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Israel Goes to Sea
Israeli navy vessels patrolling the Mediterranean Sea, July 9, 2014. (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel Goes to Sea

Seth Cropsey

In September a collaboration between Hudson Institute and the University of Haifa published a report on the Eastern Mediterranean, in particular its security and the region’s unfinished descent into perils. It concluded that the U.S. and Israeli governments share an interest not only in avoiding danger but in reversing recent trends. Among Commission members were a former U.S. Senator, a former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense, and retired senior naval officers from the United States and Israel, including former chiefs of naval operations from both nations. I share my fellow Commission members’ opinion that Israel and the United States will benefit from the former’s potential for energy independence and the security upgrades and foreign investment required to achieve it. Moreover, increased maritime cooperation serves both states’ goals in the region. The reflections below grow out of the questions about maritime security that faced the Commission.

The Tanakh tells us that the monarchy of Israel during the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon reached across the Jordan River in the East and pressed against the Mediterranean’s shores in the West. King David’s predecessor, Saul, bound the disparate Israelite tribes together into a more cohesive unit, primarily because of external pressures. The Philistines, a Phoenician warrior people who had established a confederacy in modern-day Gaza, were expanding northward into Israelite territory. Jewish scripture details the Israelite struggle with the Philistines, beginning with the dramatic duel between then-shepherd David and the Philistine champion Goliath. After succeeding King Saul, David continued to unify the kingdom, as in turn did his son, Solomon.

Even thirty centuries ago, the strategic importance of the Eastern Mediterranean was evident. All land and sea trade routes that passed between North Africa, South and Central Asia, and Southern Europe would have to pass through ancient Judean or Samarian lands, or sail right off their coasts. The united monarchy fell midway through the 10th century B.C.E., to be replaced by the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. These Jewish kingdoms, along with the surrounding Philistine confederacy to the south and Phoenician city-states to the north, served as the easternmost point in the European trading web. Goods flowed through the holy cities of Hebron and Jerusalem, were put to sea at the port of Jaffa, and wound their way to Greek and Phoenician markets further west. Greeks knew the Mediterranean’s eastern shore well. In the myth, Perseus, slayer of Medusa, rescues Andromeda from rocks off the coast of Jaffa at the southern end of today’s Tel Aviv.

Over the next three thousand years, the Eastern Mediterranean’s strategic importance persisted. Not only does the land between Acre and Ashkelon contain holy sites of the three Abrahamic faiths, but until the advent of long-range container shipping, a significant portion of goods that moved east and west would have to pass through Judea and the surrounding waters. The Byzantines, Abbasids, Ayyubids, and Crusader states fought over this scrap of land for both religious and strategic/economic reasons.

Even during the Ottoman imperium in the Middle East, the “Holy Land” remained hotly contested territory. British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli advocated an independent Jewish state on the Eastern Mediterranean to break the Ottoman stranglehold on regional trade and give Britain total sea control. Concurrently, Britain helped the Ottomans develop the Jezreel Valley railway, a branch of the much larger Hejaz line that attempted unsuccessfully to link Istanbul with Mecca.

Operating this Hejaz railway, along with controlling the Suez Canal, would give Britain mastery over the Eastern Mediterranean economic chokepoint. It could protect its own resources flowing from India and better link India with Egypt, while holding the rest of Europe by the throat if it so chose. The outbreak of World War I transformed Britain’s plans, which aimed now at capturing and occupying both Palestine and Mesopotamia. Control of these lands, along with Egypt, played a major role in World War II, both in protecting allied oil resources and enabling Britain’s campaigns in Africa and Italy.

Today’s strategic map is quite different. Arab states with varying degrees of stability, rather than major empires, surround a battle-hardened State of Israel. Forged out of nearly seventy years of alternating warfare and vigilant defense, Israel has become a bastion of stability in an otherwise tumultuous region. This stability makes it a reliable ally for the United States. Indeed, Israel is the most trustworthy ally of the United States between Central Europe and the Pacific.

Although it sits on so critical a stretch of coastline, Israel, despite the urgings of its first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, has been slow to embrace seapower. Most of Israel’s enemies are located further inland, and after the Yom Kippur War Israeli planners could rely on the U.S. Sixth Fleet to protect the Jewish State’s western border from seaborne attack. No more. The U.S. Sixth Fleet’s permanent presence today consists of a single command ship and four ballistic missile defense destroyers based in Spain, outside the Mediterranean.

In the Yom Kippur War Israel’s navy secured the sea lanes that allowed the resupply of ammunition and armored vehicles to compensate for losses in the Sinai and Golan Heights. The Yom Kippur War saw the first naval battle in which naval combatants engaged one another with missiles; Israel’s naval forces sank all five of Syria’s Soviet-equipped missile boats. Since then, the Israeli Navy has carried out several interdiction and strike operations against the Jewish State’s enemies, and it preserves an ostensible second-strike capability. But compared to the IDF ground force and Israeli Air Force, the Israel Sea Corps has taken a back seat in the defense of the country.

Events will change this. Growing economic interests are likely to shift the Israeli military’s focus to the sea, which in turn will reveal the large security benefits a robust naval presence offers the Jewish State.

Israel is like an island. It relies on seaborne transport for 99 percent of its imports and exports. Even if Israel’s neighbors did not include ISIS, an al-Qaeda affiliate, an Iranian terrorist group masquerading as a political party, and a Russian proxy regime, sea shipment is the only viable option for bulk goods. This has almost always been true for the Jewish State, and recent history has made the sea even more economically critical. Israel’s trade with India and China is increasing, the lion’s share of which is carried by sea.

Then there is energy. The Levant Basin, the portion of the Eastern Mediterranean between Cyprus and the Levantine coast, is known to contain multiple gas fields. The Tamar Gas Fields, first discovered in 1999, can yield at a minimum 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year, increasing over time; overall it contains 223 billion cubic meters of proven gas reserves. Adding to Israel’s wealth are the Leviathan Gas field (discovered in 2010) and the Aphrodite Gas Field (discovered in 2011), which together make up the “Tamar Sands” formation. All lie in the waters of Israel’s exclusive economic zone. Additionally, exploratory drilling in the Leviathan field indicates a potential 600 million barrels of oil.

Such an immense amount of gas, and possibly oil, could make Israel a major energy player in the next decade. The Israeli government is in the process of creating processing facilities for the energy deposits in the Levantine basin, and has entered into an agreement with Cyprus and Greece to create a pipeline through all three gas fields. But it has yet to couple this economic investment in the sea with the proper security measures. Without a sufficiently sized and equipped navy, Israel’s gas fields will be at the mercy of any adversary’s naval force. Various terrorist groups, in particular Lebanon’s Hizballah, have increased their maritime capabilities in recent years. With current naval security measures, terrorists could attack Israel’s vulnerable oil fields in South Lebanon or Israeli operation in Gaza. This combination of risks is unacceptable, considering the immense wealth of the Mediterranean oil fields that are Israel’s to exploit.

Other strategic considerations also require an Israeli turn toward the sea. The Israeli military has used the sea to ensure its nuclear deterrent since the 1990s. The country’s nuclear program, although unconfirmed, is a powerful restraining factor against Israel’s enemies, and the threat of a second strike is integral to Israeli deterrence. Israel has so little territory that a successful ground offensive could overwhelm land-based silos, whereas submarines can operate undetected in the open ocean.

This deterrent will become even more important for Israeli security if, as is likely, Iran’s regime furthers its nuclear development in due course. Without a major U.S., Israeli, or Gulf Arab strike, the Islamic Republic will likely produce a significant nuclear arsenal by 2030. Turkey, Egypt, and perhaps two of the Gulf monarchies (the United Arab Emirates and Qatar) are all potential nuclear states. The current strategic climate has forced Israel’s government into an uneasy partnership with the Saudi monarchy and its neighboring sheikhdoms. Like any strategic arrangement in the Middle East, this situation could change as rapidly as the desert’s sand dunes, leaving Israel surrounded by multiple hostile nuclear states. Without a major sea-based deterrent, the Jewish State is at substantially increased risk.

Aside from its deterrent value, seapower gives Israel greater conventional strategic depth and flexibility. Israel’s safety occasionally requires the IDF to operate outside of Israel’s own borders. The Middle East, as well as Israel itself, is essentially an island, bordered on three sides by major bodies of water. Israeli forces can use this to their advantage, and confront threats at a distance. Increased seapower would be useful in a conflict with Iran, and all the more applicable as the regime in Tehran uses new sources of wealth to extend its reach into the Red and Mediterranean Seas.

The Islamic Republic relies on oil exports for its economic stability. Previously, Ayatollah Khamenei and his fellow theocrats threatened to close down the Strait of Hormuz, crippling the world’s oil supply in the process. However, the United States and Israel both have major energy reserves. This, combined with the Saudi regime’s aggressive production strategy, has loosened the Iranian chokehold on the Strait. Additional sources of energy are likely to be discovered around the world, for example in the Arctic. Israeli—or U.S.—forces could someday leverage the Strait of Hormuz against the Iranians by hemming in Persian shipping and other naval assets.

Seapower also matters to Israel from a de-escalatory perspective. Russia’s increasing footprint in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea, combined with its involvement in Syria, expresses Vladimir Putin’s long-term interest in replacing the United States as the major external power in the Middle East. Russia’s navy has deployed multiple surface combatants and submarines to the Black Sea, including its most modern frigate class (the Admiral Grigorovitch) and several “Improved” Kilo-class attack boats. The Russian Navy has also announced that it will send its aircraft carrier, the 52,000-ton Admiral Kuznetsov, to join its Eastern Mediterranean naval group in strikes against ISIS. Putin’s interest in the instability that drives up the international price of energy opposes U.S. and Israeli interests in a peaceful and stable region.

The Israeli government has collaborated with the Russians on technology, and Israel’s Russian-born population has a presence in the Knesset. Notwithstanding, security demands considering the worst outcomes. Russia’s increasing seapower could one day put Israel’s offshore energy assets at risk, or threaten the Jewish State more directly if an Israeli administration confronts the Iranian regime. An Israeli Navy capable of deterring Russia’s Black Sea and Mediterranean ships would discourage regional mischief from all quarters. Furthermore, Putin’s so-far-successful effort to replace the United States as the Eastern Mediterranean’s major external power is reason enough to reinvigorate what was once a powerful U.S. Sixth Fleet, including homeporting U.S. naval combatants in Israel. Operating in conjunction with a resurgent U.S. Sixth Fleet, and potentially Greek, Cypriot, and Royal Navy vessels, Israel’s Mediterranean security would be largely guaranteed.

A more robust navy would also be useful against Israel’s terrorist enemies. The Israeli Navy has always been active in intercepting arms shipments, both with conventional maritime forces and the commando unit Shayetet 13. Operation Iron Law, the intercept of an Iranian arms shipment to Hamas, and Operation Full Disclosure, the interdiction of an Iranian tanker bound for Sudan, are just two of the Israeli Navy’s multiple arms interdiction operations.

As Iranian and Russian forces gain the upper hand in Syria, Hizballah will inevitably turn its focus toward Israel once again. Hamas, ISIS, and other jihadi insurgencies will also persist regionally, and likely increase in number if Syria and Iraq remain chronically unstable. The Israeli army has been successful at destroying Hamas’s resupply tunnels. This increases the chances that naval resupply will become more important for the terrorist group. Preventing conventional and WMD arms smuggling to these groups remains a priority for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). An effective navy is an exceptionally well-suited tool for the interdiction operations that the future likely holds.

The Israeli military’s focus on seapower is also likely to grow because Iran’s has turned toward the maritime domain. The regime has paired its conventional and irregular land forces with an expanding Navy that can project power on a limited scale. The 2015 JCPOA has put over $100 billion at its disposal, giving it ample resources for a substantial military buildup. The majority of Iranian ships are fast-attack craft and corvettes, used for coastal patrol and, more recently, harassment of U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf. Most of Iran’s surface combatants were built before the 1979 revolution, but the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) has embarked on an ambitious construction program that includes eight light frigates, slightly larger than Israel’s Saar 5-class corvette.

IRIN has a nascent domestic submarine program, primarily focusing on midget submarines, and currently fields three Kilo-class boats. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) also operates over fifty speedboats and interceptor craft, including a catamaran speedboat that can carry up to one hundred men and several helicopters. Although Iran’s surface combatants do not pose a major threat to Israel today, the IRIN and IRGC’s low-intensity operational experience make both services a threat to any Israeli energy infrastructure in the Mediterranean. If Russia’s support hands Assad a victory, Iran’s ability to communicate with the Eastern Mediterranean will expand. This would put offshore Israeli interests at increased risk.

Israel has an important potential regional ally in balancing Iranian-Syrian-Russian power: Turkey. The Israeli government’s relationship with Turkey has cooled since Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Prime Minister in 2005, reaching a low point in the period between 2008 and 2014. Erdogan and Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to resume diplomatic relations in June of this year, but the coup attempt that occurred the following month heightened Turkey’s domestic instability. Because Turkey continues on the path toward becoming a fully Islamist state, simple prudence requires the Israeli Administration to approach Turkey warily, including its growing naval capability.

The mainstay of the Turkish Navy is still its eight Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates. It also operates four Yavuz-class frigates (built in the late 1980s) and four Barbaros-class frigates (Turkey’s most modern surface combatants), along with 13 Type 209 submarines, split into three subclasses. The latter attack boats are inferior to Israel’s Dolphin-class boats, but are still proven platforms. Ton-for-ton, the Israeli Navy holds a qualitative advantage over Turkey’s in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, deterring or confronting a hostile Turkish force would be a major task without significant expansion.

Alongside the knowns and unknowns of Iranian, Turkish, and Russian intentions, Israeli strategists also have to contend with non-state actors that have bolstered their maritime capabilities. Hizballah is Israel’s major non-state maritime concern today. The terrorist group can rely on its Iranian benefactor to supply immense quantities of weapons; U.S. estimates place its arsenal at more than 100,000 missiles and rockets. During the Second Lebanon War, Hizballah attacked the INS Hanit with an Iranian-supplied C-802 missile, killing four Israeli sailors. It is likely that IRGC operatives helped Hizballah during this operation. With a large number of Iranian missiles, Hizballah could repeatedly fire on Israeli warships and shipping entering Israeli harbors as well as the critical infrastructure of both Haifa and Ashdod ports. The Iranian regime could also use Hizballah-controlled territory as a formal staging ground, operating naval and air assets that could target Israel’s northwestern coastline.

Hamas has also increased its focus on maritime operations, creating specialized naval commando units, and procuring small craft to replicate IRGC-style swarm attacks. Its likely focus on naval resupply in place of underground smuggling suggests that Hamas will have a significant naval presence in the next decade. ISIS has expanded to the North African coastline, and could develop a naval focus like Hamas and Hizballah. Disrupting global shipping lanes, rather than simply attacking navy ships, is an effective way for a jihadi group to spread global terror and cause international hardship.

A sensible response to a host of maritime threats is fleet expansion. The Israeli Navy already fields a number of fast intercept craft and patrol boats, but it lacks larger surface combatants. The Saar 5-class corvette design is excellent for the IDF’s needs, since it provides high-end capabilities in a small ship with a medium-sized crew. Despite this, Israel would benefit from naval vessels of sufficient size to provide full-spectrum capabilities comparable to those of Russian and Turkish surface combatants. Larger ships would also be better equipped for air-defense missions, which would enable longer-range independent naval operations, particularly in the Persian Gulf. The mainstay of Israel’s surface fleet is likely to remain corvette-sized and smaller, but larger warships would give its navy the power to challenge major adversaries at a distance.

Similarly, the Israeli submarine force would benefit from expansion and diversification. Israel’s Dolphin-class submarines are versatile attack boats. Able to break a blockade of the Israeli coastline and conduct interdiction missions, they also have the potential to launch cruise missiles with a variety of warheads. But as with any platform, diversity can decrease efficacy. The Dolphin-class is not a true cruiser submarine, designed for missions in enemy waters, nor is it a dedicated missile boat that can loiter for months without surfacing. Israel is also hampered by limited basing locations: Its submarines can either sortie from Haifa, then pass through an Egypt-controlled Suez or circumnavigate Africa; or they can depart from Eilat and transit the Gulf of Aqaba. A true cruiser submarine with a longer loiter time would avoid this problem—three submarines of this type could provide Israel with continuous international coverage. In addition, a missile-equipped boat that could stay at sea for months would increase Israel’s strategic deterrent.

The IDF has been at the cutting edge of unmanned technology since its first integration into combat systems. The propeller-driven drones that the U.S. Navy tested in the 1980s—flying them into nets on the transoms of recommissioned battleships—had Israeli-manufactured components. The Israeli military uses multiple UAVs to supplement its ground and air forces, and conducts maritime surveillance with long-range platforms. Aside from truly integrating UAVs like the Orbiter, a lightweight maritime reconnaissance drone, into surveillance operations, the Israeli Navy could look to UAVs for strike operations, much like the U.S. Army uses Predator and Reaper drones to support ground forces. Similarly, unmanned surface and undersea vehicles would broaden the Israeli Navy’s surveillance and strike capabilities without risking sailors’ lives.

A strong navy and an Israeli government increasingly engaged with the sea support the common interest that Washington and Jerusalem have in securing Israel’s energy reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. Both states have a stake in maintaining open navigation and free trade. The two share regional rivals (Iran foremost among them), and both benefit from political stability. The irregular threats that face Israel are also threats to the United States. When dealing with Russia and Turkey, low-end insurgencies like ISIS and Hamas, and mixed threats like Hizballah and Iran, the U.S. benefits from a stronger Israeli Navy.

The Israeli government’s greatest maritime challenge in the next decade will not be expanding its navy or cultivating external energy assets, but reframing its view of the sea. It faces a transition from an economic to a geostrategic view of the sea, and must take a hard look at the role of seapower in its national strategy. Its leaders know that a vulnerable Mediterranean coastline can be the nation’s Achilles heel, but this vulnerability also presents Israel with an opportunity. Effective maritime strategy could transform Israel’s strategic position, and help ensure its security for the coming decades.

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