The Israel Navy should consider re-establishing a dedicated force in the Red Sea arena, a senior former Israeli naval commander told JNS in recent days, as threats mount to civilian shipping that carries an important part of Israel’s trade.
Professor Shaul Chorev, head of the Haifa Research Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy at the University of Haifa, said that the Far East trade accounts for 25% of Israeli exports and imports. He added that 7% of Israeli exports and imports pass through Eilat Port, with the remainder of the traffic transiting the Haifa and Ashdod ports via the Suez Canal.
The Israel Navy occasionally sends vessels such as missile ships and, reportedly, submarines to the Red Sea through Egypt’s Suez Canal, but it lacks sufficient forces to set up a permanent Red Sea command.
“It’s not an established arena, and merely deploying a vessel is not enough. Israel used to maintain a Red Sea naval arena with its own special combat doctrine, using missile ships in the 1970s and ’80s,” said Chorev.
In recent years, several international sea powers including the United States, United Kingdom, France, China and India have established bases in the vicinity of the Bab el Mandeb Strait and the Arabian Sea to protect global maritime commerce, deal with illicit non-state actors in the Arabian sea, and to monitor, board, inspect, and stop suspect shipping as part of the global war on terrorism, Chorev noted.
A Red Sea logistical base
Israel should use a Red Sea logistical base of its own to facilitate easier entry of its vessels, Chorev argued.
“A strategy and a policy need to be formulated on how to operate in this area, to learn about the arena in which we have forgotten how to operate systematically,” he said.
Chorev, a retired Israel Navy rear admiral, was head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission from 2007 to 2015. Previously, he served as assistant to the minister of defense for nuclear, biological, and chemical defense, and before that, as deputy chief of naval operations, commanding officer of the Haifa Naval Base and commanding officer of Israel Navy missile boats and submarines flotillas.
Security threats from the Red Sea region are not new, he pointed out.
In the middle of June 1971, an Israel-bound tanker, the Coral Sea, was attacked while steaming through the Straits of Bab el Mandeb on its way to Eilat.
When the 1973 Yom Kippur War broke out the Egyptians, who initiated the war, prepared a blockade of the Bab el Mandeb straits. From October 6 to 28, no ships destined for Eilat entered the Red Sea nor did any from that Israeli port leave the area. When the Egyptian Third Army was encircled and wanted medicines and other vital supplies, the Israeli paramount condition was that the Egyptian oil blockade in the Red Sea first be lifted.
“We see that the State of Israel has, since its establishment, had a problem with the area, and the need to secure trade in it, beginning in 1948,” he said.
The Iranian-Israeli shadow war
Meanwhile, the Iranian-Israeli shadow war, which in recent years has extended to the sea, represents an ongoing threat to vessels affiliated with Israel in the Arabian Sea into which the Red Sea flows.
Chorev said reported Israeli attempts to target Iranian-linked ships carrying oil to Syria in violation of international sanctions ultimately backfired, as the Iranians “discovered a weak spot” and began targeting civilian ships with Israeli ties.
Six such ships have been struck and damaged, he said, most recently in late February.
“These ships are not clearly Israeli but they belong to companies that have Israeli owners. The most severe attack was on the Mercer Street ship in July 2021, which killed two people—British and Romanian onboard personnel,” he said. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps naval units fire suicide drones at such vessels, which transmit their location and identify their company owners by law.
So far, it does not appear that the U.S. Navy or other foreign fleets are able to provide adequate protection to such vessels, said Chorev.
“There is no magic solution because the attacks are coming from far away, out of Bab el-Mandeb, the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. These are difficult places for the Israel Navy to access,” he said. Bab el-Mandeb is more than 1,240 miles south of Eilat.
One possible way to improve the freedom of navigation would be to build a maritime coalition with the Bahrain-headquartered U.S. Fifth Fleet, which has established closer cooperation with the Israel Defense Forces since Israel joined the U.S. CENTCOM’s area of responsibility in September 2021.
Any such coalition would have to deal with the adversarial naval partnership being built between Iran and Russia, which, together with China, hold regular joint drills, most recently in the Gulf of Oman in March, said Chorev.
Declining American deterrence is also an obstacle to maritime security, he said, noting that the U.S. has failed to respond to clear Iranian provocations such as the seizing of American unmanned surface vehicles, also known as drone ships.
On March 30, the Israel Navy announced that it completed a joint exercise with the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, which, for the first time, involved the Israel Navy’s latest and largest missile ship, a Sa’ar 6 corvette. The Sixth Fleet is based in Naples, Italy.
Maritime collaboration with the U.S. is critical, particularly when it comes to enhancing sea policing duties, Chorev said, as well as preparing for war scenarios.
In any full-scale war, the U.S. Sixth Fleet has plans to rapidly deploy ships carrying the advanced American Aegis missile defense system to the Israeli coastline to assist in air defense.
“The Sixth Fleet is the largest and most powerful naval force in the world today,” said Chorev.
But it is the Fifth Fleet and cooperation with it that would be required to enhance security in the Red Sea, where the Sixth Fleet does not operate.
The Israel Navy, working with the Fifth Fleet, has begun to hold major Red Sea naval security drills with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, creating the basis for regional cooperation.
“IDF and Israel Navy cooperation with CENTCOM [which operates the Fifth Fleet] is extremely important,” said Chorev.
Meanwhile, in the Mediterranean Sea, the Israel Navy has begun carrying out its expanded role of defending Israeli gas rigs.
Chorev had mixed views on this effort, saying that the selection of an expensive ship such as the Sa’ar 6—priced at €430 million ($471 million) for four platforms —was too costly in light of cheaper solutions that could have been chosen. On the other hand, onboard missile defense systems like the Barak 8 interceptor, which was used to shoot down two Hezbollah drones heading towards the Karish offshore gas rig in July 2022, demonstrated a successful Israeli defense capability, Chorev said.
“Defending maritime infrastructure goes beyond the gas rigs. If we look at the war in Ukraine and tensions between NATO and Russia, we can see that Britain is deeply concerned about undersea cable infrastructure. The [Israel] Navy has proven its ability to defend the rigs, but it will also face diverse future challenges from enemies to Israeli infrastructure,” the retired admiral said.