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Israel set to receive new warship to defend gas rigs from missile attack

German-made Sa’ar-6-class corvette to come equipped with Iron Domes as military warns that direct strike on operating platform is among largest threats facing country

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

The Sa'ar-6-class corvette that will be officially handed over to the Israeli Navy on November 11, 2020, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)
The Sa'ar-6-class corvette that will be officially handed over to the Israeli Navy on November 11, 2020, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli Navy is slated next week to receive the first of four new German-made Sa’ar-6-class corvettes, stuffed to the gills with sensors, weapons and defensive systems to aid them in their task of protecting Israel’s natural gas rigs and trade routes.

As Israel tapped into the natural gas reserves located in its territorial waters just over a decade ago, the government officially designated them a strategic national asset and tasked the navy with defending them. This was no small feat for the navy, which until then was primarily concerned with protecting Israel’s coast.

The arrival of the Sa’ar-6, planned for Wednesday, is expected to significantly boost Israel’s ability to protect the country’s two operational gas rigs from missiles and other types of attacks.

Every nearly 2,000-ton missile ship is equipped with two Iron Dome interceptor launchers — known as the Naval Dome — to intercept rockets and a Barak-8 battery to shoot down cruise and ballistic missiles.

The ships are also covered in some 260 static radar arrays — known as a phased array — that allow them to detect incoming projectiles and aircraft in the sky, as well as ships and low-flying cruise missiles at sea level. In the past, a ship would have needed two separate radar systems, one to detect objects at sea level and one to scan the skies. That the 260 or so arrays stay in place also means that the ship is less easily detectable than vessels with radar systems that rotate.

The Sa’ar-6-class corvette in Kiel, Germany, that will be officially handed over to the Israeli Navy on November 11, 2020, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

Though the Sa’ar-6, which has a helicopter landing pad on its back, is larger than the Israeli Navy’s other two classes of corvettes, the Sa’ar-5 and Sa’ar-4.5, it shows up as far smaller on radar, thanks to advancements in stealth technology in recent decades.

The Sa’ar-6 is large compared to the country’s existing vessels, but Navy officials say it is far smaller than the types of ships that perform the types of missions it is being tasked with.

Unlike its predecessors, the Sa’ar-6 is also specifically built to house both male and female sailors. The navy anticipates that roughly a quarter of the crew of the missile ships will be women.

The Sa’ar-6-class corvette in Kiel, Germany, that will be officially handed over to the Israeli Navy on November 11, 2020, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The first Sa’ar-6, the INS Magen, will formally change hands next Wednesday, but will not be operational for several months. Though the ship will be fully constructed and seaworthy, the overwhelming majority of the sensors, weapons and defense systems come from Israeli companies and will be installed and linked together in Israel.

The other three Sa’ar-6-class corvettes — the INS Oz, the INS Atzma’ut and the INS Nitzahon — will arrive over the next year or so.

Threats ahoy

The threats facing these natural gas platforms are myriad and growing: simple Chinese-made shore-to-sea cruise missiles, the more advanced Russian anti-ship Yakhont cruise missiles, Iranian Khalij Fars precision-guided ballistic missiles, massive barrages of imprecise rockets, naval commandos, autonomous mini-submarines, explosives-laden suicide boats.

To the navy, the most concerning are cruise missiles and precision-guided ballistic missiles. Hezbollah is already known to possess Chinese cruise missiles, having used the the C-802 and C-701 missiles successfully during the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

The Israel Defense Forces believes that while there are stocks of the powerful Russian Yakhont missile controlled by Syria — a close ally of Hezbollah — the terror group does not have the munition in Lebanon, The Times of Israel has learned. This does not mean Hezbollah has not been trained to operate the advanced Russian cruise missile should it choose to.

A view of the Leviathan natural gas processing rig from Dor Habonim Beach Nature Reserve, January 1, 2020. (Flash90)

If any of these were to hit an operating gas rig — Israel currently has two operational platforms, Tamar and Leviathan, with plans to open a third, Karish-Tanin, in a few years — the result would be catastrophic — a huge explosion, which would likely kill all those on board, cause massive damage to the structure and would potentially cause an ecological disaster as natural gas spilled into the waters.

In addition to the immediate effects, such a strike would potentially have considerable consequences on Israel’s electrical grid, which depends on a steady flow of natural gas, and could cause widescale power outages.

On a scale of potential disasters produced by the military, a strike on an operating gas rig at sea ranks higher than one on a chemical refinery plant in Haifa, higher than one on Israel’s strategic blood bank and far higher than a successful hit on Ben Gurion International Airport.

Luckily, the potential damage could be overwhelmingly avoided if the platforms were offline, something that Israel can do in a relatively short amount of time. However, this all assumes advanced warning of an attack. Despite being a matter of national security, the decision of when to shut down the rigs is not ultimately up to the military but to the Energy Ministry.

An image from a video by the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah threatening to attack Israeli offshore gas platforms. (Screen capture)

The Lebanese Hezbollah terror group has in fact identified Israel’s national gas rigs as a potential target, releasing a video in 2018 showing the Leviathan platform in gunsights and threatening to destroy them “within hours.”

The threat from Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which fired a rocket toward Israel’s Tamar gas extraction platform in the 2014 Gaza war, is considered to be far less. The terror group is not believed to have advanced munitions capable of accurately striking a platform at sea. According to Israeli Navy calculations, Hamas would have to fire roughly 10,000 simple, unguided rockets at a gas rig to ensure one successful strike, making such an attack not technically impossible, but highly unlikely.

In addition to protecting the gas platforms, the navy must also protect Israel’s naval trade routes. Though surrounded on three sides by land, Israel has an island economy, bringing in nearly all of its imports by sea rather than land. Some 96 percent of imports come to Israel through the Mediterranean; the remaining four are delivered to Eilat from the Red Sea.

MSC PARIS nearing Haifa ports October 11, 2020. (Geodrons)

If those Mediterranean shipping lanes and ports come under attack, shipping companies would likely halt all transports to Israel out of concern for the safety of their vessels, crews and merchandise — essentially causing a blockade — a move that could have devastating effects on the Israeli economy. Such was the case in the Second Lebanon War, when Hezbollah fired two cruise missiles at Israeli Navy vessels. One — a C-802 — missed its intended target and hit an Egyptian freighter, which caused nearly all sea imports to Israel to halt. The second, a C-701 missile, struck the INS Hanit, killing four soldiers.

It is the responsibility of the navy to prevent such calamities, with both offensive action to prevent assaults and defensive action to intercept or thwart incoming attacks, and the Sa’ar-6 corvettes are specifically designed to do so. (Until the Sa’ar-6 corvettes are fully operational, these rigs will be protected by the navy’s other missile ships.)

As the Israeli Navy is formally responsible for defending the rigs and its ships, it is also tasked with identifying and destroying the potential threats to it, though most of the actual strikes against those threats would be carried out by the air force, which has greater capability to do so.

In a war, the navy’s general plan would be to carry out a massive bombardment against the enemy weapon systems that could be used against the gas rigs in order to destroy the majority of them. Afterward, the navy would “hunt” for any remaining weapons with individual strikes.

Necessary ship

The decision to purchase the Sa’ar-6 ships from the German industrial firm Thyssenkrupp, along with another deal with the company to buy submarines, is part of a graft investigation in Israel involving several leading Israeli businessmen, including close contacts of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as a former commander of the navy, Eli Marom.

Netanyahu, who has been indicted on three other corruption charges, was not named as a suspect in that scandal — dubbed Case 3000 — and no current Israeli Navy officials have been connected to it either.

The Israeli Navy refused to comment on the specific manner in which the tender was issued to Thyssenkrupp or other matters related to the purchasing process, but maintains that the Sa’ar-6 itself was a necessary ship to buy and that decisions over its specifications were made solely out of operational considerations.

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