February 14, 2004
Israel is considering a bold plan to turn its coast defense navy into the dominant high seas fleet in the eastern Mediterranean. New types of warships are under consideration, including a 12,000 ton cruiser, a 9,000 ton destroyer, and a 4,000 ton frigate. The new vessels will protect the nations air space, launch long range cruise missiles, and fire satellite guided munitions from 155 millimeter naval guns.
The move to a sea based deterrent is logical for a nation about the size of New Jersey, hemmed in on all sides by potential enemies. During a brief era of expansion in the 1960s Israel seized vast chunks of territory from neighboring Arab states, but gradually gave them up after a series of peace settlements. Conquests in Sinai, the West Bank and Golan Heights were seen as vital buffers against Arab invasion. A land attack from invading armies is increasingly seen as unlikely, however. The more immediate threat comes from terrorist attacks against her air bases, or a ballistic missile strike on her population centers.
For decades the Air Force has been the nations first line of defense. Each of Israels 11 air bases are on hair trigger alert, a situation comparable to the US Strategic Air Command in the height of the Cold War. Today the air arm remains the primary defense of Israel, and recently received 102 new F-16I fighters from America at a cost of $4.5 billion. A conservative Air Force, protective of its traditional role, will prove a significant obstacle to any naval expansion.
Whatever the future composition of the fleet becomes, it will almost certainly include up to 4 new missile corvettes, armed with Aegis air defense systems. and the Israeli built Arrow anti-ballistic missiles. Bath Iron Works is proposing to build these large warships with the American SPY-1F air defense radar. At 2750 tons and 328 feet long, they will be the smallest such vessels to carry Aegis, and double the size of corvettes bought by Israel in the 1990s.
Israel recently deployed 3 Dolphin class diesel submarines, built and financed by Germany. Last year it was learned these 1900 ton warships carried nuclear tipped cruise missiles, which were converted by Israel from American supplied Harpoon missiles. The country sees these ships as a vital second strike capability in case her air bases are overrun or destroyed.
The Israeli Air Force is not seeing this new challenge to their funding as an immediate concern. The Navy has always been looked on as a poor relation when compared to the great land and air battles of the army and air force. Yet, the Israeli public has always been ready to sacrifice to ensure the security of the country. The sea is increasingly being seen as the last area of expansion left to her, where she is less likely to antagonize the Arabs. --Mike Burleson