Monday, December 16, 2013

Of Destroyers and Doctrine: An Evaluation of Israel’s Decision to Invest in Larger Hulls

The German Navy frigate Hamburg (F220) underway in the Mediterranean Sea as part of the U.S. Navy Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group.
The following contribution is from Jacob Stoil, a DPhil candidate at Worcester College, University of Oxford specializing in military history and strategic studies.

Recent reports have appeared in both the Israeli and German media that Israel will be buying two destroyers from Germany at a cost of over two billion euros. The destroyers appear to be a part of a general plan to upgrade Israeli naval capabilities and increase the Israel Naval Service’s (INS) ability to protect Israel’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), especially the newly discovered hydrocarbon resources. The purchases represent a major break with INS doctrine and are the wrong purchases for Israel’s purposes.

Israel has a number of maritime challenges and spending significant money on an upgrade of maritime security capabilities is certainly a positive step in addressing the issue, but destroyers do not provide an answer to these challenges and may be a liability. There is often a ‘supersize-me’ impulse in naval procurement, an assumption that bigger is better and so a destroyer would naturally be better than a missile boat or corvette,an assumption which is fundamentally untrue. The doctrine of the INS has traditionally rejected this logic in favour of a doctrine built around smaller, faster, and harder to detect vessels with advanced electronic warfare (EW) capabilities and significant offensive armament. This doctrine has served Israel well and has proved itself time and again, including during the 1973 war. Despite the success of the doctrine, a drive to supersize - of which the destroyers represent the latest iteration - has crept into the INS. Each generation of missile boats in the INS fleet has grown in size. The Sa’ar 5 is around 700 tons larger than the Sa’ar 4.5, which is 40 tons larger than the Sa’ar 4. The Sa’ar 4 itself is 200 tons larger than its predecessor. The destroyers would not be a simple continuation of this trend, they be an exponential increase in size (especially given that the smallest German frigate, a smaller class than a destroyer, is three times the tonnage of the Sa’ar 5). The additional tonnage might make for slower vessels but would definitely mean more identifiable targets, with more crew to lose if something goes wrong.

Given the cost and the break with a successful doctrinal concept,this all begs the question why destroyer? Larger ships are traditionally associated with greater power, but to what end? Naval power is not an end in itself. Israel clearly does not intend to use naval power to support land operations or develop independent strategic operations from the sea in a serious way. All of their naval procurement and training decisions over the last more than twenty years have made that impossible. This leaves several other possible motivations: controlling sea lines of communication (SLOCs), interdicting hostile SLOCs, enforcing a blockade, coastal protection, protecting the EEZ, and finally denying the use of the sea to an opponent. In the first case, Israel's primary SLOCs flow through the Mediterranean and in the past, with a less advanced fleet than the INS currently boasts, Israel has been able to protect them beyond Malta. Although destroyers could accomplish this, multiple corvettes and missile boats could cover more area simultaneously and for less money. An expanded submarine, corvette, and missile boat force can similarly accomplish the objectives of interdicting the SLOCs of potential regional rivals, including Iran, and denying them use of the sea.

Given current operational requirements (Gaza blockade, oil field protection, rapid deployment against local adversaries, etc.) there is much to recommend an expanded force of smaller vessels over larger destroyers. A ship, no matter its size, can only be in one place,meaning it can only fulfill one of these requirements at a given time. Additional smaller vessels would give the force additional flexibility in a wider variety of roles, including having spare vessels in reserve for unforeseen contingencies. Additionally, the type of threats that Israel is likely to face to its EEZ are largely irregular in their nature. Such irregular threats have in the past consisted of small craft attempting to enter an area surreptitiously before carrying out an operation.The employment of destroyers to respond to such threats would be overkill. Small vessels have proven highly effective at addressing such threats. An important aspect of the response to this type of irregular threat is fast response and frequent patrolling. As such, small fast craft provide a better response to such threats than a single larger craft. More numerous smaller craft can cover a greater physical area than one destroyer covers and therefore not only have a greater deterrent value but also respond more swiftly to threats as they develop.

There is a further factor to consider. Anti-ship missile technology has evolved significantly in the past few decades.  A direct hit by the new generation of missiles, such as the Russian 3M-54 Klub,is just as likely to disable a large vessel as a small one. While a larger vessel could theoretically contain more anti-missile capabilities, Israel has created an integrated package of missile defense capabilities optimized for smaller hulls. Additionally, if a larger vessel was lost, the impact on the INS would be more operationally significant than the loss of a smaller vessel. It is worth noting that the experience of such a loss (the INS Eilat) helped create the Israeli doctrine of investing in small, fast, high-tech, and well-armed vessels.

The addition of destroyers to the Israeli fleet is both expensive and unnecessary.  For the price of two destroyers, the INS could expand its flotillas of corvettes, missile boats, or submarines. Israel developed a successful doctrine based on such ships after unsatisfactory experiences with larger hulls. An expanded version of its current fleet would be able to continue to fulfil current operational requirements and do a better job than two destroyers of protecting the EEZ while maintaining the capability to react to unexpected contingencies and prevent regional opponents from exploiting the sea. It would accomplish this more cheaply and with less risk than two destroyers could. In short, destroyers are the wrong investment at the wrong time. Israel would do better to stick to a successful doctrine of smaller but highly capable vessels than invest in expensive destroyers that do not fulfill operational requirements.  In this case, bigger is not better but more might just be merrier.

Jacob Stoil is a DPhil candidate at Worcester College, University of Oxford specializing in military history and strategic studies.  His dissertation explores indigenous forces in the Middle East and Horn of Africa during the Second World War.  As part of his DPhil research Jacob conducted fieldwork in Somaliland, Israel, Ethiopia, and the West Bank.

Prior to his Dphil Jacob completed his MA and BA at King’s College London in the Department of War Studies.  His recent publications include, ‘Martial Race and Indigenous Forces’ in The British Indian Army: Virtue and Necessity published by Cambridge Scholars Press and ‘Structures of Cooperation and Conflict – Local Forces in Mandatory Palestine’ published in Ex Historia.  Jacob’s research interests include irregular forces, peripheral campaigns, military adaptation in the developing world, and Middle Eastern military history.  Jacob is a member of the British Empire at War and Second World War Military Operations Research Groups as well as the Society for Military History.

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