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On Board the Sa’ar 6 Protecting Israel’s Gas Fields

Upon arriving at the Haifa pier, an impressive, large gray vessel that will soon become one of Israel’s most important security assets as it navigates the Mediterranean Sea, commanded the vista. At the moment, the first of the Sa’ar 6 fleet, the first such acquisition in 20 years, is being retrofitted with the nation’s most sophisticated defense technology.

The INS Magen Sa’ar 6-class corvette docked at Haifa Port. (The Media Line)

As I walked the decks of this nautical game-changer, I stood on the helipad where the American-designed Seahawk helicopters will vertically land and have the capability of fitting like a jigsaw puzzle onto a deck.

Several years ago, the discovery of massive natural gas fields rearranged the nation’s defense priorities. It necessitated a significant boost in the navy’s ability to protect and defend Israel’s offshore energy infrastructure. This, plus the existing mission of defending its borders, prompted military planners to design the Sa’ar 6 corvette, equipped with space-age munitions that include the famed Iron Dome anti-missile system.

With last week’s arrival of the second of four Sa’ar 6’s, Israel’s navy has swelled to a fleet of 15, completing that portion of the defense forces.

In an effort to accommodate crews that are as much as 25% female, and to improve the female-to-male ratio, designers paid great attention to details: hooks in sleeping areas are shorter and women-only bathrooms have been installed.

Sleeping quarters aboard the INS Magen. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The Sa’ar 6 is not yet on active duty. It is still being tested, readied and is having its new systems installed. Although it was built in Germany by a German shipbuilder, the design is Israeli as are all of the technical fittings and weapons systems.

Lt. Col. Liav Zilberman, deputy chief of the Haifa Naval Base, has served in the Israeli Navy for the past 23 years in various capacities, including naval command experience from the northern, southern, and Red Sea maritime borders while focusing the majority of his military service on maritime command and training. Commander Zilberman has a master’s degree in international relations and a bachelor’s degree in political science, both from the University of Haifa. He is married and has four children.

Zilberman gave The Media Line an exclusive tour of the newest vessel, a versatile offensive and defensive weapon, which will be fully operational within a year. It’s 295 feet long, displacing 1,900 long tons, and fits neatly into a €430 million ($520 million) package. We sat down with Lt. Col. Zilberman and learned all about the nation’s naval forces.

The Media Line: Lt. Col. Liav Zilberman, deputy chief of the Haifa Marina, it’s a pleasure joining you today, and quite an honor to get a sense of what the Sa’ar 6 is all about. When was the last investment of this magnitude put into the navy?

Zilberman: First of all, it’s a great time for the Israeli Navy. It’s been a long time since we got a new vessel to the navy. Since the Sa’ar 5, [it’s been] more than 20 years that we are waiting for the new platform, and the Sa’ar 6 is almost a revolution for the Israeli Navy in all terms. I mean, it’s the abilities of these vessels [which] are amazing and of course, all of the naval arena that becomes such a big arena since the finding of the gas. The first one here is INS Magen. She is the first one and we will have three more in the next two years.

This vessel, we built it in Germany, but the design is fully Israeli, and of course the weapons and all the equipment that will be on it – it’s 100% Israeli and it’s great. I mean I’m very proud to say. This is why the ship is docking now. She’s docking and all those activity systems are now being put on.

TML: Is this ship intended to protect the people or Israel’s assets?

Zilberman: Both! Basically, both, I mean, first of all, it’s to protect the Israeli assets. As I mentioned before, the gas rigs are a strategic asset for the Israeli state and we want to be sure that it’s protected. Those vessels are fully equipped to do this mission, and of course, our first mission as IDF, as the Israeli Navy, is to protect our citizens, to protect the Israeli people and this vessel will also do lots of missions and will protect Israel [as a] state and Israel’s citizens.

TML: Would you classify this as an offensive or defensive weapon, and why?

Zilberman: Israel’s navy always, since we started the navy, we are always thinking about defense and offense. This is why our ships, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Sa’ar 4.5, or the Sa’ar 5, or the Sa’ar 6, we always build those missiles in both of them. I mean, a defensive and also an offensive system. This is how the IDF works in terms of war, in terms of emergency. We want to be very strong on defense, and we want to be on the offense also.

TML: If the oil fields had not been discovered, would you be here having this conversation with me right now?

Zilberman: I think yes. I think that it’s time that the Israeli Navy has the new vessels. I mean, if you look at the Sa’ar 5, it’s a vessel from the early [19]90s, so it’s become old, and as an old vessel, we need to replace them. We need to build a new generation, so I think, yes. Maybe it was a little bit different, but I’m sure we had this conversation probably this time.

TML: Do you feel it’s enough? I mean, I know you are getting four, and obviously so much has changed in the last two decades. Do you feel there’s room for more? There are obviously submarines on the way, too.

Zilberman: I mean, I think that the Israeli Navy just becomes bigger and bigger and this is because our missions [are] becoming more complicated [and] more difficult. This is why the government made this decision, and I think that this number of vessels right now will give the navy great opportunities, will give the navy flexibility, and most importantly, it will give the navy the tools to do our mission.

TML: Do you see a time when Israel and its newfound allies in the region agree to some kind of arrangement, sort of like NATO, whereby an attack on one is an attack on all?

Zilberman: I mean, it’s not my field so I cannot address this question professionally. I can only tell you about my personal opinion. I think that as long as we do lots of exercises with the navies of the area, and our allies all over the world, it just makes us better. It makes us better in terms of what we learn, what we can teach other navies and it’s great. It’s a great opportunity. So, I think that as long as we do and are doing a lot of exercises with our allies, it just makes us better.

TML: There have been clandestine meetings, secret meetings with allied nations [and] with nonallied nations. Is there anything you can share on that score?

Zilberman: I don’t know about secret missions. I mean, it’s not my job.

TML: Greece announced its intention to build its own model of the Sa’ar 6. The Themystoclies Class. Is there anything you can share on this?

Zilberman: I just can tell you that we have good relationships with the Greek Navy. They are part of our allies here. They are a part of the navies that we are doing exercises together. You know, the corona time, the COVID[-19] made a little bit of change in the plans, but maybe it was a year [ago], last year, I don’t remember, but we had great exercises together. I think that they know what they need. I mean, Greece as a country, they know what they need. They know how to do it, and we share knowledge together like we do with all allies.

TML: Which other navies have come for joint exercises that you can speak of? Last year obviously was a little different.

Zilberman: Of course, the [United] States, the Italian Navy, the Greek [Navy], Cyprus, this is part of the exercises that I’ve taken [a part] in, but I think there are more.

Sa’ar 6-class corvettes are retrofitted with advanced electronic warfare and communication systems in Israel. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

TML: Is Israel prepared for an offensive?

Zilberman: Yes, I think that I can answer about the navy. This is what we are doing. We are preparing all the time. We make sure that our navy is prepared for emergency time, prepared for whatever we need to do in the naval arena. All the time we’re doing exercises for this. We try to all the time challenge ourselves and to think how the enemy thinks, and to be ready for it, and I think right now that the Israeli Navy is ready for whatever it needs to do.

TML: There’s a flip. It was the air force that Israel traditionally relied upon heavily, and now, again, because of the gas exploration deep into the Mediterranean, this has changed things in terms of the navy.

Zilberman: I think that the navy became a bigger player in the field in the last few years. Part of it is exactly what you said, but I think the IDF is joint [partners] in this. We are not like 20 and 30 years ago where it was the air force, it was the army, it was the navy. No, we are the IDF and understand that the “joint-ness” is the key to the victory. Also, in the economical waters, [and] also in the missions of the navy, we’re doing a lot of joint work with [the] air force, the army, with the intelligence, with all of the branches in order to make sure that we are ready and we are good in what we do.

TML: You cannot have one without the other. So, my question is if one was out, what could you live without?

Zilberman: First of all, I cannot see or picture that one will be out totally, but I think that one of the particular things of the navy is that it is very unique and it’s our ability to do our missions by ourselves to be very independent. I think this is one of the strengths of the navy. In terms of the navy missions, I’m sure we can manage.

The Media Line’s Felice Friedson aboard the INS Magen. (The Media Line)

TML: This is the largest naval ship that Israel has built, and it’s the first time that you are allowing men and women together. I think you can house about 100 people.

Zilberman: Yeah, a little bit less, and it’s not the first time. I mean, men and women in the navy are for a long time now.

TML: In the Intelligence Officer briefing that’s what was said, so…

Zilberman: Yeah, for example, the officers on the ships, the Naval Academy is [both] women and men.

TML: So, what’s different here?

Zilberman: What’s different here is that we’ve built this ship in sections for women soldiers; women sailors from the beginning.

TML: What does that mean?

Zilberman: That means that the crew of the Sa’ar 6 is mixed by definition, from the beginning. Now that we did this, we understood that we can do this with other ships so we took the Sa’ar 5 and we changed the sections and now in the Sa’ar 5 there are also women in the crew, and it’s great, but the main difference here is, like I said before, we built the Sa’ar 6 from the beginning with the idea that it will be a mixed crew, and it works very, very good. It goes with the officers, the women officers that are already on those vessels. It’s more than 10 years.

TML: What is the percentage of women in the navy at the moment?

Zilberman: In combat? Or in general?

TML: In general, and then we’ll break it down.

Zilberman: I think [that in] the headquarters it’s 50-50 approximately. In the combat field, there are some units that are now 30-40%, like the Snapir, the units that protect the ports, and in the 3rd Flotilla at the end step, it will be around 30%, but it’s not now, but will be.

TML: What new technology do you have on the Sa’ar 6? I know you have something compatible to the Iron Dome and the new launchers. Can you share some information on that?

Zilberman: I can speak very generally, but I can tell you that there is the best technology of the Israeli state is on board. This is for sure. We took all [of] our knowledge in the last few years and we put on this ship all this knowledge and all [of] the threats that we know that are and know that will be in this arena and we tried to give solutions on board for this vessel in order to make it very independent.

I mean, we want to take the Sa’ar 6 and put it for two or three weeks at sea, and it will manage to be there to do this mission properly without any problems with the technology, etc.

The bridge of the INS Magen. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

TML: Have you taken the ship out already?

Zilberman: Now it goes out for experiments. After we put in the system, we go out, do the experiments, but it’s not operational yet.

TML: Israel ordered three new Dolphin-Class submarines. So, looking at that and the four Sa’ar 6 ships, does this put Israel in the game in the big arena? Will that do it, or will you need to go beyond 2021?

Zilberman: I think that it gives us great abilities. I think it gives us a little flexibility and the ability to work and make sure that we can be all over, whatever we need in our neighborhood in order to make sure that we are ready for our missions. And also, you have to understand, the Sa’ar 6 and the three submarines, it’s like a cycle. There are old vessels that will be out of service in the next few years, and those new vessels will come in, and in the end, we will stay in the same number approximately.

TML: Looking at the sea playground, looking at Iran, Hizbullah and neighbors that are not all that friendly to Israel, which is your greatest concern in terms of an attack?

Zilberman: First of all, the IDF and the Israeli Navy are ready for the north[ern] border. I mean, this is the first thing we want to be ready [for] to make sure that we are [the] best and the victory will be 100%. It’s the north[ern] border, and by that, you understand that Hizbullah is there, and of course, in the last few years, Iran it makes this area already very unstable with what she is doing here with the activities, and what she is doing in Lebanon, Syria, etc.

So, we take under consideration, of course, Iran and the other players. But this is the first thing, the northern border.

The engine room of the INS Magen. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

TML: Is Turkey a concern in terms of Israel’s relationship with Europe and the pipelines that they are involved in?

Zilberman: From my job, I don’t know and I cannot understand. I cannot address this question for Turkey, but you understand what.

TML: Yes! What is your greatest concern?

Zilberman: I don’t know if concern is the right word, but each one of us here in the naval base, in Haifa Naval Base, when we go to sleep, we think war, we think emergency, and we think [about] how to be ready. This is what we think. This is our mission: to be ready. As the commander of the base said, “Let’s make sure that if tomorrow we will have a war, we will have the great victory.” And this is what we think and this is what we address all the time and make sure that it’s for that.

TML: You eat, breathe and live navy.

Zilberman: Yeah! For almost 25 years.

TML: So, how did you get into it?

Zilberman: How did I get into it? It was basically by mistake. I was in high school and there was a young officer that came to our class and said, “Hey, there is a Naval Academy, and if you want to try [out], there is in a few days a [tryout] and you need to come and do whatever you do.” And I said OK. All of my family are tank people. I was like a traitor, and then I went and after a few days they, said OK, we want you. And I said, OK, it looks nice. And then it’s history.

TML: Where were you born?

Zilberman: I was born in Kiryat Haim.

TML: Do you like living more at sea than on land?

Zilberman: I love the sea, but I prefer to live here. You know, it is very challenging, the sea, and it is difficult to understand it until you serve it. After you serve it, then you understand. You see, the sea is a different dimension and you need to get used to it. Right now, I’m like [in] an office job. I miss those times when I was at sea all the time, but it’s something you need to get used to. It’s very very challenging.

Lt. Col. Liav Zilberman speaks with The Media Line’s Felice Friedson. (The Media Line)

TML: Radar is a very important component of what you do. Do you feel, because Israel is at the top when it comes to technology in the world, do you feel that the radar is the most important element of the naval ship? Or is there something more important than that?

Zilberman: I think, first of all, that radar is one of the most important systems on the ship, you’re right. The big but here is that only radar is not enough. I mean, you will be at sea and you will have the best radar in the world, when the missiles shoot at you, you will see it on the radar and you don’t have the right system, the right missile to target this missile, so it’s not good enough. This is why the Israeli Navy since the history all the time makes those ships with a full suit.

TML: Fully equipped…

Zilberman: Fully equipped with all that it needs in the offensive and defensive in order to make sure that you are ready for any situation.

TML: There’s always give and take.

Zilberman: Yeah!

TML: So, what’s missing? What do you lose in the Sa’ar 6?

Zilberman: OK, first of all, the rooms and the accommodations for the crew are smaller.

TML: That’s what I meant by women’s touch.

Zilberman: Yeah, for example. The galley and all those rooms that are for the crew become smaller compared to other ships. There are ships that can take two or three or five helos, so [now] we cannot take four, we can take one or two. We try to balance it, first of all, and second of all, we try to make sure that this vessel will be very versatile. You can take systems out and you can put systems in. You can try to make it very flexible.

TML: Thank you very much!

See the latest episode of Facing the Middle East With Felice Friedson here [2].