Israel's victory at sea

Ralph Peters:

THE Israeli navy rarely gets the spotlight, but it briefly drew attention in July when a Hezbollah anti-ship missile surprised a command vessel, killing four sailors. Then the coverage turned back to the war in the air and on the ground.

Hearing only about what went wrong at sea, we missed a terrific, positive story. We've been missing it for years.

The Israeli navy is the state's smallest military arm, with only 1,500 personnel on active duty and reservists rounding out crews. But the service has an enormous mission - which it's been executing quietly and superbly for decades.

Mention Israel's security problems and we automatically think of the battle over land: The West Bank, Gaza or the Golan Heights. But when you look at Israel from the water's edge, the country's strategic position feels very different - and the tiny navy's role appears indispensable.

Israel is a maritime power. We never think of it that way, but it's true: 99 percent of all goods that enter Israel come by sea; 93 percent of its exports leave by sea. And 80 percent of the population lives along the coast.

All of Israel's major power plants and refineries stand at the water's edge, as does much of its industry. Then there are the other lifelines, the oil terminals and desalination plants. A developing off-shore gas field is expected to supply at least 40 percent of the country's needs - and perhaps much more.

If Israel couldn't protect its coast, it couldn't survive.

...

The navy's challenge is to create strategic depth. So the service has become perhaps the most innovative maritime force in the world, creating "virtual bunkers" and constructing sea fences of barriers and sensors (the fences have reduced sea-border penetrations from 300-400 per year to nine or 10.)

Israel's navy has a blue-water mission, but only brown-water funding. Yet dedicated sailors make it work. And, although the admiral wouldn't discuss it, Israel is pursuing an ocean-going nuclear-strike capability to deter Iran from future use of weapons of mass destruction.

What routine threats does this gutsy little navy face? Direct attacks, weapons smuggling, terror boats launched furtively from merchant ships, ship abductions, suicide fishing boats (honest, I saw the chilling video), bombs concealed on life rafts (another explosive video), floating mines - and plain-vanilla fishermen poaching in Israeli waters.

Try to calmly judge the difference between fishermen and terrorists after a "humble fishing boat" pulls up beside a patrol craft and blows itself up. But the sailors can't just shoot first and investigate later. When Israel pulls the trigger on the wrong target, it's celebrated globally as a "Zionist atrocity."

Then there were the terrorists on jet skis . . .

...

Historically, the Israelis had little naval tradition despite having a strategic position on the Mediteranen coast. Necessity has turned it into a regional sea power.

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