Israel Purchases Corvettes to Protect Offshore Drilling Platforms in Mediterranean

Will be largest ships in Israeli navy

JERUSALEM—Israel on Monday contracted for the purchase of four new German corvettes to be used to protect Israel’s offshore natural-gas drilling platforms in the Mediterranean from guided missiles and seaborne attacks.

In announcing the deal at a press conference in Tel Aviv, Ursula von der Leyen, the German defense minister, termed Israel "our biggest friend in the Middle East," a compliment not lost on Israel, where there is a sense that traditional bonds with Washington are fraying.

The corvettes will be the largest ships in the Israeli navy. They will arrive "bare" from the German shipbuilding firm of ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems over the next five years and be fitted out in Haifa with a range of modern weapon systems developed in Israel. Their armaments are to include anti-missile missiles and a wide range of conventional weapons. Israeli naval officials said the corvettes will be supplemented by unmanned surface vessels as well as intelligence drones which will patrol the waters and skies in the vicinity of the platforms.

The German government is to provide a subsidy of $128 million, about one third of the vessels’ total cost. Germany provided a similar proportion of the cost for several submarines built in German shipyards for Israel. Submarines are regarded as Israel’s major deterrent against a nuclear attack by Iran in the future since they will be armed with cruise missiles capable of carrying out a retaliatory attack.

The gas fields discovered in Israel’s offshore waters in recent years are likely to play a leading role in the country’s economy in the coming decades. Israeli military officials have termed them a prime target for Hezbollah in Lebanon if conflict again breaks out. Hezbollah claims to have missiles capable of pinpoint accuracy against targets anywhere in Israel. The rigs might also be targeted by Hamas in Gaza and jihadist organizations in northern Sinai, both of which receive weaponry from Iran.

At the Tel Aviv press conference, the German defense minister said that Germany is engaged in 70 defense projects with Israel. "There is not a country in the world with which we have such expansive security relations, both bilaterally and in cooperation between the militaries." Both countries will on Tuesday mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Jewish state and the nation responsible for the Holocaust.

Standing alongside his German counterpart, Moshe Ya’alon, Israeli’s defense minister, said the corvettes "are meant for protection missions only." However, the military correspondent for Israel’s Channel Ten said Monday that the weaponry aboard the vessels would make them highly suitable for offensive actions as well.

The director-general of Israel’s defense ministry, Dan Harel, said the contract signed Monday "constitutes a dramatic leap ahead in the ability of the navy to protect strategic sites in the gas sector at a distance of tens and hundreds of kilometers out at sea."