Written by Arieh O’Sullivan April 02, 2012
Purchase comes as defense planners foresee wider strategic role for the fleet
Wasting little time after loosing a bid to sell Israel fighter trainer jets, South Korea has now reportedly offered to build large vessels for the Israeli Navy, which is in need of expansion due to strategic changes in the region.
A team of representatives from the South Korean government and Hyundai Shipyards have been in Israel recently to discuss a deal to build a frigate with a displacement of 1,300 tons, the Israel Defense website reported.
The report said that no costs were discussed and that the contacts were preliminary “but ongoing.” It further revealed that Hyundai, with its advanced ship-building industry, would sell Israel a skeleton vessel and that various Israeli defense industries would install locally made systems on board, including radar and the much-vaunted Barak anti-missile rocket defense system.
Some of the work could be done by the Israel Shipyards in Haifa, which is desperate to crack into the larger naval vessel market. It has proposed investing in new dry docks that would allow them to construct ships of up to 2,100 tons. Lobbyists sought government backing for the idea in order to keep the strategically important firm open. But this plan is reportedly stuck.
A proposal in 2010 to build together with Spain a littoral combat ship (LCS), a small surface vessel used in operations close to shore, fell through and an earlier bid to procure one from the U.S. also was shelved when the prices skyrocketed.
A Korean vessel would likely be far cheaper than anything purchased from the American or Germans, and they would also likely be more flexible when it came to join-industrial partnering.
A spokesman for Hyundai Shipyards could not be reached for comment.
The Israeli Navy already runs the most expensive pieces of equipment in the Israel Defense Forces and these are the German-made Dolphin submarines. It has three in service and three on order, including one deal inked in Germany last week. Each sub is estimated to cost about $600 million and is tailor-made for Israel by the German shipyards.
The Dolphins have a range of 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles) and are reportedly Israel’s “second strike” platform equipped with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, according to foreign reports. But for a country like Israel, where 95% of its military supplies come from the sea, defending the sea routes is without a doubt an existential strategic interest.
The three Sa'ar 5 class missile corvettes (1,250 tons) the navy received in the mid-1990s supplement its smaller fleet of missile boats making it a formidable force to defend the coast and take on Arab navies. But forward looking people in Israel’s defense establishment and government see a larger role for the navy in the future.
Last month, Israel’s Defense Ministry said it was choosing Italy’s M346 trainer fighter jets over the T-50s built by South Korea. It was a heavily fought procurement battle and many feared spurning the Koreans would have strategic and diplomatic fallout.
“With the jet trainer deal now yesterday’s news, it's crucial for Israel to change the subject with South Korea as soon as it can. The best way to forget an unsuccessful deal is to put an even better deal on the table,” wrote Ariel Harkham, co-founder of the Jewish National Initiative, in Ha’aretz.
A glance at Israel’s strategic landscape presents a different picture than even a decade ago. Iran’s nuclear ambitions make the Arabian Sea an area for Israel’s navy and it recently sent vessels through the Suez Canal for patrolling off the Horn of Africa. The discovery of gas and oil fields in the Mediterranean off Israel’s coast, an increasingly belligerent attitude by Turkey and Egypt’s teetering on Islamist control all demand that Israel needs to turn itself from a coast guard into a regional naval superpower.
Senior naval commanders, including former Navy Adm. Yedidiya Ya'ari, believe the navy should have a bigger role in future battles. They and some government figures warn that the country is merely “one big and exposed aircraft carrier” whose 11 military airfields and numerous army bases are vulnerable to attack and could be paralyzed by enemy action.
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz has been a strong supporter for a stockier navy. As chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee he released a paper which saw the navy acquiring frigates, (4,000 tons), destroyers (9,200 tons) and cruisers (12,000 tons) equipped with cruise missiles with a range of some 2,000 kilometers, assault drones and marine artillery, including one being developed now which is capable of firing satellite-guided 155mm rounds between 75 and 120 kilometers.
A call for an Israeli air craft carrier was not on the drawing boards, yet.