January 20, 2015: Strategy Page
Germany has agreed to build four offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) for Israel. Exact specifications were not released but apparently the design is based on the Meko 100, a 1,600 ton warship that has been built in many different versions. Israel wants the Germans to build what amounts to a larger version of their successful Saar family of warships for about $146 million each. This includes a large “genocide guilt” discount. Right now the largest Saar ships are the three 1,075 ton Saar 5s.
In 2013 Israel announced another largest model of its four decade old Saar family of small surface warships. This new one, Saar 72, was aimed at the export market. The Saar 72 is an 800 ton ship with a crew of fifty (and accommodations for 20 more commandos or other specialists). It is 72 meters (223 feet) long, stealthy, and designed to accommodate electronics built into the blended, radar evading, superstructure. The Saar 72 carries a helicopter, an automated 76mm gun, eight anti-ship (or land target) missiles, and over a dozen anti-aircraft missiles. Top speed is 55 kilometers an hour. This “corvette” variant can stay out for 21 days at a time (cruising at 32 kilometers an hour). The Saar 72 design can accommodate many different configurations. That would include fewer weapons and longer range for an OPV (offshore patrol vessel) to more accommodations and storage space for commando operations. The four new German ships will apparently be the corvette sized (under 2,000 tons) Saar model that the Israeli navy has long wanted but has not been able to get the money to build.
Since the early 1970s Israel has built 36 Saar type ships. These evolved from 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 armed with eight anti-ship missiles, a Phalanx anti-missile 20mm autocannon and a 76mm gun, 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 first of ten Saar 4.5 class vessels arrived. These were 490 ton ships that were similar to the Saar 4 but a bit larger and improved in many ways. They were 61.7 meters (203 feet) long. Armament varied but for the eight used by the Israeli navy it was eight anti-ship missiles, 32 anti-aircraft missiles, a Phalanx anti-missile 20mm autocannon, a 25mm autocannon or a 76mm gun, two 20mm autocannon, two 12.7mm machine-guns, a helicopter, and an extensive set of electronics (for a ship of that size).
Despite intense lobbying from the navy and some politicians in 2005 Israel dropped plans for some much larger ships, including a 13,000-ton helicopter assault ship, a 4,000-ton frigate comparable to the American LCS, and a 2,750-ton corvette that would have been equipped with the Aegis combat system. Instead more Dolphin-class submarines and three Saar 5 class corvettes were bought.
The Israeli Navy is the smallest of the combat arms, with a peacetime strength of some 9,000 sailors. The Israeli Air Force has over 32,500 active-duty personnel and 54,000 reservists; the Israeli Army boasts 125,000 active-duty personnel and 600,000 reserves. The navy always loses the battle over defense budgets and has to make do with not very much.
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: 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 there are only 74 crew members. These vessels entered service in 1993 and 1994. They are still perhaps the best surface combatants in the region. The new German “Saar 6” ships will probably be larger and more power versions of the Saar 5.
Currently the Israelis have 15 Saar type ships in service (three Saar 5, ten Saar 4.5, and two Saar 4). Most of the Saar 4s were retired, sold off, or converted to Saar 4.5.