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Far away from the public’s eye the Israeli Navy is undergoing a major reform. Alongside the advanced Dolphin submarines, the navy’s strategic fleet, the Israeli fleet of missile boats is about to become a highly advanced fighting force.
The latest upgrades include: Stealth capabilities; the new, precise and deadly Barak 8 missiles; new anti-submarine capabilities; long range transport of commando units – all these based on local designs and production. One example of Israel’s special status in the naval arena is the huge contract – worth $1 billion – signed recently between tiny Israel and giant India, for the purchase of Barak 8 missiles to be installed on the new Sa’ar 72 missile boats. The new boats were displayed for the first time at the IMDEXASIA expo in May 2013, Singapore.
To fully understand this reform certain facts have to be made clear. After the discovery of the gas reserves in Israel’s international waters the nature of the strategic threats facing Israel changed completely. In order to allow these gas facilities to function safely they require naval and aerial defense. Unfortunately, the Navy’s fleet of battle ships – Sa’ar 4 and Sa’ar 4.5 missile boats, along with a few Sa’ar 5 warships purchased with U.S. defense aid funds – is old, belonging to a generation of ships that will soon have to be discharged after 35 years of active service, which is considered to be the maximum operational life for warships. In order to handle these new, complex missions, and in order to react to the changing naval threats, the fleet requires a major upgrade. One of the main changes is the addition of the Sa’ar 72 “mini-corvettes”, already designed and in the first stages of production at the Haifa-based “Israel Shipyards”, to be operational as soon as 2015. The Israel Shipyards, incidentally, aren’t focusing on Israel alone. Navies around the world are their strategic targets.
Formally, the Sa’ar 72 is defined as a “multi-purpose vessel suited for all forms of naval combat, including command and control.” What this means is that the ship has room to transport commandos, hangars for one or two helicopters, a number of UAVs and quick response capabilities for rescue operations. The advanced ships can also land medium-sized helicopters, deploy inflatable boats, deploy unmanned surface vehicles and more. In addition, the ships possess advanced stealth capabilities tested by Israeli Navy specialists, including: A multi-purpose Elta radar for combat in various ranges and against various threats; anti-ship missiles; precision guided ammunition; computerized anti-aircraft cannons and advanced naval machine-guns. The new ship includes an underwater exhaust and a mast capable of supporting an electronic-warfare radar and passive sensors (for light and hear detection). The new ship – capable of carrying up to 800 tons – includes rooms for up to 50 crew members and 20 passengers or commandos. The ship can remain at sea for 21 days and has an operational range of 5,500 kilometers.
Israel Shipyards informed the Defense Update blog that the first ship will be ready in 30 months, with additional ships manufactured every 8 months.
The main military advantage of the Sa’ar 72 is the Barak 8 surface-to-air missile systems, designed to protect against aircraft and other missile boats. The Barak 8 system is unique not only because of its technological capabilities, but also because of the way it came to be, a story reflecting Israel’s international importance in the field of missile development. It all started in 2004, when the Indian Admiral Arun Prakash visited Israel in secret. He proposed a cooperation for the development of a surface-to-air missile system. After long negotiations, involving experts from both sides, a final agreement was signed for the joint development of the Barak 8 in January 2007. According to the agreement every side would pay about half of the total development costs, which were 350 million dollars. The third partner in the contract was Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). Barak 8 was tested successfully in July 2009. It is based on the Barak 1 missile, which was itself based on the American air-to-air missile Sparrow. The Barak 8 is 4.5 meters long, 54 centimeters in diameter and with a wing span of 94 centimeters. It weighs 275 kilograms, including a 60-kilogram proximity-detonation warhead. Its cruising speed is Mach 2 (about 2,500 km/h), and its operational range is 70 kilometers. It has improved maneuvering capabilities, gained through the use of two engines – one for cruising and one for accelerating before impact. Barak 8 missiles are launched vertically, weighing 1,700 kilograms at launch. Each system costs $24 million, including 8 missiles costing $1.65 million each. After the successful experimental stages India signed an acquisition contract for a $1.1 billion purchase of Barak 8 missiles. India was the first of many: The navies of Chile, Venezuela, Azerbaijan and Singapore followed.
That’s not the end of the story, though, since the threats to Israel’s security aren’t over. One of these threats is the introduction of the Russian surface-to-surface Yakhont missiles into the Syrian theater. Yakhont is a supersonic cruise missile that can be launched from air, ground and sea. According to various reports these missiles were delivered to Hizballah in 2012, and Israel believes that the Lebanese terrorist organization might use them to attack Israeli natural gas rigs in the Mediterranean. In order to prevent this the security establishment decided to install Barak 8 missiles on three Israeli Navy Sa’ar 5 boats, to defend the rigs until the Sa’ar 72 become operational in 2015.