A world naval power is born.
[Read Part I here].
While Israel revamped its fleet, Egypt embarked on the so-called War of Attrition (1969-1970) with the intention of breaking Israeli morale by causing a steady stream of casualties through artillery actions along the Suez Canal. Notwithstanding its new equipment, Israel’s navy fulfilled its role in this conflict not with missile boats but with old-fashioned Palyam-style raids and Navy-IDF combined amphibious operations. Following its subpar performance in the Six Day War, Flotilla 13 had undergone a complete overhaul under the leadership of its new commander, Ze’ev Almog—a converted infantryman who had joined the naval commandos in 1954.1 Later to obtain a Master’s Degree at the U.S. Naval War College (1972) and to serve as Israel’s naval Commander-in-Chief (1979-1985), Almog was famous at this juncture for accosting senior officers, map in hand, with an unsolicited plan for a raid.2 Under his tutelage naval commandos were trained for combined diving activity/ground raiding and outfitted with specialized webbing gear appropriate for action on land and in the water. Thanks to Almog’s persistent lobbying, the new gear was finally put to use on June 21, 1969, when Flotilla 13 commandos swam a third of a mile from rubber dinghies and stormed ashore at Adibiyah, destroying an Egyptian monitoring station and inflicting heavy casualties. The attack, says Almog, “proved [Flotilla 13’s] ability to execute an infantry assault from the sea.”3
In July 1969, Flotilla 13 and the IDF’s special commando unit Sayeret Matkal undertook a combined operation against heavily garrisoned “Green Island” in the Gulf of Suez—a position so “unassailable” that its Egyptian defenders dubbed it the “Rock of Gibraltar.”4 The raid required twenty Flotilla 13 commandos to arrive simultaneously at the landing site after a half-mile swim—something that had never been done. To facilitate the task, the swimmers formed a “human centipede”—ten swimmers (swimming one behind the other) on one side of a central cord paired with ten swimmers on the other side. Each pair of swimmers was attached to the central cord by a contact rope to avoid separation from the group.5 Once ashore the commandos successfully secured the assigned “grip area,” from which the Sayeret Matkal commandos were to press forward to subdue all resistance. As the Sayeret Matkal force had not yet landed, however, the naval commandos pressed ahead with successful attacks on both flanks, with the unfortunate consequence that an Egyptian grenade felled two of their number.6
Subsequent to this, the twenty Sayeret Matkal commandos stormed ashore from rubber dinghies, accompanied by Commander Almog who promptly established a command post atop the fortress roof. In a battle lasting just under forty minutes, Green Island was “crushed to smithereens”7 and Flotilla 13 dispelled any and all doubt as to its status as an elite unit. Even Egyptian sources regard the attack as a crucial turning point whereby Israel seized the initiative in the War of Attrition.8 But the 40% casualty rate (six killed and ten seriously wounded out of a 40-man combined force) made a deep impression on the IDF brass.9 Consequently, no further raids of this magnitude were attempted during the Attrition War.10
This is not to say that Flotilla 13 remained inactive. Just two months later, it achieved another coup with operations Escort and Raviv (September 1969). In the first of these paired operations, naval commandos driving submerged SDVs mined two Egyptian torpedo boats at Ras Sadat. They succeeded in destroying the boats, but a self-destruct mine aboard one of the two SDVs malfunctioned and exploded during the return voyage, killing three of its crewmembers. (A rescue helicopter found the survivor six hours later, treading water and guarding the bodies of his fellows.11) Despite this tragedy, the way was now open for Operation Raviv in which Israeli-manufactured12 landing craft transported three Egyptian tanks (captured as war booty during the Six Day War) across the Gulf of Suez. The tanks roamed the Egyptian coastline Trojan-horse style, destroying Egyptian military installations (which took them for friendly vehicles) before successfully rendezvousing with the landing craft for the trip back home. There were no Israeli casualties in this ten-hour raid, during which 150 Egyptian soldiers were killed.13
With the coming of the Yom Kippur War (October 1973), naval warfare entered a new era. The Israeli Navy’s main concern at this time was the possible deployment of enemy missile boats off Israel’s heavily populated coastal plain. To pre-empt such a strike, Israel deployed its own missile boats in a “forward defense” posture close to its enemies’ bases. On October 6th, Yom Kippur, the first night of the war, the tactic paid high dividends. The first ship-to-ship missile battle in naval history took place that night at Latakia on the Syrian coast. Although the first Gabriel missile fired in wartime missed its mark, Israel finished the encounter, with the sinking of 5 Syrian ships—including three Syrian missile boats whose Styx missile proved utterly ineffectual despite their superior range. Once launched, the Styx relied upon an on-board guidance system to locate its target. Israel managed to dodge everything that was fired at them by using evasive maneuvers, launching chaff decoys14 and jamming the Styx’s target acquisition electronically. In contrast, Israel’s superiorly designed Gabriel could receive continued guidance input from the firing ship throughout its flight to the target, switching to on-board guidance only if the target was definitely locked. The result was the destruction of a patrol boat, a minesweeper and three Syrian missile boats on October 6th, and the sinking of two more missile boats in a second raid five days later.15
Similar engagements ensued on the Egyptian front. At Port Said, an Egyptian flotilla reached the safety of its harbor solely because misconnected wiring on the pursuing SA’ARs prevented effective fire.16 At the Battle of Damietta, however, the Russian-made Styx again proved ineffectual against Israeli countermeasures—and this time the Egyptians could find no safe harbor. Three of four Egyptian missile ships were overtaken and destroyed by Gabriel missiles while attempting flight. The victories at Latakia and Damietta left Israel free to target and destroy naval stations, radar installations, oil refineries and ammunition stores along the Syrian and Egyptian coastlines.17
In the southern theatre, naval Commander-in-Chief “Bini” Telem had devised an amphibious operation for the Gulf of Suez that would allow for the crossing of tanks, which could then attack Egyptian forces from behind.18 As a prerequisite, Israel had to destroy two Egyptian missile boats guarding this theatre. As the Israeli Navy had no missile boats of its own south of the Canal, Flotilla 13 commandos were tasked with the mission. On the first attempt (October 11), they managed to sink one of the Egyptian missile boats in its harbor with underwater explosives. An attempt to destroy the second one with a new generation explosive boat on October 19th failed when the boat’s rudder jammed after the pilot abandoned ship. (The boat navigated chaotically in the darkness—menacing the Israeli commandos as much or more than the Egyptians—until it finally self-destructed within the harbor.19) Two nights later, another attempt was carried out with anti-tank missiles fired from speedboats. The first eight shots with these clumsy weapons missed, whereupon Ze’ev Almog, who had accompanied his commandos on the mission, threatened to fire the weapon himself. His gunners pleaded for another chance, and with their last two rockets destroyed the target.20
Nevertheless, there would be no amphibious tank foray across the Gulf of Suez: Days earlier the IDF had affected its own crossing further north—over the Suez Canal—to threaten the Egyptian 3rd Army in Sinai with encirclement. (Unit 707, the navy’s diving corps, assisted IDF engineers in laying the initial bridge for this otherwise IDF-conducted crossing.21)
In contrast to its gross underperformance in the Six Day War, the Israeli Navy’s success in 1973 constituted one of the few untarnished bright spots of the war. The sole naval limitation to be exposed during the conflict was the navy’s inability to counter Egypt’s closure of the Bab el Mandeb Strait. Unable to blockade Eilat by closing the Straits of Tiran as it had done prior to the Six Day War,22 Egypt achieved the same purpose by halting traffic far to the south at Bab el-Mandeb where the Red Sea enters the Gulf of Aden. Oil shipments from Iran were thus interdicted, although Israel was able to continue importing oil from the deposits it had discovered in the Sinai.23 Having foreseen the possibility of such a blockade prior to the war, Israel had augmented its fleet of missile boats with two state-of-the-art SA’AR-4s capable of operating at this distant strait.24 Unfortunately, both ships were in the Mediterranean at the outbreak of the war and were thus unavailable for their intended mission. More ominous, however, was the fact that even properly positioned, they would not have been capable of prolonged intervention at Bab el Mandeb since air support—available to the enemy owing to its ties to local nations—would not have been feasible for Israel at this distance. The Israeli ships might strike, but they would soon have to depart, leaving the enemy once again in control of the strait. After the IDF surrounded the Egyptian 3rd Army in Sinai, Sadat capitalized on his control of Bab el Mandeb—offering to allow a modest number of ships to pass through to Eilat in return for Israel’s allowance of the passage of non-military necessities to the encircled Egyptians.25
Hence, Israel’s possession of Sharm el-Sheikh at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula was shown to be insufficient to maintain open sea-lanes to Eilat, Israel’s southern port. A definitive solution to this puzzle would only come with the signing of the 1979 Camp David Accords establishing peace with Egypt.26 The new treaty not only guaranteed navigation in Israel’s southern sea-lanes, but also greatly reduced the likelihood that Israel or her navy would be drawn into a full-scale conflict with her neighbors in the near term.
Unfortunately, the 1970s had seen a new naval threat arise in the form of seaborne Palestinian terrorism. Originating from Lebanon—to which the bulk of the PLO had fled after its ouster from Jordan in 1970—the attacks employed rubber dinghies—some proceeding directly along the coastline from Lebanon, others deployed from “merchant” boats further offshore.27 Two of the most infamous anti-Israel terrorist raids in history were carried out in this fashion—namely the 1975 Savoy Hotel attack and the 1978 “Coastal Road Massacre” (which remains the deadliest terrorist attack against Israel to date). To combat this onslaught Israel relied on its “second line” (i.e., coastal) defense, comprised of patrols by Dabur patrol craft augmented by smaller, commando-driven Snunit (“Swallow”) speedboats.
The navy’s approach, however, was by no means purely defensive. The missile boats used in the Yom Kippur War were now used to transport Naval and IDF commandos to the Lebanese coast for raids against terrorist facilities and munitions stores.28 At times, the disparity in equipment between the Israeli Navy and its terrorist adversaries led to a “theatre of the absurd” as when an Israeli missile boat fired nearly 1,000 shells of varying calibers at a lone terrorist on a small island before finally dispatching him.29 But with Ze’ev Almog now in command of the Israeli Navy (1979-1985) there would not be a single successful terrorist strike by sea from Lebanon.30
During Operation Peace for Galilee (the First Lebanon War, 1982) the Israeli Navy was able to operate unopposed off the coast of Lebanon, supporting the coastal arm of Israel’s infantry advance with flanking fire from the sea. More significantly, the navy carried out the first large-scale amphibious landings in its history—first at a sandy beach secured in advance by naval commandos just north of Sidon (where ultimately 2,400 troops and 400 tanks and APCs were unloaded),31 and later at Junieh, north of Beirut. In both cases, the amphibious forces were able to assist the infantry by approaching PLO positions from the rear.32
Throughout this period and beyond, the Israeli Navy continued to modernize its arsenal. After the Yom Kippur War, the Gabriel-II missile with a range of 36 km (comparable to the 40 km range of the Soviet Styx) replaced the 20 km range Gabriel-I. Soon thereafter, the navy obtained Harpoon class missiles from the U.S. with a stunning 100 km range. The extended strike capability created a new problem for the Israeli Navy because targets 100 km distant were “beyond the horizon” (i.e., beyond radar range). Israel solved the quandary with ship-borne helicopters that could take off from the deck and fly forward to assist with targeting. However, the helicopters proved a poor fit for the navy’s existing missile boats, and a larger version specifically designed to carry helicopters had to be developed. Although it would not become operational until the late 1990s, the SA’AR-5 missile boat would boast a mind-boggling arsenal, including the Gabriel II (for short and medium range targets), the Harpoon (for “beyond the horizon targets”), a helicopter to guide the latter, anti-submarine warfare torpedoes, a 20 mm, six-barrel Phalanx gun which could fire 3,000 rounds per minute to shoot down incoming anti-ship missiles at a range of 1.5 km, and the newly developed, vertically-launched Barak missile which could speed off at Mach 2 to destroy incoming anti-ship missiles up to 10 km away.33 As seaborne Palestinian terrorists were now utilizing racing boats which greatly outpaced the navy’s Daburs, Israel also updated its coastal-defense flotilla with new Super Dvora-class patrol boats capable of speeds up to 46 knots.34
Also requisitioned during the 1990s were two Dolphin-class diesel-electric submarines. Built by a German contractor, they had an operational range of 8,000 nautical miles making them suitable for deep-sea operations. But dating to the 1950s, when it obtained its first submarine, the Israeli Navy had used the vessels to deliver underwater naval commandos to the vicinity of their targets.35 Hence, the new generation subs were also outfitted for coastal commando operations with large-diameter torpedo tubes capable of transporting swimmer delivery vehicles36 and blue-green exterior paint for camouflaged near-surface activity.37
While these various upgrades were taking place, the Israeli Navy maintained a near perfect record in interdicting seaborne terrorism. Attempted raids from Lebanon using small boats or rubber dinghies were universally unsuccessful. A more novel attempt came from further away. In April 1985, a “cargo” vessel sailing towards Israel from Algiers was ordered to stop and identify itself. Instead, the ship’s crew fired rocket-propelled grenades at an approaching Israeli missile boat. The missile boat sank the vessel on the spot—learning afterwards from survivors that the ship was bound for Tel Aviv, where terrorists (who were to leave the ship and come ashore in rubber dinghies) intended to raid the Ministry of Defense in order to assassinate then Defense Minister, Yitzhak Rabin.38 With the Palestinian attacks originating from more distant sites, the Israeli Navy began retaliating against more distant targets (thus letting the involved terrorists know that they were not immune to retribution). Hence, when PLO terrorist Abu Jihad orchestrated the “Bus of Mothers Massacre”—a deadly bus hijacking in Beersheba during the first Intifada (1987-1993)—the Israeli Navy sent naval and Sayeret Matkal commandos all the way to Tunis by missile boat to kill Abu Jihad in his own home. The mission (which was aided by Mossad) was a complete success.39 A similar type of raid against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1997, however, ended in complete disaster. Tipped off in advance, Hezbollah laid an ambush in which eleven Israeli commandos were killed.40
On the High Seas, the Israeli Navy sought to intercept terrorist arms shipments. In May 2001, during the second Intifada (2000-2005), it seized the Santorini, a cargo vessel loaded with weaponry bound for Gaza. More celebrated was the January 2002 capture of the Karine A in the Red Sea. In a lightning raid, naval commandos boarded the ship by ropes lowered from helicopters, while patrol boats raced alongside.41 The operation—which recovered a hold full of munitions bound for Gaza from Iran—came off without a hitch.
The Second Lebanon War (2006), launched in retaliation for a deadly cross-border raid by Hezbollah, found the Israeli Navy enforcing a tight blockade of the Lebanese coast. The only vessels allowed in or out of Lebanese ports were ships participating in the evacuation of foreign nationals from Lebanon to Cyprus. With Hezbollah lacking a naval arm, the Israeli Navy was able to operate close in to shore, launching commando raids, shelling Hezbollah positions and destroying coastal roads to cut off lines of retreat. Unfortunately, these lopsided operations led to an act of negligence. The Hanit, a state-of-the-art SA’AR-5 missile ship, confident that it would not face fire from the shore, shut off its anti-missile electronic warning systems so that the signals would not interfere with Israeli jets flying overhead. While operating in this condition, the ship was struck by a land-based C-802 anti-ship missile and suffered significant damage (although it was rapidly repaired). Iran had transferred the missile to Hezbollah only one day prior to the attack.42 Henceforth, the SA’AR-5s maintained themselves on high alert.43
Following the war, the Israeli Navy was barred from operating off the Lebanese coast, which was instead patrolled by a UN-mandated Maritime Task Force. At the coastal border with Lebanon, the Israelis had already erected an underwater barrier with sensor-equipped netting capable of detecting contact with swimmers or boats. A similar safeguard was now put in place at the coastal border with Gaza.44 But here, the Israeli Navy would soon require something more. In 2007, Hamas illegally seized control of Gaza from the lawful Palestinian Authority. An escalation in rocket attacks from Gaza followed, leading to the outbreak of an open conflict—Operation Cast Lead—that was fought over a three-week period between December 2008 and January 2009. The navy supported the land campaign with seaborne artillery fire and amphibious naval commando raids.45 Additionally, it enforced a sea blockade as part of a comprehensive effort to halt the flow of rocket-making materials to Gaza.46 But the most stunning naval exploit of Operation Cast Lead took place far from the main theatre of action—in distant Sudan—where Israeli naval commandos reportedly damaged an Iranian arms ship bound for Gaza while it lay docked at Port Sudan.
After completion of Operation Cast Lead, persistent arms smuggling mandated continuation of the Gaza blockade. In May 2010, this led to an international incident when a flotilla of ships from Turkey attempted to run the blockade, purportedly to deliver humanitarian aid. Ignoring an Israeli offer to offload its cargo at Ashdod for inspection and overland transport to Gaza, the six-ship flotilla was intercepted by the Israeli Navy, which announced by loudspeaker that it would not be allowed to proceed. When the flotilla pressed on nonetheless, the navy attempted to reprise the raid it had carried out eight years earlier against the Karine A. Speedboats lowered by davit from a SA’AR-5 came alongside the Mavi Marmara in an effort to board, but were forced to break off the attempt when sprayed with water hoses and pelted with chains, boxes of dishes and a stun grenade. Similarly, Israeli naval commandos attempting to repel onto the deck from helicopters were immediately assaulted with metal clubs. Not having anticipated this reception, the commandos had come aboard with riot control paint ball guns as their primary weapons. They also carried holstered pistols, but were told not to employ them except in situations of life and death. Sadly that was precisely the situation they found themselves in. By the time order was restored, nine of the Turkish perpetrators had been killed and some 50 more wounded. Nine Israeli commandos were also wounded, including one who sustained a skull fracture after being thrown from an upper deck to a lower one.
At the present day, Israel faces new naval challenges. The recent discovery of offshore gas fields has placed novel defense responsibilities on the Israeli Navy at a time when many of its original missile boats are nearing the end of their operational lifespan. The navy is responding with a new generation of naval vessels and missile systems. In a back-to-the-future move, it has placed an order in Germany for two naval destroyers to patrol its pipeline routes. Likewise, in October 2013, Israel Aerospace Industries was contracted to build three new Super Dvora patrol boats capable of 50-knot speeds to guard the gas fields against seaborne attack. More impressive is a new stealth-technology-equipped SA’AR-72 mini-corvette, which will become operational in 2015. Capable of deploying two helicopters and a variety of unmanned vehicles, the ships can also transport twenty commandos and a flotilla of inflatable boats in addition to its fifty-man crew. With a range of 3,000 U.S. nautical miles, the ship boasts an electronic warfare system and an arsenal of advanced weaponry including the vertically launched, 1500 mph Barak-8 missile capable of striking aircraft and incoming missiles at a range of 70 kilometers. The latest Barak arrives just in time, as it is capable of countering the new Russian Yakhont cruise missile reportedly acquired by Hezbollah in 2012 (which can be used to threaten Israel’s gas rigs). On the submarine front, Israel has received the first of three “advanced” Dolphin-class subs from Germany featuring a hyper-quiet, air-independent propulsion system, which averts the need for surfacing for up to seven days. Enlarged torpedo tubes can double as housing for swimmer delivery vehicles—the swimmers, themselves, deploying from a wet/dry compartment. There is also much unconfirmed speculation that the subs can be modified to fire nuclear cruise missiles, thus giving Israel a submarine-based “second strike” capability as Iran threatens to go nuclear.
Israel’s tiny navy led the Western world into the naval missile age, and it hasn’t lost its capacity to innovate. In time, its saga is sure to embrace more chapters, but as the future has yet to unfold we must end our survey just as we began it—with mere glimpses.
1 Samuel M. Katz, The Night Raiders: Israel’s Naval Commandos at War. New York: Pocket Books, 1997, 74.
2 Katz, 150.
3 Rear Admiral Ze’ev Almog, Flotilla 13: Israeli Naval Commandos in the Red Sea, 1967-1973. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010, 7-9, 19-22, 34 [quote].
4 Katz, 163-64.
5 Almog, 41-42. The cord was invented by Italy’s elite frogman unit, “COMSUBIN.” (Commando Subacquei ed Incursori). Katz, 166.
6 Almog, 66.
7 Commando Uri Matityahu, quoted in Almog, 95.
8 Almog, 90-91.
9 Ami Ayalon, still fighting despite wounds in the neck and both legs, received Israel’s rare Medal of Valor for his part in the raid. Afterwards, he eloped from the hospital to rejoin Flotilla 13 for its next big mission—Operation Escort (Katz, 186, 196-97).
10 Moshe Tzalel, From Ice-Breaker to Missile Boat: The Evolution of Israel’s Naval Strategy. Contributions in Military Studies, Number 192. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000, 102-03; Klaus Mommsen, 60 Years Israel Navy. Bonn: Bernard and Graefe, 2011, 158.
11 Almog, 27-28. The survivor, Aryeh Yitzchak, was partially shielded from the blast by the three who were killed—Oded Nir, Rafi Miloh and Shlomo Eshel (Almog, 121-25).
12 Mommsen, 87.
13 Mommsen, 159-60; Tzalel, 103-04.
14 Two Israeli Navy officers, Titzhak Shoshan and Herut Tsemach, purchased £20 British pounds worth of hand-held chaff dispensers abroad, and proved that the chaff decoys could create enough static to cloak to a torpedo boat (Rabinovich, 181-82).
15 Mommsen, 186-89; Rabinovich, 214-22, 263-66.
16 Rabinovich, 226-28, 252.
17 Mommsen, 191-94; Tzalel, 118-19.
18 Tzalel, 55.
19 Almog, 174-76; Mommsen, 198; Katz, 269; Rabinovich, 294.
20 Israel determined later that this had been the missile boat that sank the Eilat (Almog, 183-84; Mommsen, 199; Katz, 277-79; Rabinovich, 296-98).
21 Mommsen, 201.
22 Sharm el-Sheikh at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula was the critical position from which to implement such a blockade, but like the rest of Sinai, it had been in Israeli hands since Israel’s victory in the Six Day War.
23 Mommsen, 185-86; Rabinovich, 197.
24 Tzalel, 52.
25 Tzalel, 135.
26 Tzalel, 59-60.
27 Mommsen, 237.
28 For examples, see Mommsen, 136-37, 248 and Katz, 216 and 232-44.
29 Tzalel, 75-76.
30 Katz, 295-96.
31 Mommsen, 258. See also Katz, 303-04.
32 Mommsen, 258-59.
33 Mommsen, 224-25, 229-30, 271-72.
34 Mommsen, 280.
35 Tzalel, 29.
36 Mommsen, 273-75.
37 The decision to purchase the SA’AR-5 and the Dolphin from foreign contractors left Israel’s government-owned Israel Shipyards without any large-scale projects. Consequently, in 1995, the government declared the concern bankrupt (Tzalel, 70). Today, it thrives under private ownership as the eastern Mediterranean’s most innovative shipbuilding company. See http://www.israel-shipyards.com.
38 Mommsen, 288, Katz, 305-06.
39 Mommsen, 290; Katz, 309-10.
40 Mommsen, 297; Tzalel, 76.
41 Mommsen, 299-300.
42 Mommsen, 308-10.
43 Later, when Hezbollah proved its ability to reach Haifa with its land-based rocket arsenal, consideration was given to placing missile boats in Haifa harbor to see if their vertically launched Barak missiles could serve as a missile shield (Mommsen, 311).
44 Mommsen, 319.
45 Yanir Yagna, Eli Ashkenazi and Anshel Pfeffer, “Hamas launches first phosphorus rocket at Negev; no injuries reported,” Haaretz.com, 1/15/2009. Accessed 1/8/2014.
46 Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Chair. Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Inquiry on 31 May 2010 Flotilla Incident. United Nations, September 2011, 39.