Naval Air: Israeli Upgrades

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March 12, 2021: Israel is introducing a new, larger helicopter to operate from its new Saar 6 corvettes. The American SH-60 Seahawk will complement and eventually replace a smaller French helicopter. Since the late 1990s, the Israeli navy has maintained a squadron of French AS 565 naval helicopters. These were based on land and used to support warships at sea. The only Israeli warship the 4.3 ton AS 565 could land on were the three 1,075-ton Saar 5 ships. Israel obtained the Saar 5s in the early 1990s and while these ships had a helicopter landing pad, there was no hangar so that a helicopter could be carried and used regularly. The Saar 6 was deliberately made two meters longer than originally planned to accommodate a hangar and the 10.4-ton SH-60.

Israel obtained the larger SH-60 because it has greater carrying capacity and endurance. Israel is equipping its SH-60Fs with Israeli electronics, some of them classified. The primary weapons will be the Israeli Spike NLOS (Non-Line-Of-Sight) missile, which weighs 70kg (155 pounds), making it the heaviest of the Spike missiles. Spike is a series of anti-tank (or anti-whatever) missiles with ranges from 1,500-25,000 meters. Spike NLOS can be fired at a target the operator cannot see, but someone else, with a laser designator, can see. Spike NLOS is usually fired from helicopters, which also provides the laser designator. Back in 2014 Spike NLOS was adapted for use on 10-ton class South Korean naval helicopters. Spike NLOS fired from naval helicopters was seen as a good way to improve defenses off their west coast, to help block North Korean attempts to invade South Korean islands near the maritime border. The South Korean Wildcat helicopters can carry four Spike NLOS missiles. A helicopter only has to be about 40 meters (122 feet) high to spot something 25 kilometers away. The Spike NLOS has multiple guidance systems, including a live video feed that allows the pilot to fly the missile into to the target, or use the image of the selected target to have the missile home in by itself (“fire and forget”). On the downside Spike NLOS is expensive, costing over $250,000 each.

Israel is receiving eight used, but refurbished, American SH-60F naval helicopters. These won’t arrive until late 2021 but Israel has already decided what electronics and weapons their SH-60Fs will carry. At least four of the SH-60Fs will operate from a land base and both Saar-based and land-based SH-60Fs will be used to deal with Iranian threats from Lebanon or Syria against Israel in general and in particular the new Israeli offshore natural gas fields near the Lebanese maritime border.

In late 2020 Israel accepted its first of four Saar 6s. The handover was at the German shipyard where it was built and where the Israeli crew has been learning how to operate the new ships as they become available at six- month intervals. The 1,900-ton Saar 6s are the largest ever ships to serve in the Israeli Navy. The Saar 6 is based on the German Braunschweig class corvettes, which have been in service since 2008 and proved effective. Before Saar 6, the largest Saar ships were the three 1,075-ton Saar 5s. The much larger Saar 6s 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 recently 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 region. Some 40 other navies have used these innovative naval guns and all have been satisfied. The 76mm Oto Melara has a 4.7-meter (15.5 foot) barrel and is operated remotely. The gun has an 80-round magazine under the gun turret and can fire up to 80 round 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 equipped with missile, rockets or packed with explosives for suicide attacks. This is a tactic favored by Iran and its Lebanese franchise 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 (28 pounds), 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. The SH-60Fs will be equipped to communicate with the new warship electronics, which includes encrypted real-time exchange of voice and data.

Currently the Israelis have sixteen Saar type ships in service; one Saar 6, three Saar 5, ten Saar 4.5, and two Saar 4. Most 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.

The Saar 6 design underwent 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) 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.

All the Saar type ships mainly guard the Mediterranean Coast, especially the offshore 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 have to 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. The unguided rockets are not accurate enough to hit a gas well, unless dozens (or more) are fired at once. To counter that tactic some of the offshore platforms will also be 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 off-shore facility) area, it will be ignored. Otherwise, an interceptor missile will be fired.

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 was 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 Eliat class) were, because of their size, built in the United States. The 1,075-ton vessels are 85.6 meters (281 feet) 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 and a crew of 74. Twelve Saar 4.5, 5 and 6 surface ships and six German built submarines are the Israeli Navy.

 


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