Israeli Navy: History & Overview
by David Hanovice
The Israeli Navy is neither famous nor large. Long overshadowed by its more glamorous counterparts in the Infantry, Tank Corps, and Air Force, the Navy has nevertheless built up an impressive record for itself and managed to make good use of its indigenous weapon technology and ship design.
The Navy is charged with defense of Israel’s 190 km-long coastline on the Mediterranean Sea as well as protecting the state’s vital maritime assets. Operating in two unconnected bodies of water, the Navy is based in the Mediterranean Sea by way of ports at Ashdod and Haifa and in the Red Sea from the port of Eilat.
The IDF’s impressive fleet of patrol boats, missile boats and submarines are eternally vigilant against hostile forces attempting to attack, sabotage and infiltrate sovereign Israeli territory. Although Israel does not maintain a specialized marine corps, its highly specialized underwater commando unit (Shayetet 13) has achieved marked success in in amphibious and sabotage operations.
With 70 percent of Israel’s eight million citizens settled in the country’s narrow coastal plain, the Navy bears the immense responsibility for their protection. Israel’s northern border with Lebanon – home to the terror organization Hezbollah – extends many kilometers into the Mediterranean Sea. The Israel Navy stands constant guard against the threats from the north posed by Hezbollah which has sworn itself to Israel’s destruction.
The Navy’s main objectives are to:
- Protect and defend the State of Israel from maritime threats
- Secure the vital maritime operations of the State of Israel
- Assist the rest of the Israeli army in case of conflict
- Shoot enemy targets
- Produce and evaluate photographs of maritime space
- Transport equipment and soldiers
- Perform search-and-rescue missions at sea
- Train the naval forces of the IDF
- Execute certain ground missions within the framework of the instructions of the army
The heart of the fleet is the Sa’ar class of Fast Attack Craft - their exceptional offensive capability and high speed make excellent tools in the navy’s overall scheme. The air wing of the navy is made up of maritime reconnaissance aircraft and helicopters used for search and rescue, generally with minimal armament.
Engagements with terrorists and other low-intensity conflicts neglected the need for larger ships such as cruisers or destroyers. The Navy makes full use of its smaller missile craft and interdiction vessels to keep the Eastern Mediterranean and Red Seas clean.
In recent years, the Navy has invested time and energy to intercepting cargo vessels loaded with weapons intended for terror organizations. In 2009, the IDF intercepted the MV Francop and seized some 500 tons of weapons destined for use by Hezbollah against Israel’s civilians. In 2001, the Navy intercepted the Santorini - a fishing boat that had sailed from Beirut in Lebanon towards Israel. On board, commandos discovered a large cache of concealed weapons including missiles, rockets, mortars, and rifles as well as instruction manuals for the manufacturing of explosives.
The Navy first won acclaim in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 when it sank eight Arab FFLs without the loss of a single Israeli vessel; the crews of the Israeli Navy successfully destroying or otherwise evading over seventy Arab Soviet-supplied SS-N-2 Styx missiles.
During the 1982 Peace for Galilee war with Lebanon, the Israeli navy proved to be capable of missions beyond policing its waters and landed troops and armor on the beaches near Sidon using their small flotilla of amphibious craft with relative success. In Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996, Israeli missile craft shelled the coastal roads of Lebanon. Even still, this defensive role has not relegated the Israeli Navy to a coast guard mission. The Israeli Navy, while strategically defensive, is highly offensive tactically and conducts its mission dynamically and with a high degree of elan.
The principal units of the Navy are:
- Routine Security Company (Palgot Habatash): The regular security forces guard the maritime border of the State of Israel and prevent any threat to harm the security of Israel and its citizens.
- Missile boats (Shayetet 3): The mission of this squadron is to fight the enemy fleet in time of war, sink enemy ships, prevent Israel’s enemies from blocking its sea routes, and and assist the ground forces with incursions into enemy territory.
- Submarines (Shayetet 7): This unit’s missions are the destruction of enemy ships, controlling port entrances, the carrying out of secret espionage activities, and assisting other units during combat.
- Special Forces of the Navy (Shayetet 13): Shayetet 13 is the marine commando which operates at sea, on land, and in the air; its permanent base is at Atlit. It is one of the most daring units of the IDF.
- Naval control unit: This naval command unit is responsible for all military exercises and naval operations. This unit is divided into four companies: command, communication, electronics, and human resources. The unit is also responsible for the operations of naval combatants, both in emergency and routine situations. The mission of this unit is to inspect the operations of the units of the Israeli Navy.
- The Unit for Underwater Missions: This is an elite group of expert military divers set up in the 1980’s. Originally known as Unit 707, the Unit for Underwater missions handles every underwater task necessary for Israel’s security, whether that means placing a sonar locator deep underwater, neutralizing underwater explosives, stealthily emptying a ship of fuel or ammunition, or disarming and bringing a submerged projectile to the surface. The group is also conscripted to locate the bodies of missing Israelis when a disaster at sea occurs.
In 2013, the Navy unveiled the latest acquisition to its growing fleet: the INS Rahav – its fifth Dolphin-class submarine. The Dolphin is among the world’s most powerful and advanced submarines. A versatile vessel, the INS Rahav possesses a wide range of stealth, surveillance and strike capabilities which suit it for a large variety of missions.
With the added capabilities of Dolphin submarines and Sa’ar V missile corvettes the Navy possesses the power to operate as far off as the coast of Libya.
New systems and techniques are being developed to meet the changing realities of modern naval warfare, from thrust vectored propulsion on the Super Dvora MkII patrol craft to the Elisra ECM/ESM electronic warfare suite on the Sa’ar Vs.
The Navy has begun incorporating the Israeli-designed Typhoon naval gun system into its operational scheme. The gun, manufactured by El-Op and Rafael, is targeted thermally and will employ either a 25mm cannon or a .50 cal-triple barrel Phalanx gun. It is intended to be used on patrol boats and operated by remote control, thus reducing the risk to the sailors manning it.
The Israeli Navy announced plans to expand their cooperation with the U.S. Navy, as well as other NATO members in January 2017.
A rocket was successfully launched from an unmanned Israeli naval vessel for the first time, in March 2017. The Sea Knight remote-controlled drone can patrol for up to 12 hours on a single tank of gas and is both longer and wider than the Protector naval drone. In addition to the ability to fire rockets, the Sea Knight also boasts two remote-control machine guns, as well as water-cannons.
On May 1, 2017, Israeli officials announced the purchase from the United States of 13 Naval guns to be mounted on the Israeli Navy’s gunships. The $440 million purchase of the 76-mm Naval guns was approved by the U.S. State Department, and these weapons will be fitted to the Israeli Navy’s Sa’ar warships which were purchased from the German ThyssenKrupp shipyard.
The first of four German-made Sa’ar warships (dubbed Magen) arrived at Haifa Naval Base in January 2021. This advanced sea platform that will give Israel new capabilities to defend its critical offshore energy resources against a growing array of precision-guided enemy weaponry. Israel will install its own Israel-made onboard combat systems on each ship. They will also be equipped with two advanced air defense systems: Iron Dome and the Barak 8.
According to Yaakov Lappin, “the new ships carry more firepower per square meter than any ship its size in the world,” and “can stay at sea longer and sail farther than their predecessors.” He said, “These ships’ arrival represents a milestone in the evolution of the Israel Navy.”
“The arena is rapidly changing, and threats of high-intensity projectile barrages are evolving at a pace not seen in the past,” Lappin added. “At the same time, Israel’s dependence on the sea has never been greater, and is set to expand even further in coming years.”
Israel and Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems signed an agreement in January 2022 for the purchase of three Dakar-class diesel-electric submarines. The German government will provide nearly $680 million of the roughly $3.4 billion cost. It is estimated the first submarine won’t be ready for nine years.
Sources: Israel Defense Forces.
Yaakov Lappin, “Defending Israel on the ocean floor,” Jerusalem Post, (July 5, 2016).
Barbara Opall-Rome, “Israel Eyes Resumed Turkish Relations, More Training With US, NATO Navies,” Defense News, (January 12, 2016).
First rocket launch from unmanned IDF navy vessel, YNet News, (March 7, 2017).
Israel to Buy 13 Naval Guns From U.S. to Defend Offshore Gas Reserves, Haaretz, (May 1, 2017).
Yaakov Lappin, “Arrival of Sa’ar 6 Ships Marks Evolution of Israeli Naval Doctrine,” BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,893, (January 19, 2021).
Anna Ahronheim, “Israel, Germany sign agreement for three new submarines,” Jerusalem Post, (January 20, 2022).