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November 07, 2002

Israel weighs expanding navy to protect its nukes

One if by land; two if by sea.
TEL AVIV — Israel is reviewing proposals to deploy strategic military assets at sea to protect them against an Arab or Iranian missile strike or a Palestinian insurgency attack.

Officials have argued that the Israeli use of the Mediterranean Sea is vital because of the nation's limited territory, the emergence of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the vulnerability of Israeli military bases from Hizbullah rockets along the Lebanese border.

Officials said the Israeli assets being considered include everything from missile defense units to strategic weapons, Middle East Newsline reported. Israel is said to possess up to 200 nuclear weapons.

The discussions include whether Israel's military should focus on building a more powerful navy at the expense of the air force after the procurement of 102 F-16 Block 52 multi-role fighters. Proponents argue that Israel has exploited its air potential given its small air space and the improving capability of Arab and Iranian surface-to-surface missiles.

Yuval Steinetz, chairman of the parliament's subcommittee on military doctrine, has been discussing the issue with senior defense officials.

The parliamentary chairman has long called for the bolstering of Israel's navy as a strategic force. Steinetz said Israeli military and strategic facilities, particularly airports, are increasingly vulnerable to Palestinian insurgents, armed with short-range rockets.

"There is also a need to deploy in the sea," Steinetz said. "Then, these assets could not be silenced by primitive means."

Officials said at least one leading Defense Ministry official, Yisrael Tal, supports this concept. Tal is a senior adviser at the ministry and the designer of the Merkava main battle tank.

Steinetz said Israel would require a powerful navy with strategic assets to ensure superiority in the Mediterranean amid the emerging rivalries from Egypt. He said Israel's military would also require the drafting of a new concept for the use of naval platforms with cruise missiles and long-range artillery. Such artillery would have a range of up to 200 kilometers.

The naval platforms would contain helicopters, unmanned air vehicles, and air defense missiles.

"There is a need to establish an alternative to that of airports and ground facilities," Steinetz said. "In case they are under attack, Israel has another source of firepower."

Steinetz would not say how many naval platforms are required. But he stressed the expansion of the naval capability to deploy strategic assets would be expensive.

"It's not cheap," Steinetz said. "But it's much more expensive to keep buying squadrons of planes in the tiny expanse in Israel."

The discussion over the use of the sea as a strategic arena began in early 2000, officials said. They said the discussion now includes the use of the Mediterranean for deployment of Arrow-2 missile defense systems.

"At a certain point, Israel will not have enough space for additional Arrow batteries," a senior defense source said. "And it is clear that Israel needs at triple the number of batteries now deployed." Officials said that so far no decisions have been taken.