The INS Magen (“Shield”), a German-made Sa’ar 6-class warship, arrived at Haifa Naval Base in early December 2020. It will be joined by the INS Oz (“Strength”) in July of this year, and INS Atzmaut (“Independence”) and INS Nitzhahon (“Victory”) are scheduled to arrive in September and November.
The ships are constructed by the German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp, and were designed in close collaboration with Israeli Navy engineers. Each costs $400 million to produce, with the German government covering one-third of the cost.
Onboard combat systems will be installed after the warships arrive in Israel. Ninety-five percent of those systems will be Israeli-made, and many of them will be completely new, designed for today’s threats.
The arrival of the Magen at Haifa Naval Base marked the Israeli Navy’s transition into a new combat doctrine that is better suited than its predecessor to the evolving regional threat. Under the new strategy, the navy will play a significantly greater role in rapidly detecting and engaging enemy targets on shore.
Hezbollah’s arsenal of projectiles, which is larger than that of most NATO armies, represents the primary conventional threat to Israel. The Iranian-backed terror army is estimated to have some 130,000 projectiles, including, according to international media reports, the supersonic Yakhont surface-to-sea cruise missile, which it reportedly received from Syria in recent years.
Hezbollah is also trying to develop precision missile capabilities, with the support of Iran. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, meanwhile, are building up their own rocket capability. Israel’s adversaries in Lebanon and Gaza also have fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles that can challenge offshore rigs.
The Iranian Quds Force, for its part, could deploy its own direct strike capabilities on the Syrian coastline. In addition, Iran is believed to have moved cruise missiles to Syria.
In short, the arena is rapidly changing, and the threat of high-intensity projectile barrages is evolving at an unprecedented pace. At the same time, Israel’s dependence on the sea has never been greater and is set to expand even further in coming years.
The Tamar offshore rigs are located west of Gaza in Israel’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), while Leviathan is off the Haifa coastline. The Karish and Tanin gas fields are located north of Leviathan in the Mediterranean Sea. The rigs deliver liquefied natural gas to the coast, where it is converted to electricity. Some 70 percent of Israel’s electric consumption is now based on natural gas, and the transition away from coal and toward gas is essentially irreversible due to infrastructure changes.
Around half of Israel’s fresh water comes from the Mediterranean Sea via five desalination plants, with two more expected to come online in the next few years.
The vast majority of Israel’s imports also arrive via the sea. They include 90 percent of the country’s wheat, 300,000 vehicles per year and an array of raw materials. Container shipping represents a rate of import with which cargo planes cannot compete, as a cargo ship can carry many times more goods than any cargo aircraft. Sea routes and ports are thus more critical for Israel’s daily routine than air cargo.
Even during the Yom Kippur War’s “air train” of successive planes carrying emergency military equipment and munitions to Israel, such supplies represented no more than 10 percent of Israel’s imports of emergency supplies in the 1973 conflict. Most supplies came in via the sea.
Today, Haifa’s port handles 53 percent of imports, Ashdod’s 43 percent and Eilat’s some 4 percent. While small, Eilat’s port is critical because it represents an additional southern outlet via the Red Sea.
Israel’s first premier, David Ben-Gurion, once noted that without maritime control the State of Israel would be besieged. His observation is even more relevant today.
As Israel’s economic waters—an area roughly twice the size of Israel in square kilometers—grew in strategic importance, naval planners began thinking of new ways to defend it. In 2013, the government allocated the navy the job of defending the state’s waters, and planning began in earnest.
As it evaluated its new role in securing strategic assets in Israel’s EEZ, the Israeli Navy concluded that the country’s offshore rigs could only be protected by ships.
As a result, each Sa’ar 6 ship will have two advanced air defense systems onboard: Rafael’s naval Iron Dome and Israel Aerospace Industries’ Barak 8. A radar made by Israel Aerospace Industries subsidiary ELTA Systems will control the onboard defense systems. The radar can detect ballistic and cruise missile threats at range, and the ship’s battle management system can then quickly assign the appropriate countermeasure.
The ships will also be equipped with advanced electronic warfare capabilities for a “soft” layer of defense against enemy projectiles.
This multi-layered defense will form a virtual fence that will protect the gas rigs against an array of threats—including fast, low-flying cruise missiles, which are the most challenging targets to engage.
The ships’ command-and-control system represents an additional core capability and will integrate all the onboard systems, employing artificial intelligence to construct a live tactical picture.
But defense is only one part of the new concept. The other part relates to how the Navy thinks about engaging adversaries on land.
This entails a shift from the Blue Water warfare doctrine, which has dominated the Navy since the 1973 War, to a Brown Water doctrine, which places a new focus on sea-to-land combat.
The Yom Kippur War was the first time Israeli vessels engaged in missile combat with enemy ships. On Oct. 6, 1973, at the battle of Latakia, Israel successfully implemented its doctrine of the time, which called for small, fast vessels carrying relatively short-range missiles and guns charging towards enemy ships at full speed until they came within missile range (12 to 14 nautical miles).
Since enemy warships had missiles with longer ranges in 1973, the navy had to deploy electronic warfare and chaff to defend its ships. The Latakia battle was a decisive Israeli victory that validated the doctrine, which dominated the navy’s thinking for the next 30 years.
But the 2006 Second Lebanon War made clear that it was time for the navy to update its doctrine. When the INS Hanit (“Spear”) Sa’ar 5-class frigate was hit by a Hezbollah shore-to-sea missile, the Navy saw that things had changed.
The arms race that flooded the region with precision-guided missiles and new types of rockets meant Israeli targets both on land and at sea faced a new level of exposure.
Hamas, for its part, is heavily investing in its naval commando assets—an investment that includes the construction of underwater tunnels used by Hamas divers.
Meanwhile, defense industries set about converting surface-to-surface missiles into land-to-sea missiles, with some of those missiles proliferating to adversaries. A new strategic situation was taking shape.
The Navy’s Brown Water concept is founded on interconnectivity, which means the creation of a joint situation picture between the navy and the Israel Air Force.
In other words, whichever branch detects targets first automatically shares the threat with the other branch—a key feature of network-centered warfare. The result is that Israel’s air-defense networks are fed by the same sensors on land and at sea. Ground forces can also feed data into this common network and use it to order naval strikes on land targets.
The Sa’ar 6’s advanced radar detection and interception capabilities, and its connection to ground-based air-defense systems, form a central foundation for a new level of interoperability.
Another key feature is the ships’ low radar cross-section, which makes them harder for enemy radar systems to spot.
The Sa’ar-class corvettes also carry more firepower per square meter than any ship their size in the world.
During routine periods, the Sa’ar 6 ships will conduct patrols as well as operational assignments. During emergencies, they will head to designated defense zones to protect the gas rigs. The ships’ onboard systems will enable them to detect, transmit and receive land-based threat locations and strike those targets if called upon.
With their addition to the fleet, the Israeli Navy will grow to a size of approximately 15 vessels. While relatively small, the fleet will nevertheless enjoy a high degree of flexibility, being able to carry out missions far beyond protecting the gas rigs.
The Sa’ar 6 ships can stay at sea longer and sail farther than their predecessors and will play an active role in securing Israel’s maritime borders and defending its sea routes. They can also assist in disrupting enemy force build-ups in multiple arenas.
These ships’ arrival represents a milestone in the evolution of the Israeli Navy.
Yaakov Lappin is a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks and is the military correspondent for JNS. His book “The Virtual Caliphate” explores the online jihadist presence.
This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.