Wednesday, April 30, 2014

  • Wednesday, April 30, 2014
  • Elder of Ziyon
A neat overview of the history and future of Israel's navy, from Ehud Eiran in World Politics Review:

Last month, the Israeli navy took control of a Panamanian ship off the coast of Sudan that was carrying Iranian munitions to Gaza. The Red Sea operation underscored the growth of the navy’s role in Israel’s power projection, which has accelerated in the 21st century after many decades in which maritime strategy was something of an afterthought for Israel’s military.

A maritime perspective was central in pre-state Zionist strategic thinking, because the seas were the gateway for Jewish immigration into Palestine. However, once the state of Israel was created in 1948, the seas and the navy lost their significance in the eyes of Israel's security establishment. The wars that followed featured mostly challenges and responses on the ground and in the air.

In these early years, Israel's military leadership defined five goals for the navy: to guard the coast, to protect ports, to "take action" against a possible naval blockade by Arab states, to "land from the sea, against enemy targets," and to secure Israeli "maritime transportation." With these rather minimalist goals, the navy possessed until the early 1970s a small number of platforms, mostly destroyers. The force reflected a haphazard approach to planning and procurement, rather than a clear vision.

This period also set the contours of the major internal debates the navy would have for decades to come, mostly between the supporters of a surface fleet and the supporters of a force that would focus on maritime sabotage by frogman. These debates were part of what led to the navy’s ethos of maximum utilization of the naval force with an emphasis on technology, an offensive approach, forward deployment of commanders, operational flexibility and a significant investment in training.

One other legacy the navy has retained from these early days is that of viewing the Mediterranean as the main area of operations. This view is also a result of geography: Israel has a 120-mile Mediterranean shore dotted with more than 10 ports serving the nation's major population centers. On the Red Sea, Israel has only a 9-mile shore, serving the underpopulated southern end of the country, with only one port.

The Israeli navy's performance in its early decades was mixed. Alongside achievements such as the capture of an Egyptian destroyer in the 1956 Suez crisis, the Israeli navy suffered a number of major failures: poor performance in the 1967 War and the loss (in action) of a destroyer and a submarine (probably in an accident), both in 1968. In part due to these failures, by the mid-1970s Israel’s navy had transformed itself into a missile-boat based force, supplemented with advanced electronic warfare systems. These changes contributed to the navy's successful performance in the 1973 War.

Also during the 1970s, the navy began to participate in the armed conflict between Israel and the Palestinian national movement. The latter's armed elements then operated mostly from Lebanon. Israel’s navy SEALs conducted dozens of raids on Palestinian targets in Lebanon. Other elements of the navy tried to prevent penetrations of Palestinian combatants from the sea into Israel. The 1982 Israeli-Palestinian War saw Israel’s navy conduct the only large-scale amphibious assault in its history, when it transported Israeli ground forces to northern Lebanon.

The 1990s marked the next phase of change in the Israeli navy. An era of peace talks between Israel and its immediate neighbors contributed to the further decommissioning of the navy’s surface fleet. By the 2000s, Israel’s navy operated only 13 missile boats, down from 24 in the 1980s.

The more significant change, however, occurred under the surface, with the 1990s launch of an ambitious expansion plan for the submarine fleet. The 1991 barrage of Iraqi ballistic missiles on Israel ushered in a greater awareness of the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. In response, the navy was reshaped to meet Israel's most fundamental threat. Though the reports have never been officially recognized, according to the foreign media the six Dolphin- and Dolphin 2-class submarines that Germany is supplying to Israel will be able to carry nuclear warheads, thus providing Israel with a second-strike nuclear capability. If true, this would mark the first time that the navy will play a central role in Israeli deterrence. Moreover, given that Israel does not share a border with Iran, the submarines can also serve as an instrument for other forms of Israeli power projection directed at Iran.

The 2000s brought with them three more changes that are bound to shape Israel’s navy in the coming decades. First, since 2004 Israel has been exploiting massive gas deposits in its exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean. The centrality of the deposits for its economy led Israel to commit to defending the gas production facilities at sea. The navy will lead this effort and has already requested to expand its surface force. The gas issue has also led to some maritime tension between Israel and Lebanon, as the two countries disagree over the demarcation of their respective exclusive economic zones. American mediation has not resolved the issue, for now.

Second, during the 2000s Israel began to operate militarily in a more pronounced way over the horizon. This was both a response to the rise of the Iranian threat, but also in an effort to thwart the supply of rockets to Palestinian-controlled Gaza. The navy became an important actor in this form of power projection, as illustrated by the March 2014 Red Sea operation to interdict the shipment of munitions to Gaza. Finally, during the 2000s the navy began deploying an unmanned naval combat system, the Protector, perhaps marking the future direction for some of its platforms.

As the Israeli navy moves into the 21st century, it is in the process of transforming itself. From a secondary service operating within a military that saw "an Israeli war fleet as an unnecessary expense," in the words of Vice Adm. Yedidia Yaari, commander of the navy from 2000 to 2004, it is becoming a strategic arm that is entrusted with dealing with Israel's most significant threats.

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