Israel displayed weapons seized in a March 5 commando raid in the Red Sea. (Israel Defense Forces)
TEL AVIV — Last month’s capture of an Iranian arms cache in international waters south of the Red Sea’s Port Sudan is just “the tip of the iceberg” of Israeli maritime black operations conducted far beyond the horizons of hostile shores, according to a top Navy officer here.
An after-action investigation of Operation Full Disclosure — the months-long effort that culminated in the bloodless March 5 raid of a Panamanian-flagged freighter some 1,500 kilometers from Israel’s Red Sea port — is still in progress.
But Rear Adm. Yaron Levi, Israel Navy chief of staff, said preliminary findings reaffirm the service’s tactic of choice for tackling contraband on the high seas: force prevention through force projection.
“The big lesson was to come in with lots of force so we wouldn’t have to use force,” Levi said.
“That and our decision to engage in daylight and not under cover of night, which added enormous value” to the force projection/prevention approach, he added.
In a late March interview, Levi, his chief of intelligence and other officers described the tactics, technologies and procedures employed in the capture of 40 M-302 heavy rockets and other munitions hidden in the hold of the Klos C that Israel claims was destined for militants in Gaza.
The operation was the latest and most challenging of only four officially publicized interdictions conducted by the Navy over the past 12 years.
It demanded many more months of coordinated intelligence than the Mediterranean Sea captures of the Victoria and Francop in 2011 and 2009, and the 2002 Red Sea seizure of the Karin A, experts here said, due to the extraordinarily circuitous route plied by the Klos C.
According to Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, the Klos C and its cargo of “strategic significance” sailed from Bandar Abbas, Iran, up and down the length of the Arabian Gulf, then around Oman and Yemen and up through the Red Sea. The Navy engaged the ship some 40 nautical miles south of Port Sudan, a range some three to six times longer than the three previously publicized missions.
“Operation Full Disclosure is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we do. … We are doing thousands of hours [of complex, long-range missions] in the Mediterranean and Red seas,” said Levi, the Navy’s second in command.
“It’s one of the few examples we can talk about that reflects our ability to deploy forces effectively over very long ranges on missions that are measured by bottom-line results ... that clearly and directly strengthen the security of our state.”
Stealth Sailing in Plain View
With a front-line missile boat inventory of just three Sa’ar-5 corvettes and six smaller Sa’ar-4.5 missile boats, the corvette Hanit and missile boat Hetz tasked for the mission constituted a third of its top-tier surface ship assets.
The decision to transfer such a considerable force from its primary operational theater in the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal for protracted deployment in the Red Sea was not trivial, officers here said.
Hosted on the missile boats was a separate force package of specialty equipment and US-built Morena-class rigid-hulled inflatable boats needed to support elite Flotilla 13 commandos hand-picked for the mission.
Vice Adm. Ram Rothberg, head of the Israel Navy and a former Flotilla 13 commander, managed the entire operation from the bridge of the Hanit.
Departing Eilat, the vessels made their way through the Gulf of Aqaba and through the Strait of Tiran, knowing full well they would be seen by Egyptian radar.
Once out in the Red Sea, the force spent days hiding in plain view as it navigated through myriad reefs, many hundreds of commercial and private craft, and the occasional warship traversing the congested seaway.
Complicating matters, officers here said, were rapidly changing Red Sea conditions that can transform flat waters into 4-meter waves and the thick, total darkness that descends with night.
“When you operate in the Mediterranean at 40 to 50 nautical miles, the beaches are well lit. But when you’re in the Red Sea, you literally can’t see your hand. The darkness there is like the shadow of death: black, thick and moist like Turkish coffee,” the Navy intelligence officer said.
“From the time we set out from Eilat to the point of engagement was a few days. Obviously, before we even got to the phase of deploying our commando force, we had to get to that point undetected,” Levi said.
They did this through what Levi called “deceptive sailing maneuvers,” and “a fantastic, continuously fortified operational picture” built from onboard electronic, signals, optical and other intelligence sensors.
The Hanit’s Eurocopter AS565 Panther and Rafael-built Topelite payload streamed electro-optical imagery directly into the C4I network shared by the two ships and the Navy’s war room in Tel Aviv.
“The air component is an integral part of our force,” Levi said. “We saw everything the helicopter saw in real time. From the intel we generated ourselves and all the intel from other organizations, we were able to maneuver well in this very congested, potentially high-threat area.”
Officers here credited upgraded versions of the service’s in-house developed C4I network for “flawless connectivity” among commandos on the Klos C, Rothberg and all supporting elements at sea and leaders back home.
No Second Chance
Deciding where, precisely, to engage was absolutely critical, officers here said.
“We knew it would be one shot; no second chances if we missed something,” Levi said.
Navy brass preferred to intercept the ship farther south near the Sudan-Eritrean border. It would have given them another day to decide where to engage. But farther south, they risked sudden 3- to 4-meter waves that would have seriously hampered commando operations.
“We decided to engage less than 50 nautical miles south of the port of Sudan. The sea was relatively comfortable and because we were confident of the picture we built, we felt conditions were most favorable there for success,” Levi said.
Next came decision time for when and how to engage.
Officers here said commandos spent hundreds of hours training on models built for multiple scenarios, depending on whether the ship was fortified and its captain and crew were likely to resist.
“Keep in mind, this area between Sudan and Eritrea is a danger zone for pirates. Ships tend to be more aware and prepared with boarded-up windows and gates, water cannon and other kinds of countermeasures,” the intelligence officer explained.
There are advantages and disadvantages to intercepting in a pirate zone, the officer added.
“Obviously, the downside is they’re more prepared and most likely armed. But the upside is that if the operation fails, they’ll think they were attacked by pirates.”
Based on prior intelligence and close surveillance of the ship, war fighters concluded with high certainty that the Klos C was unarmed and its Turkish captain and international crew were most likely innocent and ready to cooperate.
“We based this assumption — which was later verified — on our experience with the Francop and Victoria,” the intelligence officer said.
When asked why, he replied: “You need to be criminal or crazy to pass through these waters with weapons.
“Aside from [the prospective threat of Israel Navy action], the US 5th Fleet is very proactive in boarding suspected ships. If the captain or crew are found to be smuggling, they’ll be thrown in jail and their licenses will be permanently revoked.”
On that assumption, the Navy opted not to seize the ship as it did in the 2002 capture of the Karin A and in the unrelated, but diplomatically damaging, 2010 assault on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara that attempted to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
Instead, it opted to peacefully board.
Under the cover of darkness, the naval force moved into position: the Hanit at a safe but actionable distance to the right, the Hetz to the left.
Several commando-carrying Morenas deployed from the host missile boats maneuvered silently within meters of the oblivious Klos C. The Panther helicopter was hovering in the distance, waiting for orders to move in.
At the break of day — Wednesday, about 5:30 a.m. — officers recounted the non-kinetic shock and awe when an amplified voice bellowed out in American-accented English: “Good morning. Please stop your ship.” ■