The IDF Navy has been revising its operational concept over the last few years, with the introduction of new rockets and missiles and changes in the range of threats in the maritime theater. The missile boats that carried sea-to-sea missiles for the purpose of engaging the naval forces of enemy states in the past have evolved into platforms for launching missiles from the sea at coastal targets, mainly since the Second Lebanon War (2006), during which it became abundantly clear that guerrilla organizations like Hezbollah can effectively threaten Israeli naval vessels.
Interoperability as a Force Multiplier
"In the Second Lebanon War, we saw the capabilities of Hezbollah, including the C-802 missile that may be launched from the shore at naval targets. This broke the equation as the enemy had moved to the shore. They also have long-range missiles, including the Yakhont missile, which can reach strategic objectives," explains Col. Eli Friedman, Head of the Weapon Systems Department at IDF Navy HQ. "The Navy has been building itself in view of that incident over the last decade. As the enemy had moved to the shore and has the benefit of flexibility in the employment of fire, they no longer have to dispatch naval vessels to the sea. Now they can fire in the context of flexible profiles. On the other hand, this leaves them exposed and vulnerable. One of the advantages opposite a scenario of this type is interoperability between naval, ground and aerial forces. The IDF has common C3 systems that enable firepower synchronization between the different arms through the use of sensors and communication systems capable of supporting situations of disrupted contact. What you want is a unified status picture – for the maritime and ground dimensions."
As naval vessels get closer to the shore, the severity of the risk they face increases. Long-range attack resources enable the Navy to operate from stand-off ranges, beyond the effective range of the threat. "When you are positioned outside the range of the enemy's missiles and stage your attack from a stand-off range, you remain relatively concealed. Naval vessels are mobile, and the enemy must search for them. They cannot be seen from the shore. An enemy wishing to find the opponent's naval vessels must employ complex resources. In some areas where the IDF operates, we enjoy a relatively substantial latitude. It is not a simple undertaking to detect and identify a naval vessel at sea."
The Navy also deals with the challenge involving the proper balance between defensive and offensive resources on board the same naval vessel. Space on board the vessel is limited. The radar system occupies the lion's share of the space available, leaving very limited space for missile systems. On the one hand, the naval vessel needs defense systems against aerial and naval threats, such as the Barak-8 and Iron Dome systems. On the other hand, the naval vessel needs attack systems capable of reaching the shore in order to remain relevant in combat operations. One of the ideas is to use the same vertical launching hive to launch different missile types – both defensive and offensive.
To accomplish that, the Navy strives for maximum standardization of the munitions and radar systems so as to achieve maximum effectiveness in utilizing the space available on board the vessel for its missions. Indeed, the IDF Navy, in cooperation with IAI, improved the Oren Adir (Elta Systems EL/M-2080S) Radar so it may support both the Barak-8 and Iron Dome systems. Additionally, the defense industries can adapt different interceptor types to the same vertical launching hive. Offensive munitions should also match the standard launching resources available on board the vessel.
Tactical or Strategic?
Another aspect of strike power is long-range rockets and missiles. LORA missiles and high-precision rockets to ranges of hundreds of kilometers can provide the naval vessel with an operational radius that is substantially larger than the existing radius. At the same time, launching a LORA missile from a naval vessel is not a simple undertaking, as the missile is sizable. If you want to launch such missiles from a missile boat, you will have to install the missile launcher on the helicopter deck at the expense of the helicopter. As far as the rockets are concerned, they may be adapted to the same vertical launching hive.
Adapting the operational doctrine of the IDF Navy to the employment of fire from the sea as part of the intention to adopt missiles and rockets will expand the range of options available to the IDF with regard to the aspect of deploying launching points at sea, on the ground and in the air simultaneously. However, at this point it seems that the acquisition of rocket-propelled weapons by the Navy is intended primarily for tactical ranges of dozens of kilometers at most, and for a good reason. Naval battles take place mainly within tactical ranges. The primary tasks of the Navy are to keep the maritime routes open, to protect offshore assets like drilling rigs, and deal with coastal targets that threaten the accomplishment of the aforementioned tasks. In all three scenarios, the Navy is not required to fire missiles or rockets to ranges beyond 100 kilometers (with the exception of submarines which, as an extreme example, should be left out of this discussion).
However, arming naval vessels with rocket-propelled weapons to such ranges can give the IDF an advantage in counterterrorism missions where selected objectives on the shore have to be attacked, in situations where the targets may be accessed through the sea more stealthily than they may be accessed from the air. At least in theory, it is more difficult to identify a naval vessel from a distance than it is to identify an aircraft. The ability of naval vessels to remain in a concealed stand-off position opposite the shore of an enemy country with an arsenal of missiles to a range of 300 kilometers or more, can provide the naval arm of the IDF with strategic counterterrorism capabilities similar to those of the major world powers.
Without a doubt, missiles and rockets change the way of thinking and the discourse regarding the missions that may be assigned to the IDF Navy. Nevertheless, the question that arises is whether the acquisition of such costly offensive systems that must be exchanged for other capabilities of the naval vessels is really worth the effort. In an era where the different arms of the military operate together while sharing a common target bank in real time through the "fire tender" system, the military should look for the niches where employing fire from a naval vessel at sea offers an added value compared to fire from other sources, on the ground or in the air.