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 coastal areas.
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 equipment.
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 strategic capabilities.
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 Turkish navy.
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.
Sources: Near East Report, (April 17, 2000)
* The author is AIPAC's Senior Military Analyst