Traditionally, Israel has relied primarily on its ground and air forces to meet national security needs. Now it must also bolster its naval forces — this is what ten prominent US and Israeli experts argue in a joint University of Haifa and Hudson Institute report released earlier this year.
The US Navy — the guarantor of free trade — has significantly shrunk its permanent presence in the Mediterranean since the end of the Cold War. As the report notes, “[t]he Sixth Fleet’s permanent naval presence is now a single command ship in Italy and four Aegis destroyers equipped for ballistic missile defense, all based in Rota, Spain, just outside the Mediterranean.”
According to the report, Israel must therefore strive to take on the regional naval policing job and seek even greater cooperation with the US Navy. In other words it must play the role of deputy sheriff in a similar manner to the United Kingdom and Australia.
Doing so, the report argues, is very much in Israel’s interests. Indeed, surrounded by Arab states, Israel relies on maritime shipping to transport 99% of its foreign trade by volume. Furthermore, the nature of Israeli exports suggests maritime trade will continue to grow in importance for the Jewish state. As the Times of Israel notes, “the wealthiest Middle Eastern economies rely on oil for their prosperity, whereas Israel relies on technological innovation as its single largest export. As technological advances slowly but surely sideline Middle Eastern oil as a keystone of the global economy, economies that rely on little else will sink further . . . while Israel, which has transformed itself into an engine for those very advances, will only rise.”
The discovery of the large Tamar and Leviathan gas fields in 2009 and 2010, respectively, and the growing threat of maritime terrorism further elevate the importance of maritime trade and security for the Jewish state. Israel will therefore have to engage in the careful crafting of a future maritime strategy as it decides on where to export the gas and how (thus far most discussions on the newly discovered gas fields have been oriented towards their domestic implications).
Taking on a more active role in the Mediterranean and bolstering its naval capabilities will also allow Israel to expand its strategic depth, which will be vital for deterring and defending against ballistic missiles, weapons of mass destruction and heavy rockets.
The joint report goes on to suggest that Israel’s maritime strategy should not be confined to the Mediterranean, but should also take into account security developments in the Indian Ocean, specifically the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Indeed, the growing threat of maritime terrorism and expanding Iranian military capabilities pose a serious threat to maritime trade in the region.
This increasingly includes shipping heading from Israel to Asia and vise-versa (in 2015 the total value of Israeli exports to Asia surpassed that of exports to the United States). Israel will therefore need to undertake careful planning in order to assess these and other regional developments and formulate appropriate responses.
As co-chair of the joint report and former Deputy Chief of Israel’s Navy, Shaul Chorev, noted in a September interview with the Times of Israel, “[o]ur trade with China and India is growing larger than with Europe. Does Israel have a strategic interest in its Indian Ocean trade? And if it does, does it need to have naval assets there?”
That said, the report does not touch upon the practical challenges and limitations of expanding the Israeli Navy to cope with the growing range of threats and meet national security interests. Although very modern, the Israeli Navy is largely a green water fleet designed primarily for coastal patrol and support missions. The largest ships currently in service with the Israeli Navy — the three Sa’ar 5-class corvettes — displace just 1,275 tons when fully loaded. The larger 2,000-ton Sa’ar 6-class corvettes scheduled to be delivered in the 2019–2023 time frame will greatly expand Israel’s capabilities in the Mediterranean and allow Israel to better defend its natural gas platforms; however, should Israel decide to maintain presence in the Indian Ocean, larger ships will be required.
Commenting on this matter in a recent piece for The American Interest, former US Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy (and contributor to the joint report), Dr. Seth Cropsey, underscored the importance of bigger Israeli ships for operations in the Indian Ocean, noting that “ [l]arger ships would . . . be better equipped for air-defense missions, which would enable longer-range independent naval operations, particularly in the Persian Gulf.”
According to him, “[t]he 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.” Cropsey further notes that Israel’s Dolphin-class submarines, although highly advanced, are not capable of operating far from home for long periods of time and, as a result, Israel should consider procuring at least three long-endurance submarines capable of staying at sea for months at a time.
Expanding the navy by procuring larger warships, however, is not cheap. The average cost of a single Dolphin 2-class submarine is approximately 470 million Euros ($500 million), while a single Sa’ar 6-class corvette is expected to cost just under 110 million Euros ($116 million) (the German government subsidized approximately one third of Israel’s 1.4 billion Euro purchase of three Dolphin 2-class submarines, and will pay 115 million Euros out of the 430 million Euro cost of Israel’s four Sa’ar 6-class corvettes). For comparison, Israel’s entire defense budget for 2016 stands at 59 billion Shekel ($15.5 billion). 59 billion Shekel equates to approximately 17% of Israeli government spending and 5.2% of Israel’s GDP (a relatively high figure). Further raising military expenditure by a substantial amount in order to procure larger warships is therefore an unrealistic prospect.
Similarly, allocating a significantly greater portion of funds (out of the total defense budget) for naval procurement is likewise unfeasible. While the Israeli Air Force is in good shape, the IDF’s ground forces continue to field large quantities of outdated hardware that does not offer adequate protection to Israeli troops and therefore requires urgent modernization or replacement.
As a result, many in the IDF are opposed to a new highly controversial plan that calls for the procurement of three additional Dolphin 2-class submarines at a total cost of 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 billion). As one high-ranking Israeli security source told Al-Mointor, “ [i]t would have been better to spend all this money to provide armored shield protection for all of the army’s armored personnel carriers, or for unmanned aircraft [drones], for cyber strengthening, and other spheres that are critical to the war against terror.”
Israel’s only feasible approach to significantly bolstering its naval forces may therefore be by allocating a certain portion of the $38 billion in US military aid that it will receive in the 2019–2028 time frame for the procurement of larger warships (assuming they are purchased from the United States). Here too, however, there are a number of complications. Funds for many of the associated costs (such as maintenance costs) would still have to be allocated from Israel’s own defense budget.
Furthermore, the United States does not currently build diesel-electric submarines, meaning Israel would have to look elsewhere — and pay using its own funds — for larger, longer-endurance submarines should it decide to procure such vessels. Consequently, a substantial enlargement of the Israeli Navy in the near to medium term is simply prohibitively expensive.
That said, dismissing the joint report for the above reasons would be missing its primary purpose: raising awareness of Israel’s growing maritime challenges and opportunities and encouraging further debate on the subject matter.
As Cropsey eloquently notes, “ [t]he 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.”
As for the actual expansion of Israel’s naval forces, this may indeed be possible in the long-term. Due to large scale immigration and other factors, Israel’s population is rapidly increasing and has the potential to almost double over the next three decades.
Given that Israel’s current GDP per capita is similar to the EU average, a substantial increase in Israel’s population would enable significantly greater military spending (in absolute terms) all the while accounting for a similar or small percentage of government spending (assuming, of course, that the economy and emerging demographical issues are well managed). A larger population and a big economy would, in turn, allow Israel to significantly bolster its naval forces.
This article was originally published on the author’s Medium page.
*Guy Plopsky holds an MA in International Affairs and Strategic Studies from Tamkang University, Taiwan. He specializes in air power and Russian military affairs. You can follow him on Twitter.