In light of increased verbal threats from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to target Israel's economic interests in the Mediterranean Sea, Israel Defense Forces Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz has authorized a plan to add four new ships to the navy's fleet to safeguard the country's gas rigs, located some 185 kilometers (about 115 miles) off the Israeli coast.
A senior IDF officer said that Israel was aware of Hezbollah's efforts, facilitated by Iran, to obtain large quantities of the Chinese-made Yingji C-802 anti-ship cruise missile. The C-802 is the same missile that struck the Israel Navy's INS Hanit (Spearhead) missile ship during the Second Lebanon War. The navy is also wary that the Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship cruise missile, which has been sold to Syria, could fall into Hezbollah hands.
According to aforementioned IDF officer, Hezbollah is also trying to obtain sophisticated coastal radar systems.
The program, which the IDF is calling "Shield," costs about 3 billion shekels ($757 million), which a navy spokesperson said would need to come from outside the set Defense budget. In addition to four new vessels, the navy also said it requires advanced radars, two "Shoval" unmanned aerial vehicles and more.
In addition to protecting the gas rigs, the navy will be required to "secure an area," a term easily applied to land combat but less clear in the water, and defend against a variety of potential threats.
The type of ships required for the mission have yet to be selected, but the navy spokesperson said they would need to be 1,300 tons to succeed at such a mission. It was also decided that the new ships' firepower would be less than that of the navy's missile boats already in service, meaning that their primary mission would be of a defensive nature.
The navy is currently patrolling the area with its missile ships, but on a small scale. According to a navy source, these patrols do not provide enough protection. "We need to demonstrate a strong presence there," a senior navy officer said this week, "and we aren't. We run sporadic patrols according to what the current size of the navy allows us to do." The officer went on to say that the Turkish navy was currently sailing in the area of the gas rigs.
The rigs are situated outside of Israel's territorial waters. A navy spokesperson said that the rigs are expected to supply 70 percent of Israel's gas needs in the future and Israel gas reserves are to be stored at sea, rather than on land. Therefore, according to the spokesperson, if the gas reserves are attacked or compromised, Israel could be brought to a standstill.
Israel Navy Commander Vice Admiral Ram Rotberg said earlier this week that, "In order to act at sea, especially in Israel's economic waters, the IDF and navy will need to grow to protect [the country's] interests over and under the water."