Army simulates attack on gas rigs in most complex naval drill in decades

Army simulates attack on gas rigs in most complex naval drill in decades

Gunships fire missiles at cargo freighter acting as enemy vessel in massive exercise meant to prepare for attacks by Hamas, Hezbollah

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

The Israel Navy this week simulated an attack on the country’s natural gas platforms, including a live-fire test of sea-to-sea missiles to destroy an “enemy ship,” the military said Thursday.

Four Sa’ar-4.5 model corvettes participated in the week-long naval exercise, dubbed “Raging Sea,” which ended on Thursday.

The military said it was the most complex naval drill in decades.

The exercise included missiles fired from four ships simultaneously at an old cargo freighter acting as an enemy vessel.

“We simulated an enemy ship coming to harm our strategic facilities and, with coordination at sea and in the air, we destroyed it,” said Col. Guy Goldfarb, commander of the navy’s gunships.

Terror groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip have both threatened to attack Israel’s natural gas platforms.

Israel has in recent years transformed into a major gas exporter after major reserves of the resource were discovered in its waters in the Mediterranean.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, left, visit the Leviathan natural gas platform off the Israeli coast on January 31, 2019. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Earlier on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited an under construction rig site in the Leviathan gas field, some 125 kilometers (80 miles) west of the Israeli port city of Haifa.

“Completion of the Leviathan gas platform and the pumping of gas from this field later in the year is a critical component of the strategic, energy, economic and diplomatic strength of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said.

The navy said the cargo ship sunk in the exercise — the Eyal, which was due to be scrapped — was meant to simulate an enemy ship transporting fighters to a natural gas platform in order to blow it up.

The Harpoon anti-ship cruise missiles used in the exercise were fired from four Sa’ar corvettes at the same time, from a distance of approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles).

A Harpoon cruise missile strikes a decrepit cargo ship as part of an exercise in January 2019. (Screen capture: Israel Defense Forces)

The military said an exercise of this size and complexity, which involved many ships as well as the live fire test, has not been conducted by the Israel Navy in approximately 20 years.

“This kind of exercise requires two and a half months of preparations. It was a highly irregular exercise in its scope and size — all of the gunship fleet was in the water,” Goldfarb said.

Due to Israel’s tense relationship with its land neighbors, the Jewish state relies extensively on the Mediterranean for its trade. Recently discovered natural gas reserves off the coast of Israel are also of significant importance to the Jewish state, turning it for the first time into an energy exporter.

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

A successful attack on the natural gas platforms would have a tremendous effect on Israel’s economy, and the images of the structures on fire would serve as a “victory photo” for the terror group or enemy nation behind it.

During the 2014 Gaza war, the Hamas terror group launched rockets at Israel’s natural gas platforms — located some 40 kilometers (25 miles) — but failed to hit them.

Israel, for now, does not believe the Gaza-based terror group is able to hit the platforms, though it does have access to two varieties of shore-to-sea missiles: the Chinese C-802 and C-704.

However, the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah terror group, which has also threatened to attack the natural gas reserves, is believed to be capable of striking the platforms using Russian-made Yakhont shore-to-sea guided missiles and other weapons.

A Yakhont missile at a Russian air show in 1997 (CC BY-SA/JNO/Wikimedia Commons)

Both terror groups are also believed to be developing other 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 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.

Until the ships enter service, however, the navy has installed Iron Dome batteries on the less advanced Sa’ar-5 corvette.

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