Israel’s gas rigs and gas fields are threatened, including the Karish gas field, which is some 70 kilometers from shore.
“The Yakhont is a challenge,” Harel said as we stood on the bridge of the ship as it pulled up to the Leviathan. The missile “bothers us a lot. It’s a missile that Syria got from Russia as well. We also have the threat posed by ballistic missiles which can strike the rigs with precision.” It’s not only the Karish and Leviathan that are in the range of the Yakhont; so is the Tamar gas field, whose production platform stands just 25 kilometers off the coast of southern Israel.
In May of last year, during a violent round that saw Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad launch 690 rockets and mortars toward Israel over the span of less than 48 hours, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz ordered the suspension of natural gas supplies from the Tamar field, over concerns that it could be targeted.
According to Harel, protecting the gas rigs is a national interest that “every citizen of the State of Israel would want to be protected... the country has to do everything it can to secure them.”
Hezbollah’s secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah has made it clear that the gas rigs are targets for the group should another war with Israel break out, and according to Harel, “when Hezbollah has nothing left to lose, and they have their back against the wall, they will try to hit the Karish.” In preparation for such a scenario, the navy has purchased new advanced technology, and four Sa’ar 6 corvette warships are currently being built in Germany. The first ship – the INS Magen – is expected to arrive by the end of the year and be operational by the next year and a half.
Though Harel said that the Sa’ar 6 “comes almost naked, with all the systems needing to be installed and integrated” in Israel, he was excited as he spoke about the new ships, which will protect Israel’s natural gas platforms and other strategic maritime assets.
“It’s a larger vessel with advanced and hi-tech systems along with long-range missiles, air-to-air, surface, and sea-to-air missiles. The radar is bigger and more advanced than what is on the Sa’ar 5. With a further range, you can operate the Sa’ar 6 in open seas and in rough sea conditions. It’s just better, it’s newer, it’s faster; it’s more complicated, but it’s tailor-made for this mission.” The new 90-meter-long ships will carry a crew of 70 sailors, who will be assisted by unmanned aerial vehicles and naval helicopters. It will have a maximum speed of 24 knots with a range of 2,500 nautical miles.
A helicopter aboard the Israeli Navy's 'INS Lahav' as it secures the Leviathan gas field.A helicopter aboard the Israeli Navy's 'INS Lahav' as it secures the Leviathan gas field.
They will be fitted with two naval Iron Dome short-range defense missile launchers with 20 Tamir missiles for each launcher, 32 vertical launch cells for the Barak-8 long-range surface-to-air missile naval defense system, and 16 anti-ship missiles.
The ships, in addition to having interception missile defense systems, will also have 16 anti-ship missiles, one 76-mm. Oto Melara Super Rapid main gun, two Typhoon 25-mm. remote weapon stations and two 324-mm. torpedo launchers for Mark 54 Lightweight Torpedoes. Each ship will also be outfitted with cyber and electronic warfare systems and ELTA’s EL/M-2248 MF-STAR active electronically scanned array radar capable of tracking both air and surface targets.
“We are securing the entire EEZ, and so, with all the threats in this region, we need the new ships with all their advanced weapons systems,” Harel said. “We have to be dynamic in protecting our assets.”
TO FACE challenges ranging from commercial ships being hijacked to attacks by Hezbollah to operations in Israel’s “war between the wars” campaign, the sailors were at the ready on the INS Lahav, but wearing masks, as they are also taking part in the fight against the coronavirus.
I’ve gone to sea with the navy several times, though never during a pandemic. Walking the tight halls of the ship, sailors were careful not to come into close contact, waiting at the end of the hall, until I entered a room or went on deck, to pass.
Some 80 sailors were on board the INS Lahav, but due to the strict regulations enforced by the Israel Navy, journalists were allowed to interact with the sailors only at a distance and, of course, while wearing masks.
While the halls may have been empty, the ship’s command room was full of sailors operating and watching the dozens of screens of the various advanced sensors which could detect both aerial and maritime threats from hundreds of kilometers away.
“Corona is a challenge because you have to continue your operational missions while having to deal with this extra challenge as well,” Harel said. “It’s not like a war or a military operation like Protective Edge; this is never-ending. It’s really hard for cadets who are training and working in capsules and have no idea when they are going home.” While it might be hard for the sailors, who are subject to the strict coronavirus regulations set in place by the navy, they continue with their mission to protect the idyllic coastline and strategic national assets out at sea.
They will not let a global pandemic stop them.