The Israeli Navy Sails Into a New Era
by Charles Perkins
Receiving neither the attention nor the resources of its sister
services, the Israeli navy has quietly evolved into a world-class fighting
force capable of defending Israels interests today and tomorrow.
Since Israels founding in 1948, its small but
sophisticated navy (ISN) has not received the attention or resources bestowed
upon the ground and air branches of the Israel
Defense Forces (IDF). In spite of the relative obscurity of the IDFs
sea corps, however, the ISN has fulfilled a critical range of missions
over the past half century, and is now evolving into a central player in
Israels new defense concept for the 21st century.
The ISNs principal missions include defending Israels
coastline in times of peace and war and protecting the sea lanes that serve as
the nations lifeline to the world. Additionally, if needed, the navy may
serve in a strategic capacity, enhancing Israels deterrent posture as
regional rogue states develop their ballistic missile arsenals.
Tales of victory and loss
The history of Israels navy includes episodes of both
heroism and tragedy. Among its most memorable moments were the
acquisition of Israeli-owned missile boats from Cherbourg harbor which
had been built, but then embargoed, by the French in 1969, and the decisive
victory over Syria in the naval battle
off Latakia in October 1973 the first combat between ships using
sea-launched guided missiles and electronic warfare in naval history.
The navy has also borne its share of losses over the years,
including the sinking of the destroyer Eilat by Egyptian missile boats
in late 1967 and the disappearance, with all hands lost, several months later
in 1968 of the submarine Dakar as it sailed to Israel on its maiden voyage of delivery from Great Britain.
During the 1982 war in
Lebanon, the Israeli navy played a critical support role, conducting
amphibious landings near Sidon. And in recent years, Israeli missile boats
have continued to see action, interdicting Hezbollah forces in Lebanese
Building the next-generation navy
The ISN benefits from Israels sophisticated defense
industrial base, deploying a range of indigenous weapons and technologies that
give it capabilities disproportionate to its size of only 9,500 active
personnel. Israel developed the famous Gabriel ship-to-ship missile,
for example, which made the difference during the Latakia engagement. As with
Israeli forces on land and in the air, the navy must rely on its qualitative
edge in technology, doctrine and tactics to offset the numerical advantage of
Arab navies in the area, some of which have access to advanced Western
The pride of the ISN is its flotilla of Saar
V missile corvettes built in the United States to precise Israeli
specifications and three new Dolphin class diesel-electric
submarines constructed in Germany and just now entering service in the navy.
From the Haifa naval base, its principal base of operations, the navy will now
have the means to substantially expand Israels operational strategic depth.
The Saar V boats, INS Eilat, Lahav and Hanit, are the largest in the fleet and among the most
sophisticated vessels of their size in the world. They are constructed with
stealthy characteristics and armed with the latest missile systems.
Earlier this year, Israel requested Tomahawk cruise missiles from the United
States as part of a security package related to a possible Syrian peace deal.
The Saar Vs are a likely platform for deploying such
conventionally-armed deterrent weapons.
When INS Dolphin, the first of the German subs,
arrived in Israeli waters in July 1999 decked out in bright sea-green
camouflage paint and loaded with Israeli-designed systems it marked the
culmination of a 15-year odyssey to expand the power projection capabilities
of the IDFs undersea force. The Dolphins are perhaps the most advanced non-nuclear submarines in any navy worldwide.
Foreign publications have even speculated without evidence that the Dolphin,
and its sister ships Leviathan and Tekuma, may be outfitted with
One of the ISNs best-known units prides itself on
operating under a shroud of secrecy. The elite underwater commandos of
Flotilla 13 similar to Navy SEALs are skilled in the arts of
demolition, sabotage and covert amphibious operations. The unit has paid a
price for its effectiveness, however, suffering operational losses in Lebanon
and fatalities during rigorous training in recent years.
Side-by-side with the Sixth Fleet
The Israeli navy has formed strong ties to the U.S. Sixth
Fleet, which has responsibility for the Mediterranean Sea. U.S. Navy vessels
are frequent visitors to the Haifa port, which is often used for resupply and
emergency repair of U.S. ships.
For decades, the ISN has been as a natural partner with the
Sixth Fleet for conducting naval exercises and joint maneuvers. Particularly
in areas such as anti-submarine warfare and littoral operations,
the two allies have gained vital experience by conducting drills alongside
and against each others fleets. In recent years, Israeli and U.S.
ships have also conducted two naval search-and-rescue exercises with the
As the nature and capabilities of Israels potential
adversaries continues to evolve over the next decade, the ISN will play an
increasingly important part in maintaining Israels peace and security, well
out of proportion to its size and resources.
East Report, (April 17, 2000)
* The author is AIPAC's Senior Military Analyst