The Israeli Navy’s Strategic Challenges in the 21st Century
Israel is surrounded on three sides: it has countries to the north, south, and east. Its independence, economy, and security — indeed, its very existence — depends on the Mediterranean Sea. Half the country’s residents live fewer than 30 kilometers from the coastline, and over 98% of Israel’s foreign trade is transported by sea.
The Israeli Navy (IN) bears overall responsibility for safeguarding Israel’s strategic, security, and economic assets along the coastline and close to it, as well as farther out to sea in its territorial waters and in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The IN is also responsible for protecting sea lanes to and from Israel, securing maritime transportation and trade, combating marine terrorism, and assisting the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in combat. In this context, the Navy engages in special operations and intelligence operations. When necessary, it also conducts attacks on both land and sea targets.
For various historical reasons, the IN was not originally afforded the same priority as its two brethren services: the ground forces and the Israeli Air Force (IAF), which benefited from much larger relative investments in terms of both men and materiel. The ground and air services were considered Israel’s main pillar of defense while the IN’s role was little more than that of a strong Coast Guard. For decades, the IN was the little brother of its two siblings and one of the smallest in the world (for the size of the country and its proximity to the sea).
Despite its inferiority in size and resources (and possibly because of it), the IN proved to be innovative in doctrine and technology. It was the first navy to base itself entirely on missile boats and the first to win a sea battle using them (against Russian-made missile boats in 1973). Throughout its existence, the IN has introduced many innovations and gained considerable operational experience.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, geostrategic trends have altered the security situation of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean and affected the kinds of threats to which Israel’s national security is subjected. These developments led to a greater role for the IN in securing Israel’s national interests, an evolution that led to a stronger emphasis on IN force development. As a result, the IN of today is equipped with advanced detection, communication, command and control, electronic warfare, and weapons systems. The Navy operates advanced platforms — missile boats, frigates, submarines, and aircraft — and possesses strong capabilities for building a maritime picture, intelligence gathering, and aerial defense. The IN is now able to project power to areas beyond the Eastern Mediterranean.
The new geostrategic threats that are driving IN force development and doctrinal changes can be divided into four categories. The first is the growing capability of other navies in the region — first and foremost that of Iran, but also countries such as Egypt and Turkey, which could become hostile in certain scenarios. The second has to do with the IN’s recent assignment to protect the huge deposits of natural gas that were discovered in Israel’s EEZ. These rigs are under constant threat of missile attack by Hamas and Hezbollah.
The third is the constant and ever-growing threat of barrages of increasingly precise missile attacks by Iran and its proxies in the region. The IN can add strategic depth to Israel’s limited land mass, and its missile boats and submarines can provide additional redundancy and allow for enhanced capabilities, both offensive and defensive, against missile attacks. Lastly, part of Israel’s response to some of these developments was to become part of an emerging maritime alliance in the Eastern Med, primarily with Cyprus and Greece.
If Israel aspires to play a leading role in the alliance, it will need to maintain a relatively large and strong navy.
Dr. Eitan Shamir, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and the former head of the National Security Doctrine Department in the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs.
A version of this article was originally published by The BESA Center.