Navy steers confidently ahead

'Lahav' commanders internalize lessons of Hizbullah missile strike.

Navy helicopter 224.88 (photo credit: Yaakov Lappin )
Navy helicopter 224.88
(photo credit: Yaakov Lappin )
As dawn broke over Haifa Bay on Tuesday, the Lahav, the pride of Israel's naval prowess, set out for the Mediterranean on a joint search and rescue exercise with the US and Turkish navies. Three Saar 5 ships are in service and carry an impressive arsenal of Barak sea-to-air missiles (used to defend the ship from aerial assault) and a range of sea-to-sea missiles, according to Capt. Ilan Shriki, who is in charge of all of the missile ships stationed at Haifa's naval base. The Saar 5 also has a Phalanx cannon, deck side machine guns and anti-submarine torpedoes. In summer 2006, Lahav's sister ship, the Hanit, was hit by a Hizbullah C-802 missile. The missile, which originates in China and was modified by Iran, killed four crew members. A subsequent investigation found that the ship's radar was not fully active, and that the ship's electronic countermeasure (ECM) system (designed to deceive the enemy) and the Barak missiles were in stand-by modes. The battered Hanit limped back to Israeli waters. But the navy has since learned the necessary lessons of that attack, according to Cmdr. Yoav Abergil, who commands all three of the Navy's Saar 5 ships. "We have an excellent aerial defense system," Abergil said, speaking on Lahav's missile deck during a tour given to journalists during this week's exercise. "We learned what had to be learned and have prepared accordingly for every threat. We've investigated what happened off the coast of Lebanon, and our ships are on a very high level of alert," he added. "We can deal with all of the threats in the region." The navy was keen to stress that the exercise was planned one year ago and was purely humanitarian in nature. It had nothing to do with regional developments such as tensions with Iran, Navy officials said at a press conference in Haifa. Representatives of the America and Turkish navies echoed the same message. Cmdr. Demetries A. Grimes, America's Naval Attache to Israel, rejected out of hand reports that an armada of US aircraft carriers and battle ships heading towards the Gulf were planning a blockade of Iran, adding that the US navy has been shifting large forces around the world's oceans since America became a naval superpower. Back on board the Lahav, crew members put into practice well-drilled rescue maneuvers aimed at rescuing vessels in distress. Air Force helicopters landed and took off from the ship every few hours, simulating an airlift of wounded persons. A complex maneuver involving Israeli and Turkish ships simulated the rescue of people in the water, represented by floating dolls. Israeli and Turkish crewmembers boarded speedboats from their respective ships and headed toward an area in the water marked by green and orange stripes, dropped by a search and rescue plane, quickly returning with the dolls. Meanwhile, a small naval cultural exchange program went full steam ahead, as a Turkish crewmember and US pilot spent the day on the Saar ship, getting to know their Israeli opposite numbers. A visit to Lahav's control room revealed that the ship's controls were in the hands of well-trained and highly motivated 19 and 20 year-old sailors. Crew members of the same age group guided helicopters to the landing pad and ensured a completely smooth journey. They filled the ship with a relaxed yet confident atmosphere, never appearing to be lost as to what to do next. "These are the most important and advanced navies in this ocean," Abergil said during the pre-exercise briefing. "Our ultimate goal is to provide assistance to vessels that have been harmed either by natural forces or a terrorist attack. These exercises are crucial for the making of a safe Mediterranean."