by DAVID AXE
On July 14, 2006, Hezbollah fighters fired two anti-ship missiles at the Israeli navy’s INS Hanit, a Sa’ar 5-class corvette, while Hanit was patrolling 10 miles off the Lebanese coast in support of Israeli attacks on the Iranian-supported extremist group. The first of the missiles — reportedly an Iranian-made C-802 — missed Hanit and struck an Egyptian freighter 37 miles out to sea. The second missile, this one possibly a smaller, electro-optically guided C-701, exploded over Hanit‘s flight deck, killing four sailors and setting the 1,200-ton vessel on fire.
The attack was a major propaganda coup for Iran and Hezbollah and a wake-up call for the Israeli navy. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah monitored and commented on the missile strike in real time, while conducting a phone interview with a Lebanese television station. “You don’t know who you are dealing with,” he said as Hanit burned.
The then 11-year-old corvette, built by Northrop Grumman in the U.S., managed to limp home to Ashdod naval base under her own power and has since been repaired. But the attack underscored shortfalls in Israeli tactics, equipment and preparedness that the 5,500-strong sea service has worked hard to correct.
Subsequent naval operations, particularly those targeting Iranian-backed Hamas in Gaza in January, revealed a better trained and equipped Israeli navy. Today the navy is optimizing to take on so-called “hybrid” threats, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, that combine high technology with insurgent methods — while Israel also boosts its high-end strategic capabilities, in order to deter Iran from overt attacks. The latter has grown more urgent, as Iran continues to pursue a nuclear capability, in defiance of world opinion.
The post-Lebanon Israeli navy represents an important case study for other navies. To understand how the Israelis work to maintain regional naval dominance and strategic deterrence in a dangerous, dynamic environment, we visited Israeli Defense Force facilities and spoke to a range of experts on IDF operations.
Improvements since Lebanon include: refined tactics and procedures; expanded use of unmanned vehicles; plans to procure a new class of large corvettes to bolster the surface fleet; and the planned addition of two diesel-electric submarines, nearly doubling the current fleet.
Unprepared, unalert, disconnected
The attack on Hanit apparently revealed shortfalls in the navy’s alertness and situational awareness. Naval intelligence was unaware that Hezbollah possessed anti-ship missiles, according to an internal, post-war IDF report leaked to The Jerusalem Post. But the IDF’s service-wide intelligence agency said it did alert naval intel to the missiles’ presence, the report claimed.
Compounding this failure, in the hours before the attack on Hanit, the vessel’s crew deactivated the Barak air-defense system that equips Hanit and her two sisters, in addition to several, smaller Sa’ar 4.5-class corvettes — this despite one officer on the ship having a “gut feeling” that Hezbollah might fire an anti-ship missile, the report revealed. At the least, the navy’s ignorance of the missile threat reflected a broken process for information-sharing between IDF agencies. The navy might also be guilty of complacency.
The specific failures leading up to the Hanit attack were consistent with broader problems identified by a public commission that convened after the war to study Israeli failures. The Winograd Commission — which included retired flag officers and experts in law and political science — found that “Israel did not use its military force well and effectively.” The attack on Hanit, in particular, “colored to a large extent the whole performance of the navy.”
After Lebanon, the navy realized it needed to tighten up tactics for its surface fleet, a senior navy source said. (The IDF asks reporters not to identify sources by name, to protect them from reprisal by extremists.) Ship commanders are now stricter about employing electronic counter-measures and maintaining air defenses. Littoral operations have shifted to nighttime, wherever possible, to complicate the enemy’s targeting. Where daytime operations are required, Israeli vessels now maintain greater distance from shore.
Operations off Gaza in January demonstrated the navy’s improved preparedness. Naval forces provided fire support to troops ashore throughout the two-week conflict while also maintaining a previous blockade of the Gaza coast, all without loss. Ill-advised attempt by one aid group to run the naval cordon unwittingly helped the Israeli navy demonstrate its improved readiness. The Cyprus-based group Free Gaza periodically sends craft to Gaza, carrying activists, journalists and relief supplies, in defiance of the Israeli blockade.
In early morning hours in December 2008, Free Gaza’s sixth mission ran afoul of a force of several Israeli patrol boats, which intercepted the group’s boat Dignity 90 miles off the coast. The patrol boats fired flares, caught Dignity in their searchlights and ordered the crew to turn back. A collision resulted — the Free Gaza crew said the Israelis deliberately rammed them — and Dignity eventually returned to port in Lebanon.
On June 30 this year, Free Gaza’s boat Spirit of Humanity also challenged the blockade. Just after midnight, Israeli boats approached Spirit of Humanity and began “jamming their instrumentation, blocking their GPS, radar, and navigation systems,” according to the aid group. Around noon, the navy took custody of the Free Gaza craft and sailed it to Ashdod naval base in Israel. The navy’s tactics in this encounter indicates a more comprehensive use of electronic countermeasures than was apparent in the Lebanon war — and also demonstrates’ the Israeli navy’s growing comfort with night missions.
To help resolve the intelligence disconnect that contributed to the Hanit incident, the navy is improving its “jointness,” especially with regards to the air force, according to the senior navy source. Better ties to the air branch are meant to ensure the latest surveillance data reaches naval forces in time to defend against pop-up threats, hopefully preventing another Hanit-style surprise.
Gaps in jointness is particularly vexing problem for the IDF’s. In contrast to larger navies, the Israeli navy does directly operate any aircraft. The Israeli air force flies all the IDF’s aircraft, even those that deploy on naval vessels. Thanks to its drones, the air force was generally successful in quickly spotting Hezbollah weapons systems during the Lebanon war. “Air force intelligence … performed in clock-work fashion,” wrote David Eshel, a former IDF colonel, turned analyst and journalist. But that air intel did not wind its way to naval commanders, fast enough — potentially contributing to Hanit‘s blindness.
Equipping the navy with its own aircraft is not really an option, according to John Pike, an analyst with the Virginia-based think tank Globalsecurity.org. “The Israeli military is just not very large … so it might be difficult to effectively maintain a separate air arm.” To boost the navy’s access to intel gathered by the air force, the IDF is buying a new “marinized” version of the air force’s stalwart Heron drone, and forming new, joint crews to operate them.
The maritime Herons, built by Israeli Aerospace Industries, will have a 40-hour endurance at 30,000 feet, and will reportedly feature a sea search radar and a stabilized electro-optical camera, plus data-links to ground stations, aircraft and ships. The first such drone is due to enter service by the end of this year. The air force will provide the drones’ flight crews, while the navy supplies sensor operators.
Robots for surface stand-off
Unmanned systems are also key to directly bolstering Israeli surface vessels’ defenses against the most vexing threats. Besides anti-ship missiles such as struck Hanit, the navy also must contend with suicide bombers and fishing boats booby-trapped with explosives, according to a navy source.
Israel’s roughly 30 patrol boats are particularly vulnerable to bombs. Patrol boats ranging in size from 25 to 60 tons displacement — with armament including machine guns, cannon and small surface-to-surface missiles — handle much of the day-to-day patrolling to interdict illegal weapons shipments coming into Gaza. On no fewer than three occasions, in 2000, 2002 and again in April this year, extremists used explosives-laden fishing boats in attacks on the patrol boats. The 2000 incident was a suicide attack.
The navy has struggled with tactics to defeat bombers disguised as fishermen. One controversial method described to University of Kentucky political science professor Robert Farley involves forcing Palestinians to come to the navy, instead of the other way around. Patrol boat crews “fix a target boat at range with searchlight and guns, order the Palestinian fishermen to disrobe and swim to the patrol boat, and then interrogate them,” recalls Farley, who specializing in international security and has studied the Israeli navy. Farley says the navy defended the “disrobing” tactic, by insisting “the water is warm.”
Most of the Israeli navy’s at-sea interdictions are performed by manned patrol boats, as seen in the Free Gaza episodes. But robotic craft — namely, Rafael’s Protector Unmanned Surface Vehicle — have begun to contribute, as well. “The suicide boat attack [in 2000] was the impetus for the development of the USV,” Giora Katz, then head of Rafael’s naval and electronic warfare directorate, told Aviation Week last year.
Protector is actually a kit that can be installed on nine- or 11-meter Rigid-Hull Inflatable Boats. Protectors come with a range of sensor and weapons options, and boast a high degree of autonomy — amounting to what roboticists call “supervisory control.” In other words, operators at sea or at shore stations can direct a Protector to travel to GPS waypoints, and do not have to “steer” the robot. Protector can apparently relay video and radar data back to its operators.
Israel began experimenting with industry-owned Protectors in 2006. Today the IDF says Protectors are “operational,” but will neither specify how many of the robots it possesses, nor describe in detail the bots’ tactics. But it’s clear the Protectors play a role in screening potential suicide boats before sailors board them.
Notably, Israel’s Protectors can be fitted with the same family of Typhoon remotely-operated, stabilized weapons mount that now equips many of the navy’s most modern patrol boats, including the Super Dvora and Shaldag classes. Typhoon, built by Rafael, can be fitted with a wide range of guns, plus Rafael’s Spike ER guided missiles, alongside radar or infrared and electro-optical cameras for targeting. The addition of Spike missiles to the Typhoon mounts was a response to the Hanit attack, Eshel said. Typhoon, firing Spike missiles, gives patrol boats greater stand-off range against shore targets — reportedly up to five miles.
During the Gaza campaign this year, patrol boats used Spikes to destroy Hamas coastal installations and boats. With roughly the same weapons and sensor fits as the patrol boats, the Protectors are useful for major combat, as well as for maritime security operations.
Unmanned systems such as Heron and Protector will only grow in importance to the Israeli navy, as it strives to boost real-time intelligence and extend stand-off distance from increasingly lethal threats. For a brief period from 2006, it appeared the Israeli navy would approach the integration of unmanned vehicles into the fleet the same way the U.S. Navy is, by adopting new, spacious ship design as “motherships.” The U.S. Navy’s first purpose-built mothership is the Littoral Combat Ship USS Freedom (LCS-1), built by Lockheed Martin.
The Lebanon war — and the Hanit attack, especially — proved to the Israeli navy that its next surface combatant needed to be bigger than the Sa’ar 5, in order to mount heavier sensors and weapons with greater range, and thus improved stand-off capabilities.
Jerusalem considered buying two copies of a Freedom derivative modified for heavier sensors and armament, potentially including SPY-1F radar system tied to a new version of the Barak missile. The Israeli vessels would have retained the stern ramps for USV deployment also seen on the U.S. version. At 3,000 tons displacement, the so-called LCS-I (for “Israel”) would have been the Israeli navy’s largest-ever warship.
In the three years Israel spent studying LCS and funding preliminary design work (to the tune of $5 million), the cost of the U.S. Navy vessels nearly doubled, to more than $600 million per hull. Israel had hoped to acquire two vessels for that price. As late as April 2009, Israeli navy sources said the service was “considering” the LCS-I. But in June, Defense News broke the story that the IDF had “shelved” LCS-I in favor of a locally-built, 2,200-ton version of the Meko A-100, from Germany’s Blohm and Voss, a subsidiary of ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems. If construction proceeds, the Mekos might still use American materials and funding, but the design philosophy will differ considerably from the U.S. Navy’s. And instead of SPY-1F, the new corvette will boast the new Adir radar designed by Elta, part of Israeli Aerospace Industries.
Where the U.S. Navy’s LCS emphasizes mission modularity, with the ability to quickly swap out, say, a suite of surface-warfare systems for anti-submarine or mine-warfare systems, ThyssenKrupp considers “modularity” to mean accessibility for periodic upgrades. At the Euronaval trade show in Paris in October 2008, ThyssenKrupp officials discussed their vision for a “Combat Ship for the Littorals,” or CSL — essentially a roomier Meko displacing around 3,000 tons. A key design feature would be a stern ramp and plenty of space for craft and USVs. These days, “a frigate without a dock at the back is inconceivable,” an executive told Bill Sweetman of Defense Technology International.
If Israel’s proposed Meko shares anything in common with the CSL, it might resemble a slightly smaller, slightly less modular LCS, but with all the same basic qualities. But the Israeli navy’s plans for its major surface combatants is hardly settled: the Meko strategy hinges on a lot of factors, potentially including adequate domestic funding, in the event that U.S. military aid doesn’t cover the full cost of the vessels. Israel could still opt for vessels made in the U.S. Regardless of who builds them, or where, it’s likely that Israel’s next corvette will emphasize unmanned systems.
Dual utility, the ability to address threats at the high and low ends of the spectrum of conflict, is a hallmark of Israeli USVs — and all of Jersulam’s naval forces. Increasingly, with the emergence of hybrid warfare, as seen in both Lebanon and Gaza, the navy expects to have to deal with high- and low-end threats simultaneously.
No force embodies this philosophy more than Israel’s tiny submarine fleet. The navy operates three 1,600-ton-displacement Dolphin-class submarines, built to a modified Type 209 design by ThyssenKrupp’s Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft subsidiary beginning in the mid-1990s. Reportedly fitted with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles of an unknown type, the Dolphins comprise the most survivable element of Israel’s nuclear deterrence. But they are also apparently equipped to covertly deliver special forces, making them a potent vehicle for low-intensity warfare.
As part of its modernization scheme, Israel is investing nearly $2 billion in two additional Dolphins, upgraded with Air-Independent Propulsion. The first of the additional boats should enter service in 2012. “Our submarines are integral to the mission and future of the navy,” a senior officer said. “A navy is not defined by how many patrol boats it has, rather by its corvettes, cruisers and submarines.”
Pike said the navy values the submarines primarily as a “secure second strike capability.” He pointed out that Israel’s land-based nuclear missiles “are all at one base” and thus vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike. Of course, Israel also reportedly possesses nuclear bombs for its fighter-bomber fleet.
To boost the submarines’ deterrent effect, Israel has begun deploying them farther from Israeli waters. In July, a single Dolphin accompanied two Sa’ar 5s through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea, for an exercise with the Egyptian armed forces. “These maneuvers are a message to Iran,” an unnamed Israeli diplomat told The Times of London. The exercise reflected closer ties between Israel and Egypt meant to balance Iranian influence. In 2008, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told his political party that “the Persians are trying to devour the Arab states.”
The Israeli navy’s strategic initiatives dovetail with its operations off Lebanon and Gaza. Just as Iran targets Israel across the spectrum of conflict, through proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas and with the threat of its nascent nuclear weapons program, the Israeli navy is evolving to handle simultaneous high- and low-intensity operations against elusive and sophisticated enemies, while also maintaining a credible deterrence.
The Lebanon war was a wake-up call for a complacent Israeli sea service. The Gaza conflict was a test of refined methods for waging “hybrid” war. But it’s the broader showdown with Iran, encompassing these conflicts plus over-arching nuclear tension, that represents the greatest challenge for the new, improved Israeli navy.
(Photo: via Robert Farley)