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Is maritime terrorism the next storm Israel must weather?

While it is hard to think of a naval force in the Middle East that could pose a threat to the Israeli Navy, maritime terrorism is another matter.

Israeli naval forces and the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser “USS Monterey” conduct maritime security operations in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, March 15, 2021. Credit: U.S. Navy.
Israeli naval forces and the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser “USS Monterey” conduct maritime security operations in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, March 15, 2021. Credit: U.S. Navy.
Vice Adm. (Ret.) Eliezer Marom. Credit: Courtesy.
Eliezer Marom

For Israel, maritime defense in the context of day-to-day security requires naval and aerial patrols, along with the deployment of coastal defense systems, to detect threats to targets in the country’s waters. At the same time, Israel must also monitor the terrorist elements in the various arenas, and at times, act against their infrastructures in order to thwart their nefarious plans.

Israel sits on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, and at the northern end of the Gulf of Eilat and the Red Sea. The latter is immensely important to Israel for historical and other reasons, among them the fact that the volume of its land trade is very low, and the sea is the main transportation artery of goods to and from the Jewish state.

Over 90 percent of goods exported and imported to Israel travel by sea, making waterways Israel’s main commercial avenue, and one that has become exponentially more important in the wake of the havoc the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked on global trade.

In recent years, a new dimension has been added to this sphere, with the discovery of underwater natural gas deposits off Israel’s shores, which required Israel to declare defined economic waters and reach an agreement with Cyprus. This agreement was signed only after the events of the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla as until then, Israel had chosen not to upset the Turks, who claim that Cyprus is not a country.

The offshore gas finds and the declaration of economic waters have raised the need to defend this maritime space, which undoubtedly holds more resources than just natural gas.

The challenge facing the Israeli Navy is, first and foremost, the protection of Israel’s shores and its sovereignty over its declared economic waters and the gas fields they house. In this respect, the threats Israel faces are multidimensional.

The most obvious threat lies with enemy naval forces. A closer look, however, reveals that the Syrian Navy has withered to nearly nothing and does not pose a threat to Israel. Nor does the Lebanese Navy. The Iranians, who are far to the east, do not have a navy capable of targeting that of Israel, leaving the Egyptian and Turkish navies as the only two other significant maritime forces in the Mediterranean.

While both are significant forces, they are not a threat to Israel. Cairo and Jerusalem maintain a solid peace treaty and despite the various crises with Turkey, Ankara is a NATO member and a conflict on this front is highly unlikely.

The biggest threat, it seems, is maritime terrorism.

Hamas in Gaza is constantly consolidating its naval offensive capabilities, using underwater means as well as unmanned vehicles. At the same time, the rocket threat to gas rigs is growing. On the northern front, Hezbollah is improving its capabilities to infiltrate the navy’s routine security apparatus as part of its efforts to infiltrate Israel’s northern shores. Moreover, the Iranian-backed Shi’ite terrorist group is currently in possession of various missiles—some operationally advanced—that pose a threat to Israeli gas rigs as well as to maritime traffic to and from the Jewish state.

Another challenge the Israeli Navy is facing is that of protecting the freedom of travel to Israel in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, amid growing attempts to disrupt it.

While no other fleet in the Mediterranean poses an actual threat to navigational freedom, the same cannot be said for the Red Sea. This body of water’s shape, and the fact that six countries in Asia and Africa—Yemen and Saudi Arabia to the east; Egypt to the north and west; Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti to the west; and Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the Gulf of Aqaba—dot its shores—means that Israeli shipping could face threats from unstable countries that could become hostile in the event of a war.

Then there are the aerial threats to the maritime sphere. Suicide drones, for example, can target vessels, oil rigs and other strategic offshore assets, and Iran, to name one actor, is making growing use of such UAVs.

The Israeli Navy recognized the potential aerial threat to the country’s offshore assets years ago, as well as the Israeli Air Force’s inability to provide them with full protection against these threats.

This situation assessment has prompted the navy to procure some of the best air defense systems in the world, which will assist it in defending Israel’s economic waters and its critical offshore infrastructure, as well as—if need be—any naval forces dispatched to faraway theaters.

Countering such threats requires both offensive and defensive strategies.

First, the daily defense routine must include naval and aerial patrols alongside the deployment of shore-based defense systems as part of the effort to foil any threat.

At the same time, an intelligence-gathering effort is required to monitor the developments of and preparations by the terrorist elements in the various arenas. From time to time, action is required to disrupt these efforts. This combination of defensive and offensive operations makes it possible to reduce these hostile elements’ ability to target Israeli interests.

In a time of war, the navy’s concept of warfare will again have to combine defensive and offensive strategies, including the physical protection of the gas rigs, while simultaneously carrying out offensive activities against land- and sea-based targets that could endanger the navy’s freedom of operation.

Vice Adm. (ret.) Eliezer Marom served as commander of the Israeli Navy from 2007–2011.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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