Israel gas fields pose naval security challenge
Faced with new challenges posed by major offshore gas discoveries, Israel is looking to significantly increase its military presence on the high seas in a bid to protect its economic waters. With extraction of vast reserves of recently-discovered natural gas due to begin next year, top military officials have been putting together a plan for securing oil rigs stationed within Israel s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Israel has been extracting natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean for more than a decade. But the discovery of huge reserves of close to 700 billion cubic metres (24.7 trillion cubic feet), called Tamar and Leviathan, looks set to put Israel well on the road towards energy independence and even turn it into an exporter. And it is also likely to provide an attractive target for enemies of the Jewish state. "The discovery of gas fields spanning a large area within the Mediterranean, west of the coast of Israel, significantly broadens the challenges facing the Israeli navy," the military said in a statement. "The protection of these strategic assets requires increased resources and extensive preparations."
According to a military map made available to AFP, Israel s EEZ extends 70 nautical miles (129 kilometres) offshore from Rosh HaNikra on the Lebanese border and some 100 nautical miles from Israel's border with Gaza in the south. "The territory to be protected is huge," explained a senior Israeli navy officer, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity. "Our strategy is to use both presence and deterrence on a huge scale. We re talking about defending the strategic interests of the State of Israel and I must say that our government completely understands the necessity for this." According to details published in the Israeli press, the new naval defence plan involves the acquisition of four new warships equipped with advanced radars and the Barak anti-missile defence system. Surveillance drones and patrol boats will also be part of the operation, which will involve hundreds more troops and eventually span some 44,000 square kilometres (17,000 sq miles) -- more than double the area of the whole of Israel. At the moment, the existing gas rigs are monitored by UAVs, or drones, and naval patrol boats in an operation which involves the air force, the navy and military intelligence, the official said, without going into details. But the new plan, which will reportedly cost an annual 3.0 billion shekels ($756 millions/620 million euros), will "significantly" improve the Israeli navy s defence capacity, he said.
Details of the operation have already been approved by Defence Minister Ehud Barak and military chief of staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, press reports said last week. The remote natural gas platforms "will pose a major security risk in the coming five years," energy consultant Amit Mor told AFP at a gas conference organised by Tel Aviv University s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) earlier this month. "Our platforms could be targeted by Grad rockets from the Gaza Strip and Scud missiles coming from Lebanon." With up to 200 boats crossing the Suez Canal every day, there were also fears the rigs could be rammed by vessels packed with explosives, or the platforms targeted by attempted sabotage, the naval official said. Despite the heightened risk, the reorganisation of Israel s naval forces could take some time. "We are not yet ready for this mission," he admitted. "Our fleet is, above all, set up for naval warfare, so we have to build a new force and an operational plan which will be able to answer any type of threat." In a region fraught with tension and instability, Israel s top brass is acutely aware this will not be an easy task.
Over the past few years, Lebanon's Hezbollah militia has stressed that it would defend Lebanese interests and warned Israel against exploiting any of its maritime assets. Although Israel and Cyprus reached agreement on naval borders in December 2010, a wide gap remains with Lebanon over marine boundaries, with Beirut rejecting Israel s outline submitted to the United Nations in July 2011. Israel does not have officially demarcated maritime borders with Lebanon, and the two nations remain technically at war. "The question is whether regional players are going to act according to a rational logic," says Sarah Weiss Maudi, a legal expert at the Israeli foreign ministry. "In any event, Israel is open to dialogue which is serious and based on the law," she said.