Israel’s maritime force is gearing up for future challenges, including protecting the country’s offshore natural gas and oil facilities and keeping the shipping lanes open during any future conflict, says Maj. Gen. Ram Rothberg, the commander of the Israel Navy. Another key challenge, in addition to the overriding priority of maintaining naval superiority during times of war, is transforming the navy into a service that can have a decisive impact on land battles.
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While most of his colleagues on the General Staff focus on immediate, concrete threats, Rothberg, turns his focus in a different direction. This is not because Rothberg lacks any pressing concerns, but due to the confidentiality of the vast majority of naval operations. Instead, in a conversation with Haaretz, he takes a broader view and talks about his efforts to get approval for a new plan for equipping the navy.
On this issue, the naval commander takes two tacks. The first is the navy's need to acquire new, light vessels to protect Israel's exclusive economic waters in the Mediterranean Ocean, where large-scale natural gas and oil drilling is underway. The second is to upgrade the navy's heavier ships (such as its Sa'ar 5 missile boats) to allow them to play a greater role in future battles, should another war break out.
Rothberg, 49, has been commander of the navy for two years. He has spent most of his military service in the naval commandos, into which he was drafted at the height of the first Lebanon War. He commanded the undercover Duvdevan special forces unit during the '90s and the naval commandos at the start of the second intifada. Along with two other naval commando commanders, Brig. Gen. Erez Zuckerman and Col. N. (name withheld), he pushed for the unit to become much more involved in military activities in the Palestinian territories. He was the head of the Naval Intelligence Division during the Second Lebanon War (and was censured for his actions in the lead-up up to the Hezbollah missile strike on the INS Hanit) and commander of the naval base at Haifa, as well as deputy head of the National Security Council.
His appointment as commander of the navy was met with some surprise. The previous commander, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Marom, tried to promote his own candidate as his successor and to push Rothberg, who was considered independent-minded and sometimes blunt, out of the navy's top brass. However, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz thought differently.
In the realm of operations, Rothberg has continued Marom's philosophy of ambitious operations far from Israel's shores. The scars left by the naval commandos' assault on the Gaza aid ship Mavi Marmara in May 2010 (in which Rothberg was not involved) have largely healed, but when its comes to equipping his forces, he is pushing the navy toward different goals from those of his predecessors.
Rothberg talks explicitly about his desire to transform he navy into a decisive force in wartime. He wants the navy to no longer be just a sideshow, fighting the enemy's navy, but to impact developments on land as well. “The naval front enables Israel to develop additional military efforts, almost all at small cost,” says Rotherberg. “On the same platform [light sea craft] you can place everything: sea-to-sea missiles, a sea-to-air missile system to protect the ship and also sea-to-land missiles for precision hits on land targets from a distance.” All it requires, he says, is simple adaptations to integrate these capabilities with the missile boat systems.
Such changes are already taking shape, says Rothberg. In wartime, the first priority must always be naval superiority. But once that is achieved, he says, naval force commanders at sea must be much more aware of developments in the land battle.
He also rejects suggestions that his vision will fall victim to funding constraints and General Staff power politics, as happened to his predecessors. “Every commander sets course in the direction he believes in,” says Rothberg. “In the past, the navy's participation in land battles was limited and specific. The navy was built on heavy, multi-purpose sea-craft and primarily on naval superiority. Then we spoke of operational independence of action in a given zone. Time will tell if I will succeed or not, but to me the point of the story is what the navy can bring to the land battle.”
Rothberg says that the general approach, even before recent cuts in the defense budget, was that the army does not need “white elephants.” The point now, he says, is to combine forces in a way that benefits the entire army.
"In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, Israel placed its forces in a linear advance from south to north,” says Rothberg. “I think that you can operate from several directions at once. I am looking at what a naval force can bring to land force commanders advancing in parallel along a coastal axis, as regards intelligence, support fire and logistical support. This is how you create IDF flexibility.”
He is quick to qualify, though, that Israel will never have a naval force like that of the United States, with its aircraft carriers. It can however bring its sea firepower to bear.
One clear advantage the navy does have compared to other IDF branches is that when thousands of missiles and rockets are fired during a war, naval forces are almost entirely unexposed to fire, unlike land forces and air force bases. During a war, the navy can operate for many days without returning to port, unlike aircraft, which must land after missions and then fly back through missile-infested skies.
The naval commander says that the General Staff shares his understanding of the navy's potential role, due in part to Gantz and Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh's operational backgrounds. This will be important, because the decisions on multi-year armament programs will need to be made soon and these will set the course for the army’s development over the next five to 10 years. For his part, Rothberg says that due to the budget situation he knows that his focus cannot be on increasing the size of the navy's fleet, but on increasing the benefits that can be extracted from existing vessels.
In the near future, the government will discuss approving a navy program to protect Israel's exclusive economic zone along its coast. According to reports published last year, the navy has requested the purchase of four relatively small ships, along with radars and missile defense systems, at a cost of some NIS 3 billion.
Rothberg is excited by the economic potential of the offshore economic zone, but believes that it must be better protected. “I believe that the future of the State of Israel is in the sea,” he says. “In another decade, 70 percent of our energy will come from there, so we will need sea vessels that are appropriate for defending our economic waters.”
The naval commander says the best and only maritime defense, given that there are no borders or fences in the ocean, is to maintain a presence around the natural gas rigs in the economic zone. However, there is one major aspect of naval defense that is particular to Israel. “All the countries that are defending exclusive economic zones – the United States, Russia, India, Brazil – are dealing with criminal threats primarily,” he says. “We see potential security threats from Hezbollah up to Hamas.”
At present, 99% of Israel’s imports arrive by sea. During the Second Lebanon War, Haifa port was closed sporadically due to the threat of rocket attacks. In any future conflict, that threat is likely to encompass Israel's other major port in Ashdod, as well. The implication is that the country’s economic survival will depend on its ability to protect its sea traffic. The Russian Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles in Syria, some which were destroyed by Israel Air Force planes three months ago, according to foreign media, are capable of hitting almost every target on the Israeli coast and nearby ships with considerable precision. Thus, keeping the shipping lanes open is an additional challenge for the navy, along with maintaining naval superiority and protecting Israel's natural gas fields. A hit on Israel's natural gas rigs would be a critical blow to Israel energy infrastructure, says Rothberg.
The potential threats to the rigs are many: land-to-sea missiles, explosive-laden boats, takeover attempts and hostage-taking. “Everyone knows where a rig is located; it's impossible to hide,” says Rothberg. “It's a monster, half the size of Azrieli Towers above the water and another full-size tower below the water. Just the Tamar field is the size of Tel Aviv under the water. It's a giant space.” The commander says the navy needs radar and unmanned aerial vehicles to properly defend such targets. “We are three to four years behind in equipment,” he says. “If we were to go with what is good for building up the navy's strength, we would ask for an improved missile boat, the Sa'ar 5 Plus, but that would tripe the price.” Instead, says Rothberg, the current plan is to purchase four cheaper vessels. “We spoke about a cost of NIS 3 billion at the time, but compared to potential state revenues of NIS 400 billion [from the gas fields], it is a very reasonable investment.”