TEL AVIV, Israel – The Israeli Navy is concluding its after-action review of a complex, two-day hostage rescue drill conducted at sea earlier this week.
The exercise, dubbed Sea Minister, involved dozens of naval forces, including elite Flotilla 13 commandos, which were deployed in response to a simulated terrorist takeover of a large merchant ship off Israel's northern Mediterranean coast.
Designed as a war game, the drill was purposely unscripted and open-ended to capture the uncertainty that typically surrounds such complex operations, Rear Adm. Ido, head of force implementation in the Israel Navy's Operations Branch, told Defense News.
"We gave all the actors the ability for independent judgment. … I didn't even know how it would end. We were dealing with all of it, at all of its stages, as the mission evolved," said Ido, the commanding officer there, whose surname has been withheld as a condition for the interview.
According to the officer, the scenario began with a distress call from the "civilian" ship, which activated the Israeli Navy's procedures for gathering intelligence with which to identify the vessel and its precise location. In parallel, the Navy began negotiations with the "hostage takers" in order to assess their demands and operative goals.
At this point, the Navy assessed there were 10 hostages and "a similar number" of terrorists aboard, he said.
"We knew that we were dealing with the seizure of a civilian ship; an act of terror … but we needed to understand first what were their intentions. Did they plan a suicide mission or did they have demands?" the officer said. "Our goal, at the end of the day, was to retake the ship, neutralize the terrorists and release the hostages."
Tactics determined for the operation included fast drop to the ship's deck by an Israeli Air Force helicopter while another unit made its way to the ship by sea. At the same time, relevant "authorities" throughout Israel's defense establishment were apprised of the situation.
"It's a complicated operational challenge to have an exercise that just erupts on a normal day. … Until a moment ago, it seemed we were dealing with a civilian ship, and then suddenly it became a national operation, involving the General Staff, Air Force, ground forces, counterterror operators and missile units," the commander noted.
The drill involved coordinated, joint force operations. "We practiced full synchronization to determine the right moment and the right conditions for our attack," he said.
"At the end of the day, the activity was successful. We managed to overtake the ship and to kill most of the terrorists. One of the hostages was killed, and we had wounded," the officer said.
The Israeli Navy conducts extensive drills several times during the year, including with its American counterparts. However, the technologies, tactics and procedures practiced in the war game are something that the Navy has not yet shared with other nations, beyond its chief American ally.
"There's a blend of capabilities that we don't tend to share; only with the Americans," the officer said.