Securing the waters and distant classified missions

Navy commander Oren Hagag shares his world with the 'Post.'

INS Eilat 370 (photo credit: IDF Spokesman’s Office)
INS Eilat 370
(photo credit: IDF Spokesman’s Office)
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.
The 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 secure.
“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 attacks.
“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 Gaza.
But the navy has, in recent years, also taken on long-range strategic missions involving more distant locations, of which little can be disclosed.
Hagag’s sailors aboard the Eilat are exposed to so much sensitive information that they must sign a secrecy pact.
In distant 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 technology.
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 technical skills.
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 comparison.
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 rest.
Additionally, the number of vessels has actually decreased, as Israel Navy commanders are told to do more with less.
“The budget increase we’re hoping for isn’t happening,” Hagag said dryly.
Last month, 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 asked.
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 members.
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.”