The Defense Ministry is expected to ask the Finance Ministry for a budget increase of some 3 billion shekels ($853 million) to purchase four missile boats for protection of Israel’s offshore natural gas fields. The planned acquisition was first reported in Haaretz over the weekend.
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The extra money may be defined as a special expenditure rather than a part of the regular defense budget, to avoid swelling the military procurement budget for future years. But as far as is known, neither the full cabinet nor the political-security cabinet has discussed how to finance the protection of the offshore fields.
The German newspaper Bild reported on Saturday that following months of negotiations, Berlin has agreed to sell Israel two advanced gunboats at a cost of 1 billion euros. It said Israel’s national security adviser, Yossi Cohen, was in Berlin last week to discuss the deal.
But the negotiations with Germany are still in the early stages, and Israel is also holding talks with gunboat manufacturers in South Korea and the United States.
A few months ago, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz approved plans to purchase four large gunboats to help the navy protect the gas fields and recruit another few hundred sailors to operate these vessels.
The cabinet tasked the Israel Defense Forces with protecting these fields even though they are owned by private companies. The fields are located within Israel’s exclusive economic zone, defined as the area within 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) of the country’s coastline.
The navy has already started protecting the gas fields via patrols by its Sa’ar-5 missile boats and other vessels. These patrols have become more frequent since the gas actually started flowing. But the navy said four extra gunboats would provide a more comprehensive defense of Israel’s exclusive economic zone, and the diplomatic-security cabinet approved the navy’s plan.
The drilling sites themselves are protected by private security forces comprised of veterans of elite army units, as well as by aerial patrols, including drone flights, and other means.
The navy currently has 13 missile boats, including three of the advanced Sa’ar-5 class. Earlier this year, the IDF announced that due to budget constraints, it would take two of the older missile boats out of service.
The Sa’ar-5 boats were purchased in the United States. Nevertheless, Israel decided to negotiate with Germany – the supplier of its Dolphin submarines – over the acquisition of the new missile boats. But since Germany is still in a political transition following its September election, the talks will go into high gear only after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s new government is sworn in.
Israel has so far acquired six Dolphin submarines from Germany, with the first deal signed in the late 1980s. The first three submarines, delivered in the ‘90s, were given as a gift as part of the special relationship between the two countries. The other three cost Israel only 1.4 billion euros, since the German government covered one-third of the cost.
The navy has bought most of its gunboats from the United States; Israel used its annual U.S. military aid for the purchases.
Once a deal is signed, the navy expects the boats to be delivered gradually over the next three to four years. Until then, it will continue patrolling the gas fields with its existing gunboats.
Nadan Feldman contributed to this report.