Sunday, July 15, 2012

Israel’s Plan to Smooth Troubled Waters

by Stephen Brown

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) general staff does not foresee smooth sailing ahead in Israel’s territorial waters as it recently approved a navy request to buy four new warships at a cost of about $750 million. If the Israeli government gives the green light for the purchase, the last hurdle, the navy hopes to acquire the 1,200 ton vessels, equipped with advanced missile and anti-missile weapons systems, before the end of the year and have them ready for operations in 2013.

Traditionally regarded as the “stepbrother” of the other two branches of the Israeli military, the navy has seen its importance increase with the discovery of massive deposits of natural gas offshore in Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Israel’s two big EEZ gas discoveries are the Leviathan and Tamar fields. The gas rigs erected to exploit these fields, the navy believes, are now attractive targets for Islamist terrorist attacks, especially during wartime.

Described as the biggest natural gas discoveries worldwide in the last decade, the Israeli offshore fields will not only make Israel self-sufficient in energy but also supply the Israeli economy with billions of dollars from export sales when they come on line in the next few years. As a result, the Israeli military is determined to protect this strategically important asset, especially the rigs, from terrorist attacks, which involves the purchase and deployment of more warships.

“The size of the gas reservoirs is larger than the size of the state of Israel and has significant consequences for how we operate and how we grow,” said Admiral Ram Rothberg, head of Israel’s navy. “The main solution is to be in the area to protect the rigs and ensure that the gas reaches Israel.”

The difficulties encountered with Israel’s current source of natural gas, Egypt, indicate how vulnerable and targeted the Jewish state’s energy supply is by terrorist attack. Since Egypt’s “Arab Spring” began in early 2011, terrorists have repeatedly bombed the pipeline that carries the gas through the Sinai to Israel. And Egypt as an energy source will probably not become any securer for Israel if a Muslim Brotherhood government takes power in Cairo.

The Israeli navy views enemy missiles as the major threat to the all-important offshore gas rigs. Israel knows Hezbollah has the capability to fire such weapons as it heavily damaged an Israeli naval vessel with an anti-ship missile, killing four sailors, in the 2006 Lebanon War. And Hezbollah may not be the only Islamist terrorist group possessing such a lethal weapon. Only last February, the navy discovered on an Iranian ship six Iranian Nasr-1 radar-guided anti-ship missiles that it believes were destined for al-Jihad in Gaza. The navy is also concerned about Syria’s acquisition of Russia’s Yakhont anti-ship missile, which has a range of 300 kilometers. Since Syria is a major supplier of weaponry to Hezbollah, the Israeli military fears the Yakhont could wind up in its hands.

“The Yakhont is a significant weapon and the navy knows how to provide a response for all different missile threats on every possible front,” said Rothberg.

As part of this protective front, the Israeli military is considering placing anti-missile systems on gas rigs due to be built in Israel’s EEZ in the coming years. The navy has already informed the gas exploration companies that they must install radar systems on their platforms. These measures are meant to counter attacks on the platforms from Hezbollah-fired anti-ship missiles as well as by “explosives-laden vessels.” The USS Cole was attacked by one such deadly suicide craft in 2000 that saw 17 American sailors killed, 39 wounded and “a 40-by-40-foot hole” blown in the ship’s side.

Besides attacks on the gas rigs, Israel fears that Hezbollah’s and al-Jihad’s possession of sophisticated anti-ship missiles may cause a serious problem with ship traffic to the Jewish state if used against merchant vessels. Such an attempt to blockade the Israeli coast would cause a serious disruption to the Israeli economy and military effort. Approximately 99 percent of Israeli imports, the Jerusalem Post reports, arrive by ship, “including ammunition and military hardware.”

“Navy assessments are that Hezbollah will try to attack cargo ships within a 30-kilometer radius of Israel in an effort to get commercial vessels to refuse to sail there during a war,” the Post states.

Also among the measures Israel believes its Islamist enemies may employ to blockade the Israeli coast are naval mines. Among the weapons reportedly smuggled into Gaza from Libyan warehouses after the downfall of Gaddafi, the possibility of naval mines being among them has generally been overlooked. Gaddafi’s navy is known to have possessed a store of such mines, which it used in the recent civil conflict to blockade the rebel port of Misrata. And Israel believes it is a very real possibility that some mines will eventually wind up in Gaza, if they are not there already. Even Egypt is worried about the Gaza terrorists’ use of naval mines since, if not anchored down, they could drift into Egyptian waters.

And it is not only attacks by irregular terrorist forces that justify the proposed purchase of the four new Israeli warships. Regular Turkish warships and aircraft menacingly shadowed, but did not interfere with, the transfer of an American gas rig from Israeli to Greek Cypriot waters last year. Turkey is angry that Greek Cyprus, Israel’s ally, is exploring for gas without including Turkish northern Cyprus. Turkey has also threatened to have its warships escort the next aid flotilla to Gaza, a threat it has yet to fulfill. And with a Muslim Brotherhood government becoming a reality in Egypt, the Israeli navy will also have to keep a closer eye on that country’s navy. The Egyptian navy is currently having two modern submarines built in Germany where Israel has purchased similar vessels.

“The navy will play a critical role on any front, or war,” said Rothberg.

Stephen Brown


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