Israel this week signed a historic agreement with Jordan to supply the energy-starved kingdom with natural gas from its Leviathan gas field. The deal is worth a reported $10 billion and has instantly transformed the Jewish state into an energy exporter. In addition to the obvious pecuniary benefits to the Israeli economy, the agreement promotes regional stability by creating an energy and economic interdependence.
Israel is now looking to sign energy deals with two other regional players of import, Greece and Cyprus. Israel’s energy minister plans on traveling to Athens on Wednesday to cement agreements. The Israeli plan centers on laying a network of pipes so that natural gas can be shipped to these nations as well as other European countries. Currently, much of Europe relies on Russian gas and an alternative source would be welcome. Even Turkey, which recently exchanged ambassadors with Israel after a long hiatus, has expressed interest in cooperating with Israel in the energy sector.
Israel currently operates and lays claim to four gas fields off its coast. Two small ones are located off the shores of Ashkelon while the two larger ones – called Tamar and Leviathan – are located in the north, approximately 90 miles west of Haifa.
Leviathan should be fully operational within a few years while the other fields are already supplying Israel with natural gas. Israel derives approximately 60 percent of its electricity needs through natural gas. Energy officials estimate that since the gas began flowing just over a decade ago, Israel has saved approximately 35.5 billion shekels which translates to $9.6 billion.
The welcome news however, comes with cost. Lebanon, which is controlled by Hezbollah, which in turn receives its marching orders from Iran, has laid claim to Israel’s energy finds. Lebanon’s maritime and territorial claims are wholly without merit and it is a virtual certainty that they were made at the behest of either Hezbollah or Iran or both.
While Lebanon’s navy is negligible and poses no threat to Israel and its off-shore gas platforms, Hezbollah does pose a more significant threat. Hezbollah possesses a number of Chinese C-802 radar guided anti-ship missiles. A missile of this type damaged an Israeli corvette, the INS Hanit, during the 2006 Lebanon War (the ship was repaired and returned to service 3 weeks later) and sunk a civilian Egyptian ship cruising some 37 miles from shore.
The C-802 can be defeated through electronic counter measures (ECM) and point defense systems like the Barak-8 anti-missile, anti-aircraft system and the Phalanx. In the case of the Hanit, its captain had turned off the ship’s ECM systems because he did not believe that Hezbollah had such missiles. Of greater concern is the Russian Yakhont missile which is considered more accurate and less susceptible to ECM than the C-802.
Israel considers these missiles game-changers because they significantly enhance Hezbollah’s anti-ship capabilities. They also quite naturally pose a threat to Israel’s offshore gas platforms and related infrastructure. In the past few years, Israel has launched several successful attacks on Syria aimed at interdicting the flow of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah but it is believed that notwithstanding these efforts, Hezbollah has taken possession of a limited number of Yakhont missiles.
In addition to the missile threat, Israel must also prepare for other contingencies such as suicide speed boats and remotely piloted drones packed with explosives. Israel can also not discount the possibility that Hezbollah may attempt to seize an offshore platform with shock troops.
While Hezbollah is fully engaged in Syria and the threat level remains relatively low for the moment, Israel is not resting on its laurels. It is significantly enhancing the Navy’s tactical and strategic capabilities.
The Israeli Navy had once been considered the orphan child of the armed forces. Priority went to the ground and air forces with the Navy getting the leftover hand-me-downs. That perception changed during the Yom Kippur War of 1973 when the Navy was the only branch of the armed forces not taken by surprise during the initial Arab onslaught. Its fleet of Israeli and French designed missile boats decimated the entire Syrian navy and severely mauled the Egyptian navy while keeping the shipping lanes free for maritime traffic. The Navy’s role in securing Israel’s defense has come to prominence ever since.
In the next war with Hezbollah, the Navy will be tasked with neutralizing the Hezbollah menace and securing the eastern Mediterranean. Israel’s naval capabilities are indeed formidable. Its large fleet of Sa’ar 4.5 missile boats and Sa’ar 5 corvettes pack powerful punches and are equipped with Harpoon and Gabriel anti-ship missiles, torpedoes, an array of cannon, point defense missile systems and state-of-the-art ECM.
The Sa’ar 5 is also equipped with a helipad and hangar to accommodate the Atalef helicopter. Complementing the corvettes and missile boats are some 45 patrol and fast attack craft, some of which are equipped with missiles and the highly regarded Typhoon stabilized cannon system. Rounding out the surface fleet will be a pair of F124 Sachsen-class frigates from Germany and the Sa’ar 72, an 800 ton vessel currently under construction by Israel Shipyards.
The Navy has also taken possession of its fifth submarine, the INS Rahav. The craft can deliver Israeli designed nuclear tipped missiles called the Popeye Turbo and can remain submerged for significantly longer periods than conventional submarines. It will be tasked with carrying out covert operations and remains a powerful deterrent against those who seek to harm Israel.
Israel’s naval commandos are continuously training for scenarios in which they’re called upon to retake gas rigs seized by terrorists. The complex operation would be made more difficult by the fact that the terrorists could conceivably seize hostages and a firefight on the rig could set off an explosion or fire due to the presence of highly flammable materials.
The challenges involved in protecting Israel’s gas rigs and related infrastructure are daunting but it appears that Israel is more than ready for the task and the Navy will serve as the nation’s tip of the spear.