By Ehud Eilam
The Israeli Navy has several important tasks, including the protection of Israel’s population and industrial centers, its sea lines of communication in the Mediterranean and the Red Seas, and its gas rigs. As part of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the Israeli Navy must also combat Arab Non-State Actors (NSAs), namely Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel fought wars with Hezbollah in Lebanon from July to August 2006, and with Hamas in the Gaza Strip from December 2008 to January 2009, July to August 2014, and in May 2021. The Israeli Navy is composed of three flotillas. This article will examine their cooperation with the IDF’s air and ground forces in the next war with Hezbollah or Hamas and make recommendations to improve the Israeli Navy’s capabilities.
Reliance on Firepower
In the last two decades, the IDF has relied on firepower more than maneuver to reduce its combat casualties, due to the increasing precision of its weapons systems. By depending on firepower, the IDF is exploiting its advantage in technology over its adversaries, in particular Arab NSAs. However, this approach did not lead to success in the 2006, 2008-2009, and 2014 wars with Hezbollah and Hamas, all of which ended without a clear victory. The IDF is eager to ensure such a victory in the next war, but it will likely continue to prioritize firepower over maneuver, mostly from the Israeli Air Force (IAF).
While Hezbollah has significantly less firepower than the IDF, it has approximately 150,000 rockets and missiles with which it can target most of Israel. The IDF’s Home Front Commander, Major General Uri Gordin, warned on March 15, 2021, that during a war with Hezbollah, Israel might absorb as many as 2,000 rockets and missiles daily–which could hit any number of targets, including Israeli airfields. The IAF has been preparing for such a scenario so that it can continue to operate under fire. This problem was raised back in the 1990s, when the IDF was more focused on Arab militaries, particularly the Syrian military, rather than Arab NSAs.
Some in Israel suggested then to strengthen the Israeli Navy at the expense of the IAF, as a platform to strike adversaries from the sea. Their justification for investing in the navy was that warships can carry more weapons and operate for longer of periods of time than aircraft, which require more frequent rearming and refueling at airfields that are exposed to enemy fire. Yet warships also need to rearm and refuel at their bases that are exposed to enemy fire. Regardless, the IDF continues with its traditional doctrine of relying on the IAF, rather than the navy, for delivering massive firepower. The IAF has no strategic bombers, only fighter-bombers—the F-15, F-16, and F-35—but they can inflict a significant blow.
Assisting Ground Forces
In the 2006, 2008-2009, and 2014 wars, the Israeli Navy assisted ground forces by providing sea-to-shore fire support. The Israeli Navy has 76 and 20mm cannons and Spike-Er missiles, which is relatively less firepower than what the IAF can deliver. This firepower also has a short range, which limits the navy to striking targets at or near the coastline. However, more akin to artillery than aircraft, warships can maintain a longer presence at the battlefield, ready to fire at any time—which is essential if a ground unit needs immediate fire support. The IAF has significantly improved its availability for close fire support, but it is sometimes not enough.
Gunships are useful in attacking various targets and would significantly improve the navy’s fire support for ground forces. In the IDF, almost all aircraft are under the control of the IAF. Since the Israeli Navy has no ability to strike targets from the air, it has needed to improvise. For example, on July 10, 1985, two MD-500, light gunships, took off from an Israeli missile corvette operating near the Lebanese coastline. The gunships bombed a base of a terror group and returned to the ship. The Israeli Navy could repeat such a mission with AH-64 gunships and warships large enough to embark them. The British Army Air Corps used AH-64s embarked aboard ships to strike targets in Libya in 2009.
The AH-64 has a range of less than 300 miles, but that should be more than enough against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Lebanon’s geography is such that all of Hezbollah’s bases there are within striking distance from the sea, if the IDF attacks them with gunships. The geography of the Gaza Strip is even more conducive for strikes from the sea, and its width is not more than seven miles. Therefore, every objective there could be hit from the sea by an AH-64.
The IAF can bomb every objective in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip by relying on its airfields, but gunships can land in many other areas, including on ships. An AH-64 that is sent to strike deep inside Lebanon can save fuel if it is launched from a ship located near the coastline. Having more fuel would allow the gunship to remain on station for longer periods, which sometimes can be crucial for the success of the mission. Furthermore, having the ability to launch an AH-64 from a ship would be helpful for operations farther away from Israel.
The Israeli Navy also assists ground units with intelligence gathering activities. In general, the IDF has upgraded its ability to gather intelligence, most notably by assimilating various types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The navy is also part of this effort. Operating with and without UAVs, its surface ships and submarines can escort ground units, conduct reconnaissance for them, warn them about threats ahead, advise how to bypass an obstacle, etc. Surface ships such as missile corvettes risk exposure to Hezbollah’s anti-ship missiles when supporting these activities, but Hezbollah lacks anti-submarine capabilities. However, the Israeli Navy cannot rely on submarines solely in gathering intelligence, let alone in a time of war, when information will be in high demand.
Hezbollah and Hamas plan to defend their positions from these activities. Their defense relies on mortars, improvised explosive devices, mines, and anti-tank missiles, such as the advanced 9M133 Kornet. The latter might also be used against Israeli ships operating near the coastline. Hezbollah has additional anti-ship missiles: the Yakhont and C-802. They will be met by Israel’s Barak-8, a long-range anti-missile system. The Israeli Navy also has the C-Dome to protect ships from drones, rockets, and missiles. The Barak-8 and C-Dome have not been tested in combat. Depending on how well those defense systems work, the IDF will decide how much the Israeli Navy can assist ground units in providing fire support and intelligence.
In the 2006 war, Hezbollah fired a C-802 missile that hit an Israeli missile corvette, killing four of its crew. In the first stage of the next war, the Israeli Navy and the IAF will try to destroy Hezbollah’s anti-ship missiles before they can be launched. Until then, the Israeli Navy might limit its operations in order to protect its ships. This is another factor that will affect how much support the Israeli Navy can provide to Israel’s ground forces.
The IDF has carried out amphibious operations during and since its first war in 1948. However, the landings were quite limited, mostly aimed at delivering supplies and vehicles, such as in the 1956 war. In 1967, a relatively major amphibious operation was supposed to take place in northern Sinai, close to the border. It was canceled due to the rapid advance of Israel’s ground forces. In the 1973 war, the IDF had plans to conduct a large-scale amphibious operation in the Suez Bay, but they were eventually turned down. The IDF preferred to rely on crossing the Suez Canal, which was a daring and highly risky operation, but one that seemed less problematic than landing from the open sea.
In 1982, the IDF carried out its largest amphibious operation ever. It was conducted in Lebanon against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). However, the IDF did not face much resistance since there were no PLO fortifications and almost no PLO forces in the landing zone. The PLO also did not have a navy, and the IDF enjoyed air superiority. Even the weather supported amphibious operations. Despite all those advantages, the IDF did not advance quickly from the beachhead. In 1993, the IDF took its few landing craft out of service, which were sold or used for target practice. The Israeli Navy concluded the landing craft were too vulnerable to enemy fire. The IDF could have dealt with this vulnerability by suppressing the enemy fire, buying better and faster landing craft, etc., but the IDF did not further invest in this warfare area.
In a war against Hezbollah or Hamas, establishing a beachhead in Lebanon or in the Gaza Strip could meet some resistance. However, while Hezbollah has a few dozen tanks, Hamas lacks capabilities to carry out a significant counterattack. They can only launch infantry to storm the beachhead. Conversely, the IDF can quickly deploy enough troops, backed by air power, to push back any counterattack. Hezbollah and Hamas have mortars and anti-tank missiles, but no heavy artillery. Therefore, the beachhead is not likely to face any danger of annihilation. Hezbollah and Hamas have also invested in building fortifications near their land border with Israel, assuming correctly that Israeli troops will attack there, as they have in previous wars.
In the last decades, the IDF’s naval commandos carried out raids, including from the sea. However, conducting a vast amphibious operation is distinct from such raids. The IDF is aware this will be a complicated task, which requires effective and tight cooperation between its sea, ground, and air forces. Even when Israel’s foe has been an NSA, and therefore lacking most capabilities of conventional armed forces, the IDF avoided investing in amphibious capabilities. It is a missed opportunity. With amphibious capabilities, the IDF can surprise its foe, which could help in achieving victory. The IDF can land in Lebanon or the Gaza Strip, bypass its enemy’s lines of defense, and attack their flanks and rear.
Most of Israel’s population and infrastructure are near its coastline, so coastal defense is a top priority for the IDF. In the 2014 war, the IDF was surprised by, but still managed to kill, a few Palestinian naval commandos, or frogmen, who penetrated southern Israel from the sea after swimming there from the nearby Gaza Strip. During the fight with Hamas in mid-2021, the IDF destroyed much of the equipment used by their frogmen, degrading their capability to strike Israel again. Depending on how much Hamas has rebuilt this capability, the IDF will probably repeat these strikes at the start of the next war.
In contrast with Hamas, Hezbollah has an increasingly capable naval unit, which receives significant funding and military assistance from Iran. Iran has provided this unit “with quality Iranian naval weapons, and trained [it] in Iranian Revolutionary Guards bases and training camps. “ Currently, Hezbollah has warehouses in Lebanon to sustain and enable its naval unit, “to have a continuous supply of weapons and access to the logistical and technological backbone.”
In the next war, Hezbollah or Hamas could attempt to penetrate Israel with frogmen, small boats, and perhaps even tiny submarines. They could inflict casualties among both troops and civilians, damaging IDF equipment near the coastline and disrupting operations. In recent years, following Israel’s conflict with Iran and its proxies, “Israel has invested in improved detection and defenses of its shores and maritime assets against various threats, such as missiles and most probably also underwater and fast-boat attacks.” This effort often requires close cooperation between sea, ground, and air forces.
The first line of coastal defense is of course at sea. The Israeli navy will try to block incursions, such as detecting fast boats and frogmen before they reach the Israeli coast. The Israeli Navy has the AS-565, a helicopter that operates from ships such as the Sa’ar-5 for a variety of missions, including reconnaissance and rescue. The AS-565 is essential when the ship is far away from Israel, where the IAF is not available.
In a time of war, the IAF will be busy with many tasks, so coastal defense may not be a priority. However, one of the IAF’s primary missions, achieving air superiority, should be relatively easy. Unlike Arab militaries, Arab NSAs lack air forces and significant air defenses. Hezbollah has some air defense capabilities for short range defense, such as SA-8, 14, 16, 17, and 22 anti-aircraft missiles. Hamas has much less. The IAF might lose a few aircraft, but it will not stop it from ruling the skies. Therefore, the IAF could focus on other tasks, such as destroying missiles and rockets before they are launched at Israel and supporting ground forces. Nevertheless, the IAF also must be prepared to allocate aircraft for naval missions, especially coastal defense.
The IAF could assist coastal defense efforts in several ways. UAVs can patrol across the coastline, looking for indications and warnings of an attack. UH-60 helicopters could land troops in every spot where there is an assault from the sea. The AH-64 could join them to provide fire support. Helicopters and gunships would be needed to support ground units on the frontline, but some helicopters and gunships could be assigned to patrol the coastline. In the 2006, 2008-2009, and 2014 wars, Israel postponed its ground offensive, sometimes by weeks, hoping heavy bombardments would be enough to bring victory. This approach might repeat itself in the next war, which means that helicopters and gunships could aid in coastal defense until the ground offensive starts.
Despite the importance of the sea to Israel, the IAF was not built to assist the navy. The IAF’s doctrine and weapon systems have been designed to defeat the air and ground forces of Arab militaries. While many Arab militaries have navies that could have attacked Israeli coastlines in past wars, they never tried. Therefore, the IDF focused on land invasion, worrying much less about an attack from the sea. NSAs cannot invade Israel from the sea, but their naval infiltrations could disrupt Israeli operations—or worse. The IAF must be ready to coordinate with the Israeli Navy to prevent this outcome. The priorities and development of the IAF will continue to be based on preparing for air combat and striking ground objectives, but the IAF should also invest in capabilities to locate and strike sea targets.
The IDF must be prepared to confront Arab NSAs in the next war. The Israeli Navy will have to provide fire support and intelligence to ground units, but it currently lacks the firepower it needs to be effective against ground targets. One way to improve the navy’s firepower is to launch AH-64s from ships at sea. The IDF should also consider reinvesting in amphibious capabilities for the Israeli Navy to surprise its adversaries from the rear. Ultimately, the IAF is likely to gain air superiority in a war against an Arab NSA, which will allow it to focus on other tasks, such as destroying missiles and rockets and assisting the IDF’s ground and sea forces. The IAF will decide if and how many aircraft will be allocated to carry out each mission, according to the priorities at hand. The Israeli Navy and IAF must be prepared to cooperate if one of those priorities is coastal defense.
Dr. Ehud Eilam has been dealing with and studying Israel’s national security for more than 25 years. He served in the Israeli military and later worked for the Israeli Ministry of Defense as a researcher. He has also published six books in the United States and United Kingdom. His latest book is Containment in the Middle East.
Feature image: INS Magen, the first of four new Sa’ar 6-class corvettes to be delivered to the Israeli Navy. (Credit: Israeli Defense Forces)