Heil HaYam – The Israeli Navy

The Israeli navy (Heyl Ha ‘Yam) was a very early component of the armed forces (Hagana) but not a priority: The threat of encirclement by the Arab countries seemed much more obvious after the creation of the state of Israel. But the role of this first hastily formed flotilla based in Haifa, the large ex-Palestinian habour, and landing place of so many settlers in the 1940s and 1950s, was to ensure the respect of territorial waters. It was the early core of a navy which is now considered one of the very best in the region.

Israeli Navy

Destroyer Eilat in the 1960s
The ex-British Destroyer Eilat in the 1960s.

Introduction: From diaspora to the creation of the state of Israel
After a long period of exile (the diaspora), the Jews gradually returned to their historic lands, described by the Bible as “Palestine”, but which in the meantime was inhabited and cultivated by local Muslim populations. The inevitable happened, a “return” that others see as an occupation. The problem could have been simple if there was no possibility at first sight to properly coexist an Israeli state, endowed with the best lands in the west, and shreds of scattered territories for a “Muslim Palestine” pushed towards the desert and the Jordanian border. Palestine was for a long time a province of the Ottoman Empire. The latter collapsed ater WW1 and the allies received a “mandate” under the terms of the Picot-Sykes agreement. Old territories helf by the Ottoman Turks according to their influence, such as Syria and Lebanon were allocated to the French, while Palestine and a large portion of territory including current Jordan were attributed to British supervision.

The latter welcomed waves of persecuted Eastern European Jews in the interwar, and immigration that began already in 1880 with early settlers coming to develop desolate lands. This rebirth of the area west of the Jordan was accompanied by a disappearance of malaria and the drying up of marshes, the creation of many agricultural properties which attracted a large Arab labor force. In 1923, however, Great Britain decided to separate Palestine into two districts of unequal importance (using Jordan border river as a frontier). Territories to the east became trans-Jordan, populated by Muslims, and Western Palestine was inhabited mainly by Jews. A movement of Arab nationalists began to take hold and extremism increased. Attacks to drive Jews west of the Jordan River multiplied. They culminated in the Hebron massacres of 1929 and the “great Arab revolt” in 1936-39, which the British failed to contain. The British military presence, however, was firmly maintained in the face of growing opposition from the Jews themselves, in order to keep hold of oil wells recently discovered in Trans-Jordan. Jewish nationalists in turn multiplied attacks in order to obtain independence and the constitution of a Jewish state in Palestine.

From 1939, however, attention was focused in Europe. The whole continent quickly passed under the Nazi boot and with it, industrial-scale persecution against Jews over the continent, culminating in the Holocaust. After the fall of the Third Reich and the liberation of concentration camps, surviving Jews had only one obsession: Leaving Europe, part of which fell into the Soviet orbit, to take refuge either in the United States or in the “promised land” then in the process of legalization, Israel. “Palestine” was however still administered by British authorities when the first massive waves of immigrants arrived from Europe (Ashkenazim). The British suffered increasingly bold attacks from the Irgun, led by its charismatic leader Menachem Begin, less to force the British to withdraw and recognize the sovereignty of an Israeli state, than pressed to face more effectively Arab attacks. In 1947 it was finally done. The United Nations in resolution 181 authorized the creation of the state of Israel, but also that of three independent territories, mostly populated by Arabs. For their part, the recently independent Arab nations claimed Palestine as a soverign state and milited for the expulsion of Jews and the extension of Jordan to the coast. The roots of evil were planted for many more wars and a state that was literally built to survive.
The Israeli navy was therefore born in war.

French-built Israeli MTBs from Chantiers Navals de Meulan
French-built Israeli MTBs from Chantiers Navals de Meulan

Creation of the Israeli Navy

The state of Israel’s early existence was punctuated by several wars waged by its neighbors (the 1948, 1956, 1967, 1968, and 1973 wars, and Lebanon conflict in the 1980s), and currently possesses certainly one the most modern and capable fleet in the Middle East, but not the largest in terms of raw tonnage, far from it. This force, especially present in the Mediterranean (Haifa and Ashdod), is also capable of operating in the Red Sea (from Eilat). The navy involvement in various operations is described in the next chapter. This embryonic force formed in 1948 was then composed of a single ex-US coastguard, the USS Northland, which became Eilat. 350 men were on board, most of veterans of the Second World War aboard Royal Navy ships. Some motors torpedo boats inherited from the local Royal Navy also added to this core. Frogmen also signed the destruction in 1948 of the Egyptian warship El Amir Farouk off Gaza. In 1956, however, the Israeli navy became significantly larger with the acquisition of two class Z ships in 1955, relatively recent (10 years), three “River” class frigates and two “Flower” class corvettes in 1950 plus an escort destroyer of the “Hunt” class in 1956. But the latter was acquired during the war of 1956 (the campaign of Sinai), while the two newly acquired destroyers allowed to capture in a spectacular way the Egyptian frigate Ibrahim el Awal.

Post-1956 dramatic extension of the fleet

After this campaign, Israel also acquired the first two of modernized English submersibles of the S type (Tanin class) in 1958, and three of the T type (Leviathan class) in 1967-68, operational at the time of the Six Day War. After this conflict, the Israeli Navy in the seventies acquired many other well-adapted ships: Large missile fast attack crafts of the “SAAR” type, German designed (Lürssen) but built in France, 12 SAAR-1s in 1967 -69, then the 11 SAAR-4 (or Reshef) in 1973-78, and finally the 5 SAAR-4.5 which were by tonnage and capabilities quasi-corvettes, carrying an helicopter in 1980 and 1990. The spearhead of the current Israeli fleet (post-cold war) consists of the ultra-modern Eilat-class stealth corvettes built in the USA. Israel has also gradually acquired amphibious ships over time: First the three LST Etzion Geber in 1965, then the three LCT of the Ashdod class in 1967, and finally the large Bat Sheva in 1968, ex-South African ship, which added and replaced the existing fleet of ww2-era landing ships and crafts of the LCT, LCI, LCM, or LCM(6) and even a former WW2 German MFP type.

Gal, diesel submarine

The 1970s, in search of military independence
The Israeli created their own defense industries, notably because of the French arms embargo before the beginning of the Six-Day War, and IAI (Israeli Aircrat Industry) designed and built the Dvora FACs in 1977, considered in its day as one of the very best of this light type in the world. It was derived from the 1973 Dabur by then equipped only with cannons. This prototype was followed by the “Super Dvora” series, from 1987, and until now. In 1990, four of these are nowadays in service. In addition, hydrofoils were considered as an interesting alternative to traditional FACs and could be used as sea interceptors. Three units were built in the USA on the model of the USS Flagstaff in 1982-85, called the Shimrit class. These forces were complemented by Kedma class patrol boats (1968), preceded by the Yar 2 in 1956, and the Ophir class (3) and Ayah class (6) motor torpedo boats, which were added to the existing three British MTBs in 1949, one of type Fairmile B in 1950 (Haportzim), and three HDML, named the Dror, Saar, and Tirtsa. Israel also replaced its five ex-British submarines with German designed, but Vickers-build units of a modified type 206, called Gal, in 1975-76. More recently, a new class of submarines was ordered on the same principle (to be built in Ingalls, UK), and derived from the German type 212, but finally built in Kiel in 1997, Dolphin.

Below are following the known and listed strength of the Israeli Navy at the eve of the Six Day War, Yom Kippur, and the Gulf War.

Fleet strength in 1967:
-Two destroyers, Eilat and Yaffa, the DE Haifa, the three submersible Leviathan class and the two Tanin class, the 6 VLT Ayah class, the 3 Ophir class, the 2 Yar class patrol boats, 2 HDML, the three LCT Etzion Geber.

Fleet Strength in 1973:
-Two submarines, the Dolphin and the Leviathan, 12 SAAR1 missile launchers (Mirtach), 3 Ophir VLT class, 2 Yar, 4 Kedma class, 2 HDML, 3 LST class Etzion Geber, 3 class Ashdod, 1 Bat Sheva .

Fleet strength for 1990:
-3 submarines of the Gal class, 12 class SAAR-1, 11 class SAAR-4, 4 class SAAR-4.5, 1 Dvora, 4 Super-Dvora FACs, 3 Shimrit class hydrofoil FACs, 24 Dabur class patrol boats, 28 Yatush, 4 Kedma, 3 Geber class LSTs, 3 Ashdod class LCTs, 1 Bat Sheva LST.

Dolphin In 1948, the “fleet” which had a fleet only the name did not have the least impact in the operations. In 1856, it was the two destroyers that caused a sensation: They hired the Egyptian frigate Ibrahim el Awal, who had already been sacked and gunshoted by the French destroyer Cassard following his night raid and his bombing of the Haifa installations. It was the rockets of two Sud-Est Ouragan jets, recently purchased from the French, that allowed to stop the frigate, evacuated and towed to Haifa before being pressed into the service under that same name.

The Israeli Navy in Operations

1967 six-day war and aftermath
During the 6-day war, the speed of the Israeli offensive left too little time for the navy to shine. However, during the ensuing period, Eilat attacked and destroyed along with two MTBs two other Egyptian ships on the coast of the Sinai. In retaliation, they operated their recent Komar-class FACs with sank INS Eilat off Port Said. The latter did not even left the port and the three SSN-3 Styx hit home. This was the world’s first major loss in combat by missiles. In addition, the Israeli responded with two amphibious raids in Egypt in 1969.

1973 Yom Kippour war
The Israeli forces also adopted a locally-designed state-of-the-art guidance equipment and developed the IAI Gabriel missiles. The revenge arrived in 1973, at Yom Kippur: 13 FACs equipped with 63 IAI “Gabriel” anti-ship missiles routed a force of 27 Syrian and Egyptian Komar and Osa FACs armed with a total of 84 Styx missiles. The famous Gabriel demonstrated an efficiency at least as great as the French Exocet as exposed later in the Falklands and IAI reputation and exports benefited greatly from this action. Many Soviet “Styx” missiles were shot down in mid-flight by QF cannons or underwent effective countermeasures. Other actions were successfully carried out by smaller units, such as patrol boats. Thus, in the Gulf of Suez, 5 fast patrol boats sent by bottom in a few minutes no less than 19 trawlers and Egyptian armed patrol boats in the harbor of Ras Galeb. Other operations followed one another using helicopter guidance, tracking and countermeasures combined with missile launcher launches, a veritable naval “blitzkrieg”, and all proved to be a great lesson for foreign navies.

Bat Sheva LST

Dabur class FACs

HPL-21 Ankaran, export version of the Super-Dvora class FACs

INS Lahav, SAAR 5

INS Tanin, Dolphin 2 class Attack Submarines

SAAR 4.5

Shaldag Mk.3 FACs
Shaldag Mk.3 class Fast Patrol Crafts

Lebanon crisis 1981
During the Lebanon war in 1981, an Israeli SAAR hit and destroyed the PFLP headquarters in Tripoli. Priority was also given to means of support during landings in Beirut. Since then, the role of patrol boats has been mainly to control any infiltration of PLO agents on the Israeli territory. The rise of the Libyan fleet forced the General Staff to rethink its construction program and to consider larger ships than the FACs deployed so far: It was initially the big SAAR 4.5 capable of operating and housing an helicopter, and more recently with the lessons of the Gulf War, and the Iraqi threat (which passed an order of 4 frigates and 6 corvettes to Italy shortly before invading Kuwait), acquired three stealth High-tech corvettes of the Eilat class y ordered in the US and tailor-built as “Aegis destroyers” in reduction. These are nowadays in effect some of the most capable ships in the Middle East. And they have already their nose blooded: INS Hanit (“blade”) was damaged by a C-802 ASM fired by Hezbollah during the 2006 Lebanon War but was fully Repaired.

Stealthy Corvettes class SAAR5 (Eilat) in formation, pride of the current Israeli navy.

The next generation
Israeli see even bigger: The naval staff obtained that the government ordered four Sa’ar 6-class corvettes, of German-Israeli design, and built in Germany. Their design is loosely based on the Braunschweig-class corvette with a reinforced baseline platform to carry and operate more scalable military hardware on the long term. ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems participated in the design, and the first of these ships (yet unnamed) is scheduled to enter service in 2019. Actual status in completion. Cost is estimated 1.8 billion Israeli new shekel (NIS) or 430-million Euro ($480-million), German Government subsidizing a third of the construction costs, as well as the Dolphin class submarines. They are tasked to protect natural gas platforms in the Mediterranean sea, theatened by the Lebanese Hezbollah group as sitting in palestinian waters. These SAAR 6 are 2,000 tons, 90 m (300 ft) long vessels armed with an Melara 76 mm main gun, two Typhoon weapon systems, 32 vertical launch cells for Barak-8 surface-to-air missiles, C-Dome point defense system, 16 anti-ship missiles and two 324 mm torpedo launchers and EL/M-2248 MF-STAR AESA radar plus hangar to accommodate an SH-60 ASW helicopter.

List of israeli Ships

-Destroyer Eilat
-Frigate Haifa
-Eilat class Corvettes
-Tanin class subs
-Leviathan class Subs
-Gal class subs
-Dolphin class subs
-SAAR1 class MMBs
-SAAR4 class MMBs
-SAAR4.5 class MMBs
-Dvora/Super Dvora class MMBs
-Shimrit class Hydropters
-Ayah class MTBs
-Ophir class MTBs
-Yar class patrollers
-Dabur class patrollers
-Kedma class patrollers
-Yatush class patrollers
-Etzion Geber class assault ships
-Ashdod class LCT
-Bat Sheva class LCT

The israeli Fleet in detail

Planned second part, all israeli ships in detail (part II).