With high-tech warships, Navy readies to guard gas fields from Hezbollah, Hamas

Four new German-built Sa’ar 6 corvettes due to arrive starting late 2019. Until then, IDF planning to protect strategic maritime assets with existing ships, specialized Iron Dome

By Judah Ari Gross 5 February 2018, 6:44 pm

An Israeli Navy Sa’ar 5 corvette defends a natural gas extraction platform off Israel’s coast, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

An Israeli Navy Sa’ar 5 corvette defends two natural gas extraction platforms off Israel’s coast, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

An Israeli Navy officer and German engineer look over plans for a Sa’ar 6 corvette that is under construction for the Israeli Navy in Kiel, Germany, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

German workers look over plans for a Sa’ar 6 corvette that is being constructed for the Israeli Navy in Kiel, Germany, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli Navy is charged with defending the country’s territorial waters, an area that is twice as large as the state itself and is becoming increasingly crowded with highly lucrative natural gas fields and shipping lanes, and it needs help.

For Israel’s enemies these naval sites are “preferred targets,” and both the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon and — to a lesser extent — Hamas in Gaza have the capabilities to threaten them, a senior Israeli Navy official said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The senior officer said the navy operates under the assumption that Hezbollah has access to the Russian-made Yakhont shore-to-sea guided missiles, though he would not say explicitly if Israeli intelligence indicates that that is indeed the case.

According to the official, Hamas is less able to acquire advanced weapons due to the Israeli and Egyptian blockades on the Gaza Strip, but is nevertheless believed to have access to two varieties of shore-to-sea missiles: the Chinese C-802 and C-704.

Both terror groups are also believed to be developing naval capabilities, including autonomous submersibles, suicide drones and scuba-diving commando units, Israeli naval officials have said.

Some of those weapons have already been deployed against Israel in combat, by Hezbollah in the 2006 Second Lebanon War and by Hamas in the 2014 Gaza war. Hezbollah succeeded in severely damaging the navy’s INS Hanit with a shore-to-sea missile in the 2006 conflict, and Hamas made use of a naval commando unit in a daring — though ultimately ineffectual — coastal attack at Zikim Beach in 2014.

To counter those threats, as the country’s gas fields and shipping lanes grow more and more important, the military has been investing heavily in the navy, upgrading systems and better integrating it into the rest of the Israel Defense Forces.

In the coming years, additional assistance will come in the form of four state-of-the-art Sa’ar 6 corvettes currently being built by a firm in Kiel, Germany.

The 300-feet-long (90-meter) warships will be packed to the gills with highly sensitive detection equipment, offensive weapons and defensive missile interceptors.

“We’re making use of them down to the last centimeter,” the senior officer told reporters.

Their primary mission will be to guard the natural gas extraction platforms located off the country’s coast.

Since a significant field — Noa North — was first found off the coast of Ashkelon in 2000, Israel has been moving more toward natural gas, with the hope of not only achieving energy independence, but of becoming an energy exporter. That desire kicked into overdrive with the discovery of the Tamar gas field in 2009 and the Leviathan deposit in 2010, which are 200 and 400 times larger than Noa North, respectively.

The process has not been without its controversies both at home and abroad. Domestically, Israelis staged large-scale protests against the deal between the government and energy companies for rights to the sites, with activists and economists claiming that average citizens would not see the benefits from the natural resource.

Internationally, Israel has been at loggerheads with its northern neighbor Lebanon over an area off the coasts of both countries, known as Block 9, where gas is believed to be located and which each claims as its own.

Last Wednesday, Lebanon issued an offshore oil and gas exploration tender for the area, prompting a war of words with Israel, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman calling the move “very provocative.”

Israel currently gets 60 percent of its electricity from natural gas, and that figure is expected to increase to 75% by the end of the decade.

Tamar, located 130 kilometers (80 miles) off the coast of Haifa, has been active since 2013, while extraction from the nearby Leviathan has yet to begin.

In 2012, the Bloomberg BusinessWeek financial publication estimated that Israel’s natural gas reserves were worth approximately $240 billion.

That valuation, along with the country’s increasing dependence on the gas fields for electrical power, led the government to officially recognize the sites as strategic national assets in 2013.

That year, the government formally gave the navy the responsibility for defending the gas fields, prompting large amounts of funding to be diverted toward the project.

The Sa’ar 6 corvettes will be outfitted with both a modified version of the Iron Dome system, known as the Naval Iron Dome, as well as the Barak 8 missile interceptor.

The senior officer explained that the Naval Dome system will provide a response primarily to simpler ballistic attacks, while the Barak 8 system is meant to counter more advanced guided missiles.

“But the Sa’ar 6 isn’t just defensive; it is also able to attack from long-range. It is deadly and can stand up to the threats,” the officer said. “If I had to pick a side, I’d pick ours.”

However, it’s going to take a little while before they get to the port of Haifa, where they will be based. The first of the ships will be delivered in November 2019, followed by a second in June 2020, a third in September 2020 and the final one in February 2021.

The Sa’ar 6 isn’t just defensive, it is also able to attack from long-range. It is deadly and can stand up to the threats

Only once they arrive can the navy and local defense contractors get to work outfitting the ships with the latest and greatest in Israeli technology, the officer said. The process of bringing the Sa’ar 6 corvettes to operational status is expected to take several months.

Last November, the Israeli Navy outfitted an existing Sa’ar 5, which is older and smaller than the Sa’ar 6, with a Naval Dome battery that is meant to act as an interim security measure.

In addition to purchasing the four cutting-edge Sa’ar 6 corvettes, the Defense Ministry announced a NIS 1.5 billion ($420 million) deal last July to outfit the Israeli Navy with maritime systems to protect the country’s gas fields and shipping lanes, including missile defense batteries, electronic warfare, navigation systems, command and control centers and communication gear.

The senior officer said the navy was also improving its Haifa base in order to better accommodate the Sa’ar 6 corvettes, including the construction of a new floating dry dock.

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