image Med Men. IDF’s sailors no longer performing in a sideshow. Photo: GPO

Small, Smart, Sea-going: Israel’s Navy Shapes Up

Modern Missions In Mediterranean And More

By Amir Oren

At the height of the Cold War an Israeli Navy Commander with a promising future was sent to the US, to attend a prestigious Naval War College course. One of the guest lecturers was a recently retired Chief of Naval Operations – still up to date, but no longer bound by party line. When the Admiral finished his speech describing the next war between his own Navy and the Soviet Union, a Scandinavian student asked whether he understood how unrealistic this scenario was. “You guys are wedded to Aircraft Carriers, which the Soviets don’t have, but their missiles will immediately sink your flat-tops. You will lose in the first five minutes of the war.”

The Israeli officer in attendance expected the Admiral, a “brown shoe” or Surface Warfare Officer, to prove his challenger wrong. Instead, he agreed with him. “Unfortunately, you may be right, but there is not a lot we can do about it. You see, most of the Admirals in our Navy belong to the Aircraft Carrier community, not to the Destroyers or Submarine ones. This is also where much of the budget goes to. So, rank impacts reality and doctrine follows dollars”.

That particular Israeli started his career as a Naval Commando, a member and later chief of Shayetet 13 – Israel’s equivalent of the British Special Boat Service and the US’s SEALs. But in order to advance and compete for positions higher than Captain, he had to convert to another naval specialty and learn the ropes of fighting in and leading a Satil – in Hebrew, short for Sfinat Tilim, or Missile Boat. One could come up through the ranks and have a fair chance of reaching the top, but not by clinging to the romantic role of a frog-man sneaking ashore on a suicidal sabotage operation. The Navy’s main line of business has been, and still is, Satils.

This was apparent earlier this week at Haifa, when the Israel Navy welcomed the first of four Corvettes of the Sa’ar 6 class. Corvettes, Frigates, Destroyers, Battleships – these are all old terms, used by ancient mariners in the Age of Sail. They remain, because Navies are heavy on traditions, but their current utility has to do with size – length and displacement.

Sa’ar – the connotation is of storm and assault – is the generic name given to Israeli-ordered missile boats in the 1960’s, when winds of change started breezing in the IDF’s junior branch – rather than Senior Service, as the British would have it. The Israeli upstarts, aware of the need for ingenuity and adaptation to the country’s unique needs, tried to beat the clock and transform before disaster struck. They failed, at a great cost, and the fast recovery they made was as amazing as the failure was somber.

When the IDF was born in battle during the 1948 war, there was no maritime front to speak of. Israel was invaded by ground forces. Air attacks on either side were primitive and sporadic. Early fears of the Egyptian military, the strongest foe, landing troops near Tel Aviv, were laid to rest. The main concern in the Eastern Mediterranean was, and remained for years, a siege – most of Israel’s essentials, from food to energy, were imported by merchant marine. Arab attacks on shipping could sink some transports and scare away all others, with insurance rates soaring to unaffordable heights. The Navy’s top priority was thus defined as keeping the supply pipeline open, whether by escorting ships or disabling opposing Navies by hitting them at their homeports.

This was fine on paper, but there were no resources for implementing the vision. Whatever money there was in the defense budget was allocated to Fighter Planes, Armor, Paratroops, Intelligence, Research and Development – those military activities which could bring swift victory in the main battles to be waged in the Sinai or the West Bank, perhaps even within Israel’s sovereign territory. The Navy could hardly contribute to that effort. Its assistance would be marginal and the investment in it should reflect this grim reality. It was given peanuts for second-hand, obsolescent World War II vintage destroyers and submarines. Israel would have its Pattons, but not its Nelsons. Bodies of water may sometimes be called “Seas” – as in Dead Sea and Sea of Galillee – when they are just lakes, and not the largest in the world.

So out of mind was and to some extent still is the navy, Coast Guard like, that its chief was allowed to outrank all other IDF officers save the Chief of Staff. Outrank, literally – when wearing his uniform with outsiders, his counterparts. That is because the IDF chief or Ramatkal is a 3-Star General, a Lieutenant-General, respectable enough for a modest military. His senior subordinates are all 2-Star Major Generals, or in the Navy Rear-Admiral (Upper Half, in the American system). With Israeli insignia, it does not matter, but because navies have a universal rank scheme involving dress uniform sleeves with stripes, the Israeli would be obviously outranked by his colleagues. Some 20 years ago, a Navy chief managed to convince a Ramatkal to let him wear    A Vice Admiral’s rank, the same three stars accorded to that Army officer, and from then on it stuck – traditions (and superstitions) are not easily thrown overboard by sailors.

While the Air Force left its Ramla-based Headquarters and joined the General Staff at Haqirya, the Tel Aviv nexus of Defense Ministry, IDF and intelligence services, the Navy kept to itself in remote Haifa, basking in splendid isolation. It did not realize how crucial it was to co-habit the same compound and operations nerve-center, much more important than the ability to look down from Mount Carmel at the fleet in port.

One tragic outcome of this disconnect was the US Navy Liberty affair. For Americans struck by the speed of Israel’s Six-Day, three-front victory on land and in the air, it was hard to realize how backward were the third service and its connectivity with the other two.

The problem was also mental, or emotional. The Navy missed out on the IDF’s most brilliant professional performance. Indeed, it failed miserably, with Naval Commandos unable to execute their missions against the Egyptian and Syrian Navies. This frustration seeped in and caused officers to both over-react and grow complacent, the result being the most disastrous period in the short history of the Israel Navy, four months in 1967-68.

During that time the Navy lost a destroyer (Elath) and a submarine (Dakar) for a total of 120 officers and men killed, many more wounded and morale sinking to the depth of the Mediterranean. While the loss of Dakar could have happened in other navies, such as the American, French and Russian ones, and was a testimony to the danger of operating an old vessel right after being retrofitted at a shipyard, the Elath incident was totally avoidable. It did not have to be where it was, had no business provoking Egyptian missile boats and was in essence just biding its time before Israeli Satils are produced in France and come home to bid farewell to the three destroyers on their way to the junkyard.

The concept was well developed by that time – rather than 200-strong crews operating sitting ducks with guns called destroyers, a few dozen officers and men in compact boats with small silhouettes (and radar cross-sections) presenting targets more difficult to hit. The winning combination was electronic warfare measures disorienting the Soviet-made boat-launched missiles on their way to the Israeli targets and home-made Gabriel missiles destroying the Egyptian and Syrian boats.

In the lag between the idea and the weapon systems becoming available, the IDF and its Navy failed to see that the cumbersome destroyer was not only no longer an asset – it was a costly liability.

It was therefore amazing indeed, and a tribute to the spirit of the down but not out shipmates (and st times brothers) of the fallen Elath and Dakar servicemen, that five short years later the Navy distinguished itself more than the other branches in the Yom Kippur War, thereby proving that the assumptions underlying the move to the Satil age were right on the mark.

In the five decades between the first Sa’ars and today’s 6 the Navy modernized and added missions to its portfolio. Its German-made submarines are advertised as strategic, carrying longer-range missiles for deterrence and destruction, in addition to its routine roles in operations and intelligence. With the Suez Canal open to Israeli shipping following peace with Egypt, operating in the Red Sea and beyond is much easier – and with Iran as Israel’s main and most ominous adversary, the Persian Gulf is quite an area of interest to the Navy.

For long-range cover, surveillance and protection it still has to rely on the Air Force, of course, planes being 10 to 20 times faster than boats, and if there is another IDF campaign in South Lebanon or Gaza the Navy is expected to play the role of a “Western Division” supporting the main thrust. With command, control and conputers putting all firing units on the same network, a besieged battalion commander engaged by Hezbollah or  Hamas could ask for a salvo from whoever is better positioned to help – a fighter pilot, an unmanned aerial vehicle operator, an artillery battery, a Sa’ar 5 or 6.

Perhaps the most fundamental sea-change has to do with Sa׳ar 6’s raison d’etre. The Eastern Mediterranean is no longer just miles upon miles of water until one happens to see an island or a mainland. With gas being explored all around, and Israel having a nice share of the pie, the sea is suddenly full of life, economic activity, competition – and tempting targets. It is no longer a side-show. A platform could be just as attractive a target as Ben Gurion Airport.

So when the homecoming ceremony for the Satil crew is over, the hard work begins, in patrols, training and trying to be ahead of one’s enemy, from sea to shining – and threatening – sea.