Air Defense: Israeli C-Dome Shoots Back


April 23, 2024: In early 2024 an Israeli Saar (Sa’ar) corvette experienced its first combat action off the Israeli Red Sea port city of Eilat at Israel’s southernmost tip at the north end of the Gulf of Aqaba, which is on the east side of the Sinai Peninsula. On the west coast of the Sinai Peninsula is the Red Sea leading to the Egyptian Suez Canal. Using the corvette’s onboard C-Dome air defense system, a Tamir missile shot down a missile fired by Yemeni Shia Houthis rebels in nearby Yemen. Israel stationed several Saars in the Red Sea after Israeli ground forces began fighting Hamas in southern Israel. The Israeli warships were to ensure that there was no threat to ships headed for Eilat. A Houthi UAV was sent to attack Eilat and one of the Saars use a Tamir missile to destroy the UAV. C-Dome is the ship based version of land based Iron Dome air defense system. This was the first time C-Dome systems installed on the Saars was used in combat.

All the Saar-type ships exist to guard Israeli offshore assets. Off the Mediterranean Coast there are Israeli natural gas fields. Israel began pumping natural gas in 2013 from deposits discovered and developed since 2008. Israeli firms have found over $200 billion worth of oil and gas there so far. Israel is using these finds to achieve energy independence. The offshore facilities and pipelines must be defended from terrorists and military threats. Some of the offshore gas wells are within range of rockets fired from Gaza or southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah does as it wants. Unguided rockets are not accurate enough to hit a gas well unless dozens or more were fired at once. To counter that tactic some of the offshore platforms were equipped with Iron Dome batteries. Iron Dome and C-Dome have a unique feature in which the radar system computes where the incoming rocket will land. If the rocket will not hit an inhabited (by ships, people, or offshore facilities) area, it will be ignored. Otherwise, an interceptor missile will be fired.

In 2023 Israel finally got all four of their new Saar 6-class corvettes operational. This came two years after the ships were completed in Germany. At that point the Saars had most of their weapons and other equipment, but it required another two years in Israel to install and test additional top-secret weapons, sensors, and communications systems.

In late 2o21 the last of these four Saar 6 corvettes arrived in Israel from Germany, where it was built. This came eight months after the first one arrived from Germany, where the Israeli crew conducted sea trials and other tests before making the two-week voyage to Israel. The other three did not linger in Germany and the Israeli crews quickly brought their new ships home. Israeli-designed electronics and weapons systems are only installed in their foreign-built warships once those arrive in Israel, a process that normally lasts about several months. That proved to be overly optimistic for the Saar 6s and it required about two years per ship to install and check out the new weapons and equipment.

The German builders installed structures as well as power connections and wiring so the Israeli-made equipment could be quickly installed. These weapons and electronics are Israeli-designed and built and contain a lot of tech that Israel does not share. This sometimes causes problems with foreign supplied ships and aircraft. For example, Israel was one of the first export customers to receive the American F-35 stealth fighter. Israel planned to install their own modifications to the complex software systems that give the F-35 unique capabilities. The Americans initially refused to give Israel access to the source code for that software so that modifications could be made in Israel by Israelis. The U.S. and Israel have a long and successful history of jointly developing new weapons systems and those deals usually involve sharing new tech with each other. The U.S. considered the F-35 a special case and it took months of negotiations before Israel was allowed to make its modifications to the software. Details of that deal were kept secret, but the Israeli version installed in the unique Israeli F-35I were apparently shared with the United States. The F-35I was the first F-35 to operate in a combat zone (Syria) and use that tech against the most modern Russian air defense and EW (Electronic Warfare) systems. The U.S. apparently got access to the results of those encounters, which were successful and somewhat alarming for the Russians and Iran.

Some of the electronics and weapons capabilities in the Saar 6 are similarly new and meant to provide an unpleasant surprise for any future combat opponents. In addition, the 1,900-ton Saar 6s are the largest new ships to serve in the Israeli Navy. The Saar 6 is based on the 1,800-ton German Braunschweig-class corvettes, which have been in service since 2008 and proven reliable and effective. Germany also builds submarines for Israel, which are modified to the point where they are considered a major upgrade to the German Type 212 and 214 subs German builds for itself and several export customers. Germany would like to form a joint development deal with Israel similar to the ones that Israel has long had with the United States. This has proved difficult to do because, while German shipbuilders see the advantages, European governments still have problems with anti-Semitism and are reluctant to cooperate as closely with Israel as the Americans do in developing new military tech and keeping the tech details secret. That may be changing because of Israel finally forming diplomatic and joint defense arrangements with Arab governments that long maintained this could never happen. These Arab states, like the Americans, recognize that Israel is the most democratic, economically successful, and militarily advanced nation in the Middle East. The Arab states wanted stronger defenses against aggressive neighbors like Iran. Europe sees Iran more as a business opportunity than a military threat.

The 1,900 ton Saar 6 design contains more weapons and new electronics than ever and has undergone upgrades even while under construction. For example, in early 2017 the design was modified to improve anti-missile capabilities. This increased the number of VLS (vertical launch system) cells to include forty Tamir (range 70 kilometers) missiles used by the C-Dome (ship-based Iron Dome) system on these ships. Another 32 VLS cells contain Barak-8 surface-to-air missiles which can handle aircraft and missiles out to 110 kilometers. The 90-meter (288 foot) long Saar 6 is equipped with an AESA radar like the one used for the American Aegis system. Both Barak 8 and C-Dome missiles use the same Israeli designed AESA radar and fire control system.

Currently the Israelis have fifteen Saar type ships in service; four Saar 6, three Saar 5 and eight Saar 4.5. All of the older Saar 4s were retired, sold off, or converted to Saar 4.5. The older Saar 4.5s are 500-ton ships that are 61.7 meters (203 feet) long and heavily armed with a 76mm gun, eight anti-ship missiles, 32 anti-aircraft missiles, a Phalanx anti-missile 20mm autocannon, a 25mm autocannon, two 20mm autocannon, two 12.7mm machine-guns, a helicopter, and an extensive set of electronics (for a ship of that size). The Saar 5 and Saar 6 were similar in concept but larger. Israel also has five submarines and 45 patrol boats. Israel is getting a sixth submarine and building new 800-ton Reshef-class corvettes to replace the older450-ton Saar 4.5 ships. Israel is also building 1,000-ton Saar S-80 class corvettes. These ships are designed for long ocean voyages as well as local operations.

Since the early 1970s Israel has built 36 Saar type ships. This began with the Saar 1, 2, and 3 classes of fast missile boats, all under 250 tons. These boats were variants on older German designs. The Saar 4 were a unique Israeli design for a 450-ton warship built in Israel and armed with eight anti-ship missiles, a Phalanx anti-missile 20mm autocannon plus a rather complete set of electronics for a ship of that size. These could stay out for about ten days at a time, had a top speed of 60 kilometers an hour, a crew of 45, and entered service in 1972. In 1980 the Saar 4.5 class vessels arrived as a major upgrade to Saar 4. Five 4.5s were exported but most were used by Israel.

The three Saar 5 class corvettes (also referred to as the Eilat class) were, because of their size, built in the United States. The 1,075-ton vessels are 85.6 meters long and carry an impressive amount of firepower that includes 64 Barak surface-to-air missiles, eight Harpoon (or Gabriel) anti-ship missiles, two triple 12.75-inch torpedo tubes firing Mk 46 torpedoes, two 25mm Sea Vulcans, a 20mm Phalanx CIWS (for destroying incoming missiles), and a helicopter. Top speed is 61 kilometers per hour. There is a crew of 74. These vessels entered service in 1993 and 1994.

The Saar 6 may be the last of the many Saar type ships Israel had developed since the 1970s. Before Saar 6, there were three 1,075-ton Saar 5s and Israel is not sure more of these large ships are what they need. The much larger Saar 6s is something of a specialist ship. They are armed with a 76mm gun, anti-missile/aircraft systems and anti-ship missiles. Saar 6 has a max speed of 46 kilometers an hour and normal endurance of 10-12 days. Crew size is 70 and these ships have a longer range than earlier Saars. That means anywhere in the Mediterranean or to the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, or Persian Gulf. Israel held joint naval training exercises in the Red Sea with American warships. This took place off the Saudi coast with the approval of the Saudis who want to establish closer military ties with Israel. That process must proceed slowly because for nearly a century the Saudi Kingdom has been a major opponent of an independent Jewish state in the region. Saudi leaders have changed their minds but getting the Saudi population to go along takes longer. This new cooperation was stalled when Hamas attacked Israelis in Gaza during October 2023. Over a thousand Israelis were killed, which Hamas considered a great victory. Iran-backed groups like Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen were ordered to use more of the guided missiles and unguided rockets Iran has been sending them for years.

Israel spent $100 million to equip all its Saar type ships with the latest version of the 76mm Oto Melara rapid fire cannon. The Israeli Navy has wanted these guns for a long time and American sailors who used them on the U.S. Perry class frigates spoke highly of them, as did sailors in navies throughout the world. Some 40 other navies have used these innovative naval guns, and all have been satisfied. The 76mm Oto Melara has a 4.7-meter barrel and is operated remotely. The gun has an 80-round magazine under the gun turret and can fire up to 80 rounds a minute at surface targets. That’s apparently what the Israelis want the 76mm gun for, especially because a primary threat is many, up to dozens, of speedboats armed with missiles and rockets, or packed with explosives for suicide attacks. This is a tactic favored by Iran and its Lebanese franchisee Hezbollah.

The 76mm gun can hit small targets, including cruise missiles, out to 20 kilometers, or twice that using a smaller guided shell. The standard 76mm shell is 12.5 kg, which is capable of accurately hitting and destroying small speedboats. The gun could hit about 60 targets in a few minutes.

The fire control systems on all the Saar ships were upgraded in general and this will include the ability to handle the new 76mm gun. All active Saar type ships have received new Israeli made radars and EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment.




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