A Sea of Threats

A terrorist attacks on the high seas, intrusion into Israel, and the Hamas naval commandos – these are only a few of the challenges threatening the most operational sector of the IDF Navy. We joined the warfighters of the 916th Squadron on a patrol mission opposite the shores of the Gaza Strip


Warfighters of the 916th Squadron

We departed on board Shaldag Fast Patrol Boat 843 for a patrol opposite the Gaza Strip in a relatively calm sea, which did not betray the tension that has dominated the southern sector recently. Since the beginning of August, several terrorist attacks and attempted attacks have been staged out of the Gaza Strip, and each such incident could have set the entire sector ablaze, including the naval sector. This routine-looking patrol we joined with the men of the 916th Squadron provided a peek to the amount of threats the IDF Navy currently faces in the southern sea sector.

"The other side has realized that the sea medium is a challenge for both sides, as well as an opportunity," the commander of the IDF Navy base in Ashdod, Col. Yuval Ayalon, told us as we leave the port of Ashdod. "As the land medium is closing, the sea and air domains have become more challenging. There are more than 1,500 Palestinian watercraft out there. Each one can turn out to be a civilian or a 'duped' party. Each one can turn out to be a boat used for a terrorist attack. The friction is constant, just like the friction our ground forces have experienced for the past eighteen months with varying dynamometer readings," explains Col. Ayalon.

Col. Ayalon, the commander of the IDF Navy southern sector, is about to conclude a term of two years full of challenging events. The sector he commands, which extends from the shores of the Sharon region southward, contains countless strategic installations, bathing beaches, ports, offshore gas rigs and naturally – and as he tells us, most importantly – the bulk of the Israeli population dwells along this line, mainly along the coastline. Col. Ayalon and his warfighters are mainly preoccupied with the terrorism originating from the Gaza Strip.

A "Shaldag" ship. photo: Meir Azulay

"Anyone in the Gaza Strip who decides to stage a terrorist attack on the beach in Zikim or blow up a ship in Ashkelon can be there within three to five minutes," he stresses, while he points out the shoreline from the deck of the Shaldag FPB, illustrating to us how close the threat actually is. "For that reason, we maintain the highest alert level. Our decision-making is prompt. There are no fences at sea, as opposed to the land medium. Eventually, what we have out there are the warfighters in our routine security vessels and our controllers. The response interval must be very short. One must realize that every bullet coming out of the barrel of a warfighter can spin all of us to places where we never intended to go," he says.

Close Cooperation with Air and Ground Elements

"The most challenging place is at the seam across the shore between the northern end of the Gaza Strip and the State of Israel," stresses Col. Ayalon. "This medium is both adjacent to the shore and adjacent to the sea, so we have to look at it from both directions – from the land as well as from the sea. The cooperation between the IDF Southern Command, the Gaza Division HQ, and the Navy is excellent over there. We must be able to end any incident very fast."

The cooperation Col. Ayalon mentions has been promoted in recent years and was introduced into the IDF in various ways. The technological cooperation platform, known as TZAYAD (Digital Land Army), enables any element, on land, in the air, or at sea, to view the picture of all the other elements.

"I meet with the commander of the northern brigade every week. We conduct drills together every day. We cooperate technologically as well. I have the land Massu'ah (TZAYAD) system in my operations centers as well as on the vessels. He can see me and I can see him, we do not even have to talk. The tank crewman can see where the routine security boat is located and vice versa. Even visually, we created systems that enable us to view the surveillance inputs of one another. Loop closure is important," says Col. Ayalon.

Fighters at the "War room" in the ship. photo: IDF

We go below decks to view the TZAYAD system and the various other systems in the operations center of the boat. From this space, the skilled crewmen of the vessel track their targets, lock onto them, and naturally, when necessary – control the firepower that would be unleashed from the deck.

The commander of the 916th Squadron, Lt. Col. Guy Barak, presents to us the boat's CIC (Combat Information Center). "We have the boat's radar, we have the C2 (Command & Control) system, which, in fact, receives the entire picture available to the Navy regarding the specific sector where we operate. Whether it is a submarine, a routine security patrol boat, or a shore-based station – everything is assembled into a single maritime picture. All of the systems communicate with one another. If, for example, we identified a target through our C2 system or our surveillance system, we would lock onto it and the gun in the stern would be activated."

The Terrorism Dissonance

"And, of course, there is the Massu'ah system, which links together all of the arms and service branches. Today, regardless of which sensor had detected the target, everything is connected, and at the end – it is connected to the weapon system, too. This means, for example, that if a Golani infantry battalion operating in the northern part of the Gaza Strip identifies a target on the shoreline, they will 'prick' a reference point on the Massu'ah system, and that will be transferred to the C2 system. We will enter the points and the Typhoon (the gun station at the stern) will be activated automatically and point in the right direction. This entire loop closes within less than a minute," says Lt. Col. Barak while his warfighters are preparing for a live-fire exercise.

The warfighters communicate with one another on the radio, and start preparing for the exercise, one in many they conduct to maintain their competence. In the context of the exercise we are watching, the warfighters simulate the process of handling a terrorist boat identified at sea. They lock onto the target using the systems in the CIC many kilometers before actually approaching the target. The system is functional and efficient. Every warfighter reports in turn, like an orchestra where every musician plays a line. Finally, the target becomes visible on the display screens of the commander's console on the deck.

The commander gives the order, and the Typhoon gun at the stern locks onto the target and fires live rounds. The target is a small buoy, designed to challenge the gunner and the machine-gunners. Following the precision fire salvo, the Shaldag FPB, which weighs quite a lot, maneuvers sharply and the wake it leaves in the water proves it. The boat maneuvers and positions itself with its side facing the target, so as to engage the target with several MAG machine guns in addition to the Typhoon weapon station.

Protecting the Natural Resources

After the exercise ends, we sail in the direction of the offshore gas drilling rig opposite the shore – another major threat the Navy faces in the southern sea sector. Beyond the damage to a critical infrastructure, to understand how grave this threat actually is, one should review the data issued by the Ministry of Energy regarding the scope of revenue generated by the State. According to the data, published in August, revenue from royalties in 2019 is expected to reach a new record of more than one billion ILS.

Photo: IDF

In the first half of 2019, natural gas, oil, and mineral royalties and fees generatedx record revenue of about 426 million ILS. Note the following fact, as it demonstrates the threat of having an offshore drill deactivated owing defense-related reasons: according to a report by the Ministry, the increase in profits is relatively moderate, pursuant to a decrease in revenue in April owing to a malfunction and temporary cessation of production from the Tamar field. Now imagine what could happen if the offshore rig were hit by terrorists from the Gaza Strip and rendered unserviceable for a long time.

Patrolling the sector and talking to the crew and commanders has emphasized one very simple point: there are no fences at sea. An element who had carefully planned a terrorist attack out of the Gaza Strip will be able to make it to the offshore rig very quickly and damage it.

Fisherman or Terrorist?

But, as stated, the main activity in the southern sea sector focuses around the Gaza Strip. The Shaldag boat continues its patrol from the offshore rig eastward – in the direction of the Gaza Strip shore. The tension notwithstanding, we can already see the shoreline. On the way, we pass just hundreds of meters from the boats of the Gaza fishermen, for whom this is a major lifeline. Our Shaldag FPB passes near the boats, and the warfighters tense up. They scan the boats from the deck as well as using the various technological resources for anything unusual. Every one of those boats can turn out to be a potential attack platform.

"On the one hand," says Col. Ayalon, "We do our best to allow innocent civilians in the Gaza Strip to make a living, while on the other hand preventing them from staging attacks or engaging in smuggling. As the underground tunnels cease to be an option, the sea medium will become more challenging. Only last June, we seized a shipment originally intended for the terrorist organizations. That severed route had been intended to smuggle many things. They also use the civilian medium. In an attack we stopped last year, the terrorists used a civilian watercraft that should have hit a ship. Some of the men we arrested were civilians, while others were terrorists."

"Any watercraft that approaches just a little too close, the Navy vessel will close in on it," stresses Col. Ayalon. "We need relatively large sea areas so we can possibly chase it. We maintain the 'red lines' by preventing them from entering the perimeter. If they do, they will encounter a strict response. If this happens, we will reach a state of friction very quickly. It is hard work. Sometimes they try to 'steal' a few meters and we tense up. We must be able to tell whether the element before us is a terrorist element or an innocent civilian."

The Naval Commando Threat

In the last few years since Operation Protective Edge, the IDF has engaged in several rounds of fighting against Hamas and other terrorist organizations periodically. For some time, the IDF has attacked the infrastructures of the Hamas naval commando force. According to various reports, Hamas has been fostering its specialist unit and investing substantial amounts of money in it. Generally, Hamas has invested serious efforts in an attempt to stage attacks from the sea. One such attempt was made last year, as Col. Ayalon mentioned. Islamic Jihad planned to launch a missile at an IDF Navy vessel and abduct its crewmen. The Navy prevented that attack after ten Palestinians, inhabitants of Rafah, had been arrested at sea, having raised suspicions about their fishing boat being used to collect intelligence about IDF elements.

"I don't know whether we should define it as a strategic threat," says the commander of the Ashdod sector, referring to the commando force. "It is an ability Hamas wants to develop and upgrade, just like any other terrorist organization that aspires to damage the other side. They look for new methods and new ideas, and the Hamas' naval commando force is a measure they are trying to perfect."

Col. Ayalon acknowledges the capabilities and intelligence of the enemy. "We still have the qualitative edge. We are superior, but they undoubtedly understand that they have to learn, and they want to learn. I must say, however, that over the past two years, the Navy has managed to erode a substantial portion of their abilities. They invest massive amounts of money, and the smart thing to do is to sever their abilities between confrontations. To minimize their abilities. For example, the marine tunnel, which is a project they were working on for a long time, with the intention of inserting warfighters into the underwater medium – we severed it. We severed certain other capabilities, but it is a never-ending contest. The other side understands that we are engaged in a contest."

"In the past eighteen months, we have been experiencing tension that sometimes increases and sometimes decreases, and our mission is to counter and stop all those aspiring to intrude into the State of Israel or stage terrorist attacks against it. Our deployment must be maximal and our alertness is constant. Sometimes our alert level is higher while other times we can catch some air, but there is no doubt that the recent period has been very tense and challenging," says Col. Ayalon.

Riots along the Sea Fence

This tense period opposite the Gaza Strip has produced new scenarios with which the IDF had to deal on the fence system – mass riots on Fridays. Every threat on land, however, has its mirror image at sea.

"We had numerous incidents of riots, which posed a serious challenge for us, mainly in the northern part," says Ayalon. "It is more challenging than the riots on land as we do not have a fence. It is reflected in dozens of watercraft near the northern border, if someone decides to accelerate and infiltrate, they will be in Zikim in a matter of minutes. We are the physical barrier. In fact, they enter by the dozen through the border and violate the boundaries. Obviously, you will not go out there and shoot at watercraft. On the other hand – there is a very clear red line, which no one can cross. We can shift from stopping a vessel to neutralizing it and even to destroying it if it is involved in a terrorist incident."

Today's patrol introduces us to the threats on the one hand, as well as to the potential burnout of the warfighters and the mechanical wear of the vessels on the other hand. Routine security missions are by no means a simple undertaking. The various vessels of the Ashdod base are at sea most of the time, and sometimes become disabled or have to undergo an overhaul or service procedure. The crew explains that the IDF Navy, either through the military shipyards in Haifa or through the smaller shipyard at the Ashdod base, does an excellent job returning the vessels to active use as soon as possible.

Naturally, although we had a rough trip, it is not possible to even describe how rough the life of the warfighters at sea actually is. This, the sector commander stresses, is not any less of a challenge than the range of threats. "Alongside the process of improving your professionalism, you can experience burnout," says Col. Ayalon. "You can get used to the routine and then the enemy will take you by surprise. The other side studies us very quickly. They are clever, they collect excellent intelligence, and our mission is to collect intelligence promptly as well. We currently invest substantially in collecting intelligence as quickly as possible and closing the loop on the scene as quickly as possible. Naturally, we challenge ourselves mentally and conceptually. Today, we think together with the warfighters. A warfighter back from the sea may have seen something unusual – and we will raise that all the way to the top, so that something new will be delivered to the sector."

"We have two power stations, Israel's largest port, the entire space of the EAPC (Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company) compound, which includes the installations of the Israel Electrical Corporation and other elements, and naturally, the offshore gas drilling rig that pumps gas into Israel. That is a substantial burden on my shoulders, a substantial burden on the warfighters' shoulders. They are out at sea, it is a serious responsibility and I think that anyone who serves in this sector understands the enormity of this responsibility. In fact, the marine gateway of the State of Israel, the western part of the country and the quality of life of the Israeli people – along with much of the Israeli economy – are on our shoulders. This demands that we maintain an on-going learning process, a high degree of preparedness, and the highest level of professionalism, from the individual seaman to the sector commander," says Col. Ayalon.

Sharing the Concerns regarding the Gulf

The events of the last few months in the Straits of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, where Iran was involved in attacks against merchant ships, have raised concerns of a threat – among other things – to the main lifeline of the State of Israel: the ports and shipping. More than 90% of Israeli trade is shipped by sea. The attack does not necessarily have to take place inside the port. During our patrol, we pass near numerous massive merchant ships waiting to enter the port. A ship of this type, damaged even outside the port, will disrupt export and import shipping to and from Israel.

"Each average ship carries 6,000 containers," Col. Ayalon says as we pass by the giant merchant ships. "If, for example, two such ships fail to arrive, it means that 3,000 households will not receive the products they had purchased – from food to cars. The ability of the State of Israel to trade – to export and import – depends on these ports. If that machine fails to operate, the result will be massive losses, so our mission is to keep it running at all times. We must ensure that the shipping routes remain open," stresses Col. Ayalon.

A Marine Iron Wall

Before we return to shore, we pass even closer to one of the critical points of the shoreline defense effort – opposite the shore of Zikim, the connection point between the Gaza Strip and Israel. From this distance, we can clearly see, right in front of us, the fence of the Gaza Strip on one side, and the Israeli vacationers on the other side.

"This proximity to the beach at Zikim," the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Guy Barak told us, "where you see people vacationing in the summer, having fun, while on the right-hand side what you see is the Gaza Strip – that is a very complex reality. But that allows our warfighters to see with their own eyes the very essence of their presence here. Obviously, you are the only element separating between this – the ability to enjoy everyday life, and someone who aspires to stage a terrorist attack."

Barak also referred to the marine obstacle erected along this part of the border, which incorporates state-of-the-art technological resources. "It provides a solution for ranges closer to the shore. Bear in mind that it is not a wall that blocks the entire sea. It provides a very good solution and that solution must incorporate us. The closure of the medium closer to the shore is very effective," says Lt. Col. Barak, indicating that the obstacle is a success.

The patrol with the warfighters of the 916th Squadron introduced us to the sea of threats they deal with. Their primary activity takes place around the Gaza Strip, but there is no doubt that the recent events in the Persian Gulf could change concepts in the IDF and the IDF Navy, mainly as in the future, they may be required to cope with challenges that are not currently visible on the horizon.

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Photo: Reuters

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