COLUMN | Israel emerging as a maritime power [Naval Gazing]

Dolphin 2-class submarine. Photo: Tanin Llan Rom/Wikipedia

Since its formation in 1948, using a motley collection of old vessels, the Israeli Navy (IN) has developed into a technologically advanced and ruthlessly efficient force.

Operating mainly in the Mediterranean, and the Gulf of Aqaba, its duties include countering weapon smuggling, preventing infiltration of Israel by terrorist elements and the support of operations by Israeli land forces, such as in the Lebanon war of 2006.

The IN has seen a lot of front line action against Arab nations over the years, sinking several enemy vessels, and losing a number of its own. In 2006 the Israeli corvette Hanit was severely damaged by a Lebanese Hezbollah missile.

The exploitation by Israel of the huge offshore Leviathan and Tamar oil and gas fields, situated in the Levantine Basin, poses a security challenge, as vulnerable maritime structures have to be defended against terrorist attack. This challenge has significantly increased the operational responsibilities of the service, and precipitated a radical upgrade of its surface and undersea capabilities.

Israel’s submarine capabilities

A very important element of the IN is its submarine flotilla, currently consisting of six German-built Type 209 (Dolphin 1-class) and Type 212 (Dolphin 2-class) boats, commissioned between 1999 and 2020.

Main armament of these submarines, which operate primarily in the Mediterranean is six 553mm and four 650mm torpedo tubes. A comprehensive sensor outfit is also fitted.

There have been persistent reports that Israeli subs are capable of firing tube-launched nuclear-tipped Popeye cruise missiles, and that a submarine armed with such weapons is permanently stationed in the Mediterranean.

A memorandum of understanding has been signed by the Israeli and German governments for the construction of three advanced subs, with air-independent propulsion, to be designated the Dakar class, to be supplied from 2027.

Roles of the IN submarine flotilla include constant surveillance of sea traffic, and of the coastal areas of potentially hostile areas, and protection of Israeli’s offshore resources, as well as exercising with Israeli surface units.

Sa’ar 5-class corvette Lahav. Photo: Llan Rom/Wikipedia

The largest IN surface units are the trio of 33-knot, gas turbine/diesel powered 1,275-tonne Sa’ar 5-class corvettes. Very heavily armed for their size, these warships, built by Northrop Grumman in the USA from 1993, feature Harpoon anti-shipping cruise missiles, Barak air defence missiles, and six torpedo tubes, and can be fitted with either a Phalanx close-in weapon system or a 76mm gun, depending upon mission requirements. An Israeli Air Force Eurocopter Panther helicopter is carried.

Reshef class. Photo: Israel Shipyards

On the horizon is a new class of larger corvette, currently under construction by TKMS in Germany. Armament of these 2,000-tonne, 90-metre, diesel-powered Reshef-class ships will include the C-Dome naval point defence system, torpedo tubes, a 76mm gun, and anti-shipping missiles.

An SH-60 helicopter, and unmanned aerial vehicles will be embarked. Sensors will include a new multi-function electronically scanned array radar system.

The new corvettes, the first of which is due in service this year, will be deployed primarily to provide security in Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

A large proportion of the cost of Israel’s new corvettes and submarines is being borne by Berlin, in compensation for the involvement of some German companies in the weapons programmes of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussain.

Workhorses of the IN surface fleet are the eight fast attack craft of the Sa’ar 4.5 type. Commissioned from 1980 onwards, these craft, some of which were converted from the earlier Sa’ar 4 type, displace around 500 tonnes, and are capable of 34 knots.

They can be fitted with a range of armament, as required for specific operations. Available weaponry includes Harpoon and Gabriel surface to surface, and Barak air defence missiles, a 76mm gun, a Phalanx close-in weapon system and a Typhoon 25mm remotely controlled cannon. The class has recently been fitted with an advanced lightweight phased array radar system.

Israel Shipyard’s new corvette

A new design of corvette has recently been selected to replace the ageing Sa’ar 4.5s.This vessel, to be built by Israel Shipyards, will be 76 metres in length, displace 850 tonnes , and will be armed with C Dome and Barak air defence systems and a medium calibre gun. Electronic countermeasures capability will be provided by three trainable decoy launchers,

Propulsion will be provided by electric motors linked to gas turbines, or diesel engines. All sensors will reportedly be of indigenous manufacture.

Backing up the IN’s larger assets are more than 50 smaller combatants. These include Dvora, Super Dvora and Shaldag fast attack craft, Defender RHIBs and Protector and Silver Marlin unmanned surface vehicles.

Israel is not generally recognised as a maritime power, but the IN is emerging as a force to be reckoned within a highly turbulent region.


Trevor Hollingsbee

Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.