ABOARD THE I.N.S. KESHET — In the next conflict with the Hezbollah terror group, Israel’s Navy knows that one of its main goals will be to protect Israel’s burgeoning natural gas infrastructure and shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Hezbollah has long identified the maritime platforms as a potential target for attack, with verbal threats by the terror group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah and his deputies over the years, as well as ominous videos and graphics putting the structures in cross-hairs.
Moreover, the military assumes that the terror group possesses the capabilities necessary to carry out those threats and stage potentially successful attacks not only on the gas platforms but on the commercial shipping lanes that bring in nearly all of Israel’s imported goods.
Last week, the navy’s 3rd Flotilla of missile ships — known in Hebrew by the acronym satilim — simulated such a war with a week-long exercise at sea, including deadly missile strikes on Israeli vessels, attempted suicide boat bombings and drone attacks.
“We assume [Hezbollah] will try to attack on the maritime front. They see it as a very important arena,” Lt. Col. Guy Barak, commander of the 34th Anti-Submarine Squadron, told The Times of Israel, on board the INS Keshet, a 67-meter (220-foot) Sa’ar 4.5-model “submarine hunter” missile ship, during the second day of the five-day drill.
“With an enemy like Hezbollah, a surprise can come on the tenth day of a war or within the first hour,” he said. “So we have to know how to go from zero to 60 fast.”
Barak declined to comment on the specific types of weapons that the IDF believes the Tehran-backed Hezbollah has in its arsenals, but said generally that this included shore-to-sea missiles, suicide drones, submarine capabilities and others.
“We have to think that whatever Iran has, Hezbollah — and Hamas — can also have,” he said.
Barak said the military is both directly tracking Hezbollah’s weapons development closely and also making assessments based on the “vectors” that the terror group was already on.
In the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah forces fired an anti-ship missile at the INS Hanit that killed four Israeli soldiers — one of the most significant, and in Israel, infamous, events of the 34-day conflict.
The strike on the Hanit on July 14 crippled the ship but did not destroy it. It was the first direct strike on an Israeli warship in decades and Hezbollah celebrated it as among its biggest victories of the war.
Though much of the exercise was conducted virtually, one aspect that was simulated with live fire was an attack by a “suicide drone” packed with explosives, a weapon that Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias are known to have.
A civilian company was brought in to fly a Styrofoam glider around the participating ships, as machine gunners tried to shoot them down.
On board the INS Keshet, it took 94 bullets from one of the ship’s .50-caliber machine gun to send the drone crashing into the sea.
Asked why only one drone was used in the operation, when it’s possible a swarm of them could actually be used in a future war, Barak recognized that this was true not only of drones but of all aspects of the exercise, and that the decision to only use one was something of an arbitrary one.
“It can be one suicide boat or several, one drone or several, one rocket or several,” he said.
Israel is an island
Though surrounded on three sides by land, the State of Israel effectively functions as an island economy, importing and exporting nearly all of its goods through the sea — rather than by land — making the maritime arena one of critical value to the normal functioning of the country. The recent discovery of natural gas reserves in Israel’s territorial waters and the construction of one extraction platform in easy view of northern Israeli coastal communities has only added to the importance to the sea.
To assist in defending these new resources, the Israeli military has purchased four Sa’ar 6-model missile ships to be delivered beginning next year that will come equipped with two Iron Dome air defense batteries to defend the natural gas platforms from missile and rocket attacks.
In the meantime, the Israeli Navy is protecting the extraction platforms with slightly smaller Sa’ar 5-model missile ships, also equipped with Iron Dome batteries.
In addition to their strategic importance to the State of Israel, these platforms also represent a highly visible targets for Hezbollah, which could provide it with what military officials refer to as a “victory picture,” like the Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima from World War II or the Israeli paratroopers at the Western Wall from the 1967 Six Day War. A massive fireball erupting out of the extraction rig less than 10 kilometers from the Israeli shore could serve a similar function for Hezbollah.
“But that’s less my concern,” Barak said. “My concern is defending national infrastructure installations — regardless of how things look.”
To accomplish this task, Israel’s missile ships are equipped with a dizzying array of sensors and detection systems — radar, sonar, electro-optical and more — active defense systems that can intercept incoming attacks, as well as ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore missiles.
While other navies around the world maintain fleets of different varieties of ships capable of performing specific tasks and mission, Barak said, “we need our missile ships to do everything.”
All of these systems are controlled from the warships’ combat information center — known in Hebrew by the acronym MIK, or Merkaz Yediyat Krav — a pitch black, cramped room in the belly of the vessel whose walls are covered in a myriad of screens and information panels.
Barak said these detection systems and weapons make the missile ships critical for defensive and offensive operations “not just on the sea, but above it and below it.”
However, he stressed, the navy cannot use these tools solely for the maritime front and must serve an integral part of the overall war effort.
Naval officials often point to the case of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which the military’s air and ground forces suffered heavy losses while the navy performed far better. Despite the navy’s significant successes on its front, the war in general is seen as having been far less than a decisive victory for Israel.
“It’s no longer the military telling the navy, ‘Just keep the sea clean,'” he said.
Barak said the navy, especially the 3rd Flotilla and the 7th Flotilla of submarines, does have a slightly different mindset than the rest of the military, as the vessels they use are not only war machines, but also their homes, on which they can remain for extended periods of time.
“The sailors see this as their house and the other crew members as their family, so when they fight, they’re fighting for their home,” he said. “We go out to war and we come back when we’ve won. We don’t know for how long.”
Despite this singular quality, the navy works closely with the other branches of the IDF, especially the Israeli Air Force, Barak said, giving the specific example of the air force-operated Iron Dome batteries on board navy ships.
But in order to maintain the ability to fight more traditional naval warfare, last week’s exercise also included fleet-on-fleet combat.
The drill also simulated the death of the captain of the INS Romach from the direct strike of a Hezbollah rocket, fires and flooding onboard ships, emergency helicopter evacuations and other emergencies.
“The exercise took the commanders to extremes and tested their functioning under pressure,” the military said.
The 3rd Flotilla’s ship-to-shore missiles and other weaponry ensures that it will also play an active role in any future war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, as it did in the 2006 Second Lebanon War and against Hamas in Gaza in the 2014 conflict there.
“Hezbollah knows that if an all-out war breaks out, the IDF will display force like never before, and that will include a ‘punch’ from the sea from the 3rd Flotilla,” Barak said.