When one thinks about the Israeli Navy, images of the 13th Flotilla (Naval Commandos), Sa’ar-5 missile frigates or the new Dolphin submarines delivered from Germany come to mind. All of the above have one element in common. It is rather timid most of the time, but without it, the entire naval power of Israel would have remained at the dock. This element is known as an engine. Every naval vessel, on or below the surface, confidential or not, has an engine that takes the warfighters of the IDF Navy to their routine security missions and to operations in faraway destinations.
The people who service the engines of the IDF Navy may be found near Kibbutz HaKhotrim, at the Betzet (Hebrew acronym for Equipment & Transportation Base) Naval Base Engine Maintenance & Overhauling Workshop. These people can identify malfunctions in naval vessel engines, take them apart down to the last bolt and reassemble them as if they have just come out of the manufacturer’s production line in Germany.
The story of the engine workshop parallels, to some extent, the story of all the other Israeli defense industries. It begins somewhere after the establishment of the State of Israel and IDF, when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion decided that the Israeli military must be technologically independent in all of its activities, including the naval arena. The Israeli Navy, as small as it may be, thinks big. “If you give the Navy sufficient time and money, we will be able to build even our own submarine,” says Major Radian Leonte, commander of the engine workshop. Radian has served in the Navy for more than twenty years. He served as chief engineer on every type of surface vessel (but not on board submarines), studied mechanical engineering, served as chief engineer of the Ashdod Naval Base and about six months ago was appointed as commander of the engine workshop.
“This is the only place that overhauls the larger engines used by the Navy, and it is also the only engine running-in installation in Israel. Here we overhaul and test the engine before transferring it to the shipyard. We assemble dozens of engines each year. Additionally, we serve as the depot level maintenance facility for handling malfunctions in naval vessel engines. Such malfunctions are referred to us when the vessel’s home base is unable to solve the problem. About 20% of our on-going activity consist of handling malfunctions outside the workshop, and the rest consist of the work done here at the workshop,” explains Radian.
About six months ago, the workshop was relocated to its new home at the Betzet Naval Base, after many years at the Kishon docks. The new engine running-in installation is the highlight of the new facility. It is a new installation used for running-in engines with a rated output of up to 4000 horsepower before they are installed on the vessel. The running-in installation and the new workshop were built with the help of the MTU Company of Germany, the largest supplier of engines to the Israeli Navy.
Down to the Last Bolt
The process of overhauling an engine begins at the warehouse where the engine is delivered from the shipyard to the workshop. The process may consist of a routine, periodic service, just like the dynamics involved in car maintenance, or the repair of a malfunction. The engine is delivered to the warehouse and then enters a huge hangar where individual workstations are set up. Each station is responsible for overhauling a different engine assembly.
After disassembly, the parts are transferred to the workstations. One station overhauls the engine block, another overhauls the transmission and so forth. At the end of the process, the engine is transferred to the running-in installation for testing, and if the test is successful, it will be painted and returned to the shelf as reserve inventory for the shipyard.
“At the end of the process you get a new engine with zero hours, the equivalent of a brand new engine, fresh out of the factory in Germany, but at one third of the cost. Each working cycle of the engine ranges between 5,000 and 15,000 hours, which is the equivalent of several years of operations at sea, depending on the vessel’s activity. Operations like Protective Edge, for example, affect the engine’s workload. The vessels spend more time at sea, so the cycle becomes shorter,” explains Radian.
The personnel at the workshop consists mainly of IDF-employed civilian specialists engaged in engine overhauling for many years. Each one of them has developed a specialized skill regarding a particular engine assembly. Each workshop station is manned by one or two operators, who, in fact, carry the operational continuity of the Navy on their shoulders.
Whereas the workshop serves as the depot level maintenance facility for all matters pertaining to the propulsion systems of naval vessels, it is required to operate during emergencies such as a war or an operation at sea. “Sometimes we do that. We join the actual patrol or provide support from our base. In any case, each and every engine we return to the shipyard undergoes both the load test at the running-in installation and a running-in patrol after it is assembled on the vessel, and we join that particular patrol. If we are needed in an operation, we will join it. One should bear in mind the fact that we possess all of the knowledge regarding the engine. No one takes it apart except us,” says Radian.
The engine workshop handles all of the engine types used by the Navy. Technically, as Radian explains, there is not much difference between propeller engines and jet engines (where the vessel does not have propellers and is propelled by pumping water and forcing it through a system of nozzles that enable sharp maneuvers). The difference is in the propulsion line. The engine is the same.
“There is no difference between the systems as far as the engine is concerned. You remove an engine and put another one in its place. We handle dozens of engine types. About 80% of the vessels use engines by MTU of Germany, but we also have engines by GM, Mercedes and other manufacturers,” says Radian.
“The choice depends on the vessel characteristics, like speed and weight. Today there are smaller engines with higher output specs. In some cases, we replaced the engines on existing vessels because we had a more efficient alternative. Everything is done right here at the shipyard. We have many engineers in the Navy who know how to do everything on their own. As far as combat vessels are concerned, no other organization in Israel possesses the experience that the Navy possesses. As far as larger merchant vessels are concerned, you have Israel Shipyards as well. A few years ago, Israel shipyards serviced a helicopter carrier.
“We also handle submarine engines. In fact, they are the same as the engines of surface vessels, but are required to operate in a different environment. The submarine does not operate on the surface and the environmental pressures are different. The tests we conduct on submarine engines are more stringent. At our running-in installation, we test submarine engines as well.”
Radian explains that the difference between wartime and routine periods is in the workload with which the engine workshop has to cope. During wartime, more engines are needed on the shelf, and there are more surprises concerning engine failures, as the vessels operate ‘like taxis’. “During an emergency, if an engine fails or is ruined, you must provide an immediate solution. Overhauling an engine takes between two weeks and two months. Consequently, when we enter a state of war, the objective is to have at least two engines of each type on the shelf, to enable operational continuity. That is the situation today.”
In order to maintain operational continuity, the engine workshop invests a lot in packaging the engine after it is overhauled. An engine can sit on the shelf for years. The manufacturer’s procedures call for a test once every 10 years for engines waiting on the shelf, on condition that the engine had undergone a preservation procedure, including the use of rust-preventing substances, vacuum packaging, desiccants and other measures. Following the preservation process, the engine sits in a box, waiting to be transported. “We had engines replaced in Ashdod as well as in Eilat. In Eilat it is more difficult because the equipment needs to be transported to that base, and that takes half a day longer. We can also load the spare engine and the tools on a naval vessel or an aircraft, so we can change an engine anywhere around the globe.”
Can Israel become an exporter of combat naval vessels?
“If there is a will, the knowledge is already available. It is a consideration of economic feasibility. The Navy and the State of Israel have the minds that can manufacture any naval vessel you like. It is just a business decision – no technological barriers are involved.”