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 Israel’s interests today and tomorrow.
Since Israel’s 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 IDF’s “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 Israel’s new defense concept for the 21st century.
The ISN’s principal missions include defending Israel’s coastline in times of peace and war and protecting the sea lanes that serve as the nation’s lifeline to the world. Additionally, if needed, the navy may serve in a strategic capacity, enhancing Israel’s deterrent posture as regional rogue states develop their ballistic missile arsenals.
Tales of Victory and Loss
The history of Israel’s 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 Israel’s 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 Sa’ar 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 expand Israel’s operational strategic depth substantially.
The Sa’ar 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 Sa’ar 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 IDF’s 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 ISN’s 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.
On November 11, 2020, the Israeli Navy received the world’s most modern corvette – “INS Magen” – from Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems. This was the first of four next-generation SA’AR-6 class missile corvettes being built for the Israeli Navy. According to Naval News, “The ships have the stealthy design of a low-signature missile corvette with tailor-made solutions and numerous new technologies onboard.”
The state-of-the-art ships are now deployed and equipped with two Naval Dome missile interceptors for rockets,16 anti-ship missiles, one 76-mm. Oto Melara Super Rapid main gun, two Typhoon 25-mm. remote weapon stations, and two 324-mm. torpedo launchers.
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 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 other’s 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 Israel’s potential adversaries continue to evolve over the next decade, the ISN will play an increasingly important part in maintaining Israel’s peace and security, well out of proportion to its size and resources.
Sources: Near East Report, (April 17, 2000).
“TKMS Hands Over SA’AR 6 Corvette ‘INS Magen’ To The Israeli Navy,” Naval News, (November 11, 2020).
Yonah Jeremy Bob, “Israel conducts naval drill with five other countries,” Jerusalem Post, (March 30, 2023).
*The author was AIPAC's Senior Military Analyst