The Noble Dina 2019 submarine hunting exercise, involving naval forces from Israel, Greece and the US, has just been concluded in the Mediterranean. The IDF Navy assigned missile frigates and two submarines. The Hellenic Navy assigned two submarines and a warship and the US Navy assigned an ASW aircraft.
This wintertime training activity has been the IDF Navy's first international exercise for 2019. In all, some five to eight surface vessels, plus submarines and several submarine-spotting aircraft participated in the exercise, along with helicopters and a US Navy P-8 Poseidon ASW aircraft. "The main part was anti-submarine defense," explains Lt. Col. Eitan Paz, Commander of the 34th Squadron of the IDF Navy's Missile Frigate Flotilla.
"Such exercises are inherently difficult owing to the aspect of the common language between the participating forces, which in our case necessitated a two-month long preparatory process. The warfighters studied NATO's international MTP language for joint exercises and practiced the exercise scenarios on simulators. Additionally, the IDF Navy invests in the presentability of the vessels in anticipation of the exercise."
The exercise consisted of three parts, on a total scope of about three weeks. During the first part, the Israeli force departed for a port in Greece. "For the warfighters of the 3rd Flotilla, it was a special experience. Going abroad with their vessels, docking at a foreign port and spending a shore leave with their colleagues from the Hellenic Navy and the US Navy. This experience is intended to enhance the cooperation between the participating forces," explains Lt. Col. Paz.
"During the second week, the forces departed in the direction of Israel. The leading activity involved surface vessels against submarines, including scenarios of detection and attack. The Hellenic Navy assigned two submarines and the Israeli Navy also assigned two submarines. The Americans assigned a Boeing 737 P-8 with ASW resources. It dropped buoys that operated between 6 and 12 hours and helped detect the submarines.
"The IAF also participated with a C-130 Hercules aircraft, Yas'ur helicopters carrying the men of the 669 rescue unit, Atalef helicopters and Shoval UAVs from the 200th Squadron. The objective was to assemble a naval picture of the surface elements. The underwater picture was provided by the Greek helicopter, the US Navy aircraft, and our own Sa'ar-5 and Sa'ar-4.5 missile frigates with their sonars."
In the context of the exercise, the IDF Navy also practiced attacks against the vessels from the shore, using shore-to-sea missiles. IAF fighters flew low to simulate the approaching missiles. "The fighters recreated a flight profile similar to that of missiles – close to the water, simulating a realistic situation. Short of actually launching a missile from the vessel, the warfighters operated all of the systems on their vessels, as they would have done in a real-life situation," explains Lt. Col. Paz.
As stated, Yas'ur helicopters carrying the warfighters of the 669 Unit also participated in the exercise and practiced rescue and extrication from the vessels. The exercise included the scrambling of a C-130 Hercules aircraft and Yas'ur helicopters carrying the warfighters to a distance of 800 to 1,000 kilometers from the borders of Israel.
One of the main complexities in international training exercises, as well as in actual wartime scenarios, involves the aspect of coordinating the communication between the various forces. Each military force arrives with its own encryption system, and none of the parties wants any other party to decipher its encryption (friendly relations notwithstanding). Consequently, NATO's generic MTP language (Multinational Maritime Tactical Procedures) is used. MTP includes one set of commands issued through "en clair" communication for training situations and another set for actual wartime situations.
In preparation for the exercise, the IDF Navy set up a dedicated communication channel based on radio transceivers between the vessels, having a sufficient radius, including an option for communicating with the US Navy aircraft. Each vessel also has a satellite communication link with the command center in Israel, which can handle any special coordination needs vis-à-vis the Americans, if necessary.
"As long as the operations are not confidential – there is no problem," explains Lt. Col. Paz. "The problem begins with the encryption. You cannot give any other party one of your own encrypted devices, and they will not give you one of theirs. In exercises that require it, each force will assign a representative to the vessel of the other force, and that representative will have an encrypted device that he will never lose sight of."
In the third part of the exercise, all of the forces entered Israel together – a total of several thousands of seamen from Israel, Greece and the US. As in Greece, the warfighters took sightseeing tours and spent time in Israel together, to strengthen the bonds between them. "The third part simulated defending a port against a submarine threat," says Lt. Col. Paz. "We ordered the submarines to attack a port, photograph it and plant mines, and our task was to catch and attack them. Anyone who read the book 'The Hunt for Red October' will be able to imagine such an exercise. As you approach the shore, the water becomes shallower and more difficult for the submarines to maneuver in. In the context of the exercise, we dropped small charges that created 'bangs' underwater, to simulate a realistic scenario.
"The primary objective of the flotilla is to safeguard a lifeline leading into the country during wartime, mainly by protecting merchant ships. Other objectives include defending the offshore gas rigs against underwater threats. It is important to remember that if a merchant ship is attacked and damaged while entering or leaving an Israeli port, no other merchant ship will go to Israel, as it would have no insurance. The State of Israel needs about 8 to 10 merchant ships per day to maintain a normal routine. Any disruption of the merchant shipping will result in economic pressure whose effect would be felt very quickly. That is our mission."
Why hold an exercise of defending merchant ships near the port instead of at longer distances from the shore? Well, Lt. Col. Paz explains that in the maritime arena, it is difficult to identify which merchant ship goes to which port. "This is a complex intelligence undertaking. Any mistake can get you into a state of war with the country to which the merchant ship belongs. It is a deterrent," says Lt. Col. Paz. "That is the reason why, if an attack is to be staged against a merchant ship – it will take place at the gateway to the port. Accordingly, the distance within which we practiced the second part (about 1,000 kilometers from the shores of Israel) was sufficient. This time we also practiced a defensive action against an attacking swarm of small fast boats opposite the port."
IDF Navy sources said that the international exercises enhance the bonds with our allies. "I do not think that 30-40 years ago, the 3rd Flotilla would have helped the Greeks in the context of one of the natural disasters Greece experienced over the past few years," says Lt. Col. Paz. "Eventually, we became involved and extended assistance at the common language level, the willingness to help, solid foundations for doing good things together in the future. As far as the military aspect is concerned, it will be easier to face a real joint event after having participated in joint training exercises than it would be without such exercises."
Another advantage of these joint exercises is the deterrence they produce. The Hellenic Navy trains with the Israeli Navy, with the Egyptian Navy, with the Tunisian Navy, and with NATO. "As they realize how professional we are, they will spread the news and convey the message, quite naturally, to other partners with whom they train over the course of the year. Additionally, as the Hellenic Navy is a part of UNIFIL (The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon), it patrols off the shores of Lebanon. They know we are their friends," says Lt. Col. Paz.
"Israel's long arm can reach any place"
As the Mediterranean has filled, over the last few years, with various naval forces and fleets from around the world, the IDF Navy's voyage to Greece and the ASW exercise must have drawn many spectators, including elements of the Russian Navy. These elements have been patrolling the Mediterranean, mainly in the northern sector, off the shores of Syria, but all over the Mediterranean generally.
"You encounter forces of the Russian Navy, the French Navy, the US Navy and other naval forces with their diversified vessels, ranging from aircraft carriers through destroyers to other vessel types. In international waters, we mainly observe good seamanship and press on with our training activity. If someone wants to watch from the side – they are welcome to it. They can see the platforms from a distance, and the techniques remain within the participating force so that everything that needs to remain confidential will not be exposed.
"We, at the 3rd Flotilla, conduct many exercises overseas – about three exercises per year, and sometimes more. This is one of the elements of the IDF with the highest number of overseas visits. Israel's long arm can reach any place that has sea access. In 2018, the Flotilla participated in international exercises in the French Riviera, in Italy – with submarines and missile frigates – and in Cyprus. Visits to foreign ports are an inherent part of our activity. The advantage of such long voyages is the preparation of the crews for war. This year, we have a number of additional exercises already scheduled."