What Shape Is The Israeli Defence Force Navy In?


In the years immediately following its foundation in 1948,Israel’s navy comprised just five vessels and in view of spending priorities, the navy remained well down the queue for budget. Five vessels was seen as a fleet adequate to protect Israel’s maritime supply routes, perhaps assuming an ability to rely on the US and other friendly nations in time of crisis.

INS Eilat was lost off the coast of Port Said in 1967 after the Six-Day War, the victim of Egyptian anti-ship missiles launched by small, fast and highly maneuverable missile boats. This action caused ripples – waves even -in naval circles, just as the air-launched Exocet caused in the Falklands War. Defence of such ships was re-thought.

The age of the missile boat really had arrived, leading to a reappraisal of the naval forces and their fundamental strategic missions for Israel. Smaller, faster ships were developed along with next generation surface-to-surface missile technology.

By the time of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Israeli Navy was ready. Sa’ar -5 Class missile boats (corvettes)were operational (Sa’ar is Hebrew for tempest or storm), with new anti-ship missile systems. With a revised tactical playbook, ECM and the Gabriel anti-ship missile system, they demonstrated that the Navy was up with the best that other branches of the IDF had to offer.

Time moved on, and land-based threats were perceived to be the most salient. Hezbollah was firing rockets into  Israeli settlements.

A maritime blockade of Lebanon was established during the second Lebanon War in 2006. The INS Hanit, a Sa’ar-5Class frigate was hit by Chinese anti-ship missiles, said to have been due to poor intelligence – the radar was turned on.

Since that failure of intelligence and self-protection, force integration has improved. There have, though, been political setbacks – particularly the fiasco following the interception of a six-ship aid convoy in 2010 which was attempting to run the Gaza blockade.

Operational Theatres and Bases

The two key theatres for the IDF Navy are the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea (which leads to the Gulf of Aqaba).

The main Israeli naval ports are Haifa and Asdod, on the Mediterranean Sea and Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba.Additionally, there are shipyards (maintenance), an information systems centre, and command and control complexes.

The Suez Canal is used by Israel from time to time, peacetime passage being guaranteed by international convention and treaties. The Strait of Tiran between Egypt and Saudi Arabia at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, is narrow at8 miles, and shallow. Strategists would see Eilat as a poor choice to base submarines because of this bottleneck.

Israel states that it has no plans to base submarines in the Red Sea, and given the 1975 Memorandum of Agreement with the US, and US strategic interests in general, it is reasonable to assume that the US has nuclear submarine assets handily placed at all times for this theatre.


The Israeli Navy is the smallest branch of the IDF by a long way. Its establishment is just less than 20,000 heads strong (2011, about 2.5% of Israel’s total population).

Its fleet is currently thought to be as follows (2011), though there may be other vessels which are undeclared:

Surface Vessels:
3 corvettes
10 missile boats
3 Dolphin Class Submarines
42 patrol boats
6 support ships
Numerous small mission vessels and support craft.

Rotary wing: Eurocopter Panthers
Fixed wing: IAI Seascan maritime surveillance.

Another two Dolphin Class Submarines are being built.


The IDF Navy is now in a major procurement phase, though squabbles over budget,strategic capabilities and probable mission profiles continue. Internal arguments do nothing to assist the Navy’s bid for funds to add 2 capital ships (à la US LCS or Danish Standard Flex) to its fleet.

Once the wrangling over the LCS ships is resolved and a suitable budget signed off, then the IDF Navy will be able to move forward. The vacuum caused by the political fires sweeping across the region is sure to be filled somehow. With the recent sea trials of the Chinese aircraft carrier Shi-Lang, the world naval power picture is shifting, particularly given China’s very high level of investment in land and food, mining and diplomacy in the African continent. Some re-thinking will be necessary all round.

(c) 2011 James Marinero

James Marinero
August 12, 2011