TEL AVIV — The Israel Navy is upgrading its entire combat surface fleet with new German-built, Israeli-equipped Sa'ar-6 corvettes and the integration of new radars and electronic warfare (EW) systems in existing Sa'ar-5 and Sa'ar 4.5 ships.
Procurement and retrofit of the new radars, developed by Elta Systems, and the combined active and passive EW suite by Elbit Systems Elisra will start next year.
By the end of the decade, the upgraded corvettes and missile boats will be joined by four larger Sa'ar-6 combat ships, part of a recently inked €430 million deal between Israel and Germany for defense of offshore energy assets in Israel's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Under the Israel-German corvette deal — concluded in May after nearly five years of negotiations — Berlin agreed to contribute €115 million to offset costs for hull, mechanical and engineering work at ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) of Kiel, Germany.
The deal allows Israel to provide its own combat weapons suite, armament and subsystems for the German-built ships, which are Israeli-tailored versions of the 1,800-ton displacement Blohm+Voss-class 130 corvette.
"It will be designed along the shape of that platform," said Israel Navy Capt. Ariel Shir, head of the Electronic Combat Systems Department in the service's Materiel Command. "All the top-side arrangements above the water line are basically a German and Israeli design, tailored for the needs of the Israel Navy and integrated with our own radar, EW and other systems.
"Now that the contract is signed on the Sa'ar-6 ships, we're starting to contract for the subsystems," Shir said, noting that combat system procurement would be in coordination with the production schedule for the new platforms.
A key focus, Shir said June 24, was to achieve commonality among all combat systems in the service's warship fleet.
"We're working lockstep with our industries and with the Defense Ministry to tailor the radars and the EW system to suit all platforms," said the officer, a former surface ship combatant and electrical engineer who has been managing techno-logistics programs for the Israel Navy and the Israel Defense Ministry for the past several years
Shir said the service has a fully funded plan to upgrade its eight Israeli-built Nirit-class, 500-ton Sa'ar-4.5 missile boats in 2016.
Similarly, the service has funding in the coming year to equip its US-built Sa'ar-5s with the new EW suite and new radars, although the exact radar and weapons configuration for two of the three Sa'ar-5s has yet to be determined.
In parallel, the Navy will be working closely with the German shipyard and Israeli industry on the integrated logistics support needed to install the locally developed radars and EW suites into the new vessels.
Navy modernization plans call for upgrading the smaller Sa'ar 4.5s with the ELM-2258 ALPHA, an advanced lightweight rotating and scanning phased array radar that will enhance performance of the platform's Barak-1 ship defense system.
New Sa'ar-6 EEZ defense platforms will feature the same EW suite and the ELM-2248 Adir, a multifunction surveillance, track and guidance radar; and the Barak-8, an anti-missile and air-defense system by state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).
As for the radar planned for the service's three-ship Sa'ar-5 fleet, one — the INS Lahav — is already operational with the new Adir radar and Barak-8. However, the remaining two corvettes will either receive the same Adir/Barak-8 configuration as the new German-built Sa'ar-6s or the smaller ALPHA radar.
"There will be a new radar in all of our Sa'ar-5s, but the decision as to which radar has not been taken yet. It's a matter of budget," Shir said.
Igo Licht, director of marketing and sales for Elta, Israel's radar development house, said the ALPHA and Adir radars came from the same family and utilize the same active electronically scanned array (AESA) technology for long-range surveillance, tracking, target classification and fire control.
The larger Adir radar, the ELM-2248, consists of four large panels positioned at both ends of the ship for persistent, all-weather, 360-degree coverage. The smaller ALPHA ELM-2258 rotating radar demands much less space and cooling resources, Licht said.
"Both radars perform many different functions and the beams change according to the mission … You can't get that in older radars, where the beams are fixed and you can't control the shape," he said.
Other modernization programs aimed at fortifying the Navy's combat surface fleet against an array of missile and air breathing threats include development of an infrared staring sensor, a new countermeasures control system and an upgrade of shipboard communications capabilities.
The service released a request for information last month to Israeli firms interested in a potential bid for the next-generation countermeasures system.
As for the infrared staring sensor, the service is working with Rafael Advanced Systems and the Defense Ministry's Research and Development Directorate to adapt the firm's Believer system, used by the Israeli Army to rapidly and accurately detect the source of enemy fire.
One prototype has already been built as part of a multi-year program now in feasibility assessment for sea-based missions.
With regard to improvements in the Navy's concept of operations, Shir said the service is moving to autonomous operating modes following the 2006 Lebanon war, when a Hezbollah-launched C-802 missile struck and temporarily disabled one of its Sa'ar-5s because the ship's onboard self-defense system had not been activated.
"The more our systems are automated, the less chances there are for someone to miss something," said Shir, who served as head of radar programs at the time. He said the service has "fully internalized and implemented" voluminous lessons from one of the top failings from that war.
"Beyond the high performance and robustness of our systems, we must have full and persistent awareness," he said. "Today, our level of readiness is at an entirely different place. Our operators thought processes are completely different, as is training and certification."
Along with revamped readiness and operational procedures, Shir said the fleetwide radar upgrade would enormously increase Israel's maritime combat effectiveness. He likened the modernization to a heart transplant.
"When you take out the radar and replace it with a new, more advanced system, you must connect properly all the interfaces with all the other systems, just like a surgeon would do with the veins and arteries of the heart," he said. "If not, you may not be able to use the new capabilities, or worse, you'll face difficulties syncing all the systems back together again. We're working to make sure this operation is a success."