Larger, more powerful: Navy declares fleet of Sa’ar 6-class warships operational

Three of the four 2,000-ton corvettes are fully operational and the fourth is very close, after being outfitted with 20 advanced sensors, weapons and communication systems

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

An Israeli Navy Sa’ar 6-class corvette guards the Energean floating production, storage and offloading vessel at the Tamar gas field, in an image published by the military on April 23, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
An Israeli Navy Sa’ar 6-class corvette guards the Energean floating production, storage and offloading vessel at the Tamar gas field, in an image published by the military on April 23, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli Navy declared its fleet of Sa’ar 6-class corvettes — tasked with protecting the country’s gas field and shipping lanes — operational on Sunday, more than two years after receiving the first ship.

When first delivered in late 2020 and throughout 2021, the ships were essentially capable only of sailing. Since then, they have been outfitted with advanced sensors, weapons and communication systems.

Three of the four ships have now been declared fully operational, with the fourth — delivered in August 2021 — very close to that stage, nearly two years after it was received.

The two years it took for each ship to be declared operational is considered relatively quick by Navy standards, as the previous class of corvette, the Sa’ar-5, took around 10 years to be declared operational.

The ships are far larger and more powerful than the Sa’ar 5-class warships, and are specifically meant to protect the country’s gas field and shipping lanes. While larger in size, the ship shows up as far smaller on radar, thanks to advancements in stealth technology in recent decades.

The Sa’ar 6-class corvettes are named INS “Magen,” meaning shield; “Oz,” meaning valor; “Atzmaut,” meaning independence; and “Nitzahon,” meaning victory. Each is staffed with around 80 sailors.

President Reuven Rivlin, center, and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi attend a ceremony celebrating the arrival of the first of four new Sa’ar 6 ships in Haifa, on December 2, 2020. (Heidi Levine/Pool Photo via AP)

Each nearly 2,000-ton ship is outfitted with 20 systems, 18 of which are Israeli-made. The systems include a modified version of the Iron Dome system, known as the C-Dome, as well as the Gabriel V and LRAD missile systems, the latter of which can shoot down cruise and ballistic missiles.

The announcement comes amid heightened tensions in the region and following recent warnings by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant that Israel would likely face a multi-front conflict in the near future.

Last year, the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group threatened Israeli gas installations amid US-mediated talks over a maritime dispute. The dispute was eventually resolved, but there has been recent rocket fire from Lebanon as well as a bombing attack in northern Israel blamed on Hezbollah.

The threats against Israeli gas installations include a variety of Russian- and Chinese-made shore-to-sea missiles, which are believed to be in the hands of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip.

Both terror groups are also believed by the Navy to be developing other naval capabilities, including autonomous submersibles, suicide drones and scuba-diving commando units.

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 and 2021 Gaza wars. Hezbollah succeeded in severely damaging the Navy’s INS Hanit with a shore-to-sea missile in the 2006 conflict; Hamas made use of a naval commando unit in a daring — though ultimately ineffectual — coastal attack at Zikim Beach in 2014, and attempted to launch an underwater drone in 2021, which was destroyed by the Navy.

The Navy has assessed that Hezbollah is now in possession of a large number of shore-to-sea missiles, while back in 2006 it only had a handful. The Navy has adjusted its methods and capabilities in light of these threats.

An Iron Dome missile defense system fires an interceptor from a Sa’ar-6 corvette, at a target during an exercise in early 2022. (Defense Ministry)

In addition to protecting the gas platforms, the Navy must also protect Israel’s naval trade routes, as Israel has no coast guard. Though surrounded on three sides by land, Israel has an island economy, bringing in around 97 percent of its imports by sea rather than land.

According to official statistics, the Navy carried out 13 operations since the beginning of 2023, in addition to four multinational exercises.

Navy operations last year included escorting a floating production vessel to the Karish gas field near the border with Lebanon.

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

For example, in 2021, a Sa’ar 4.5-class warship identified an Iranian drone, which was later downed by F-35 fighter jets.

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.

The decision to purchase the Sa’ar-6 ships from 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, Adm. Eli Marom.

The Navy 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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