March 2, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Israel’s naval patrol boats: A key to defeating terrorism

The patrol boats are the workhorse of the Israeli Navy. Squadron 916 in Ashdod has been playing a key role in the fight against Hamas and terrorism since Oct. 7.
March 2, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Israel’s naval patrol boats: A key to defeating terrorism

The patrol boats are the workhorse of the Israeli Navy. Squadron 916 in Ashdod has been playing a key role in the fight against Hamas and terrorism since Oct. 7.

The sun is about to set off of Israel’s coast. In the distance, several long cargo ships sit at anchor. They are all black against the horizon. Just before the sun dips below the horizon, they switch on their lights.

In front of the black shapes, a more sleek boat chisels its way through the water. Eventually, it comes into view, about 90 feet (27 m.) long, with a gun platform at the bow and a cockpit in the middle, and another gun at the back. This is one of Israel’s Dvora-class patrol boats.

As we watch the patrol boat come closer, we are standing on another patrol boat off the coast of Israel. These two sister ships now circle each other, like some sort of courting ritual at sea. They are getting ready for a mission at night.

Our ship is the Dvora 837, and its symbol is a clown. Not just any clown, but a kind of scary one, with a white mask and a red nose. There is apparently a story behind the mascot, but the crew does not elaborate. All the patrol boats have a nickname. One is the Lions, one the Knights. It goes along with their personalities somehow.

The Israeli Navy patrol boat division

These patrol boats are key to protecting Israel. Israel has three squadrons of them. One is based in Haifa, another in Ashdod, and a third in Eilat.

Squadron 916 in Ashdod has been playing a key role in the fight against Hamas and terrorism since Oct. 7. When Hamas attacked Israel on that day, the squadron sent dozens of fighters by sea in rubber boats to attack the beach near Zikim, just north of the Gaza border. Hamas naval commandos sought to storm the beach and massacre people. Israel’s patrol boats were scrambled and fought them for days.

Now they have seen four months of war, and they are doing training at sea. It’s not the only training the Israel Navy is doing. In mid-February, it carried out a readiness drill to prepare for escalation in northern Israel with Hezbollah. Some of the larger ships in the missile ship flotilla took part.

The missile ships are one of the elements of Israel’s relatively small navy. The navy has expanded in recent years to include four new state-of-the-art corvettes built in Germany, the Sa’ar 6-class of ships, and also a number of submarines.

The patrol boats, like the one we are on, with its clown flag, are the workhorse of the navy. Squadron 916 is responsible for coastal security from the Egyptian border.

Usually, several patrol boats are at sea at a time, with the dozen men serving on them making the boat their home for several days.

The squadron in Ashdod has a difficult task because the threats in Gaza are complex. The boats also patrol off the coast and can help ships that end up in distress or can help secure Israel’s gas platforms. However, their main role is close to the coast.

The boats are relatively simple in their layout. On deck there is a stabilized 25-mm. Typhoon gun that can lob a shell far into the distance. Behind the gun is the cockpit of the ship, where the captain can stand and control the boat, perched basically one deck above the gun. From the cockpit, stairs lead down below and also to the stern of the ship. At the stern is another gun, a .50 caliber machine gun.

Next to where the captain stands to steer the boat, there is an area where several soldiers can stand. There are two machine guns on the sides, and a place to stand for a sailor to use a searchlight.

Down below, there is a chart room and several plush seats where sailors can sit and control the Typhoon gun, as well as check radar and see screens with other information. For instance, the ship has a camera that can function at night with thermal imaging and other types of electro-optics. All this helps the ship find targets and investigate possible threats.

We begin our journey from the squadron’s base in Ashdod. Ashdod is a large industrial port with huge towering cargo ships. The cargo ships make our patrol boat feel like something small and vulnerable. But these boats are here to secure all this cargo and make sure no harm comes to the coast of Israel.

At the squadron’s base, there is an outdoor gym, but otherwise it’s quite bare-boned. There are several slips for the ships to dock at and be tied off, each perpendicular to a long jetty that arcs out to sea for several hundred meters. Here the patrol boats can be refitted and supplied with food and ammo.

We leave before sunset for the rendezvous with one of the sister ships of the Clown boat. After saying goodbye to the coastline, we head out to sea, northwest, so that after a while, as the darkness sets in, we can see the lights of Palmahim and even Tel Aviv far in the distance. But eventually, even those lights grow dim.

The goal of our mission is to conduct a night training. Israel’s navy, like the IDF in general, likes doing missions at night. Night affects us and the enemy alike, but at night we have advantages, the crew notes. Advantages come from technology.

The training this evening is designed to test the two boats working together, managing the crew and firing at a target in the water. It’s winter, and there was a storm last week. These men were tossed around by the waves that peaked at almost two meters. They would have had to suffer through gusts of wind some 20 to 30 knots. Tonight, though, there is a breeze, but the water is calm.

As the boat heads out, slashing through the water, I take time to go down below and check out the kitchen. Every army marches on its stomach, and the navy is the same.

Ships have cramped quarters for the crew, though. There are small bunk beds to sleep in, and a toilet – or as it’s called in ships, a “head.” There is a table at which to eat, but it seems to accommodate only several sailors at a time. It is also packed with equipment and monitors, so it’s impossible for the whole crew to be there at the same time.

There is a place to wash up and to cook. Fresh vegetables bulge from cases, and there are a number of M4 rifles along one wall.

These sailors are soldiers at sea; their role is to also be able to fight from this boat, almost the way one would fight on land.

The men eat from plastic containers, some kind of salad with kohlrabi in it. Other than that, the food choices are few this evening. Behind the kitchen, there is an engine room, humming away.

While outside the wind is lashing those on deck because the boat is moving so fast, down below it’s quite comfortable and cozy.

During the first week of the war, this ship was at sea and was involved in fighting Hamas. The captain tells of how he rushed to the port when the attack occurred at 6:30 a.m. He arrived along with others who responded to the emergency. They put to sea and were among the first to encounter the enemy and confront the threat.

Their training had prepared them, but they also learned a lot in the first weeks of the war. After sinking the Hamas rubber boats that attacked the coast, they also had to watch for Hamas naval commandos and frogmen who sought to infiltrate over the coming days and weeks.

The men on the patrol boat – the crew is all males – describe how they also saw terrorists trying to go back to Gaza on October 7 and 8.

The terrorists had used a tractor to break through the security fence near Zikim. Some of the enemy were trying to bring back goods they had looted and even cart off dead bodies they had desecrated and wanted to kidnap. What Hamas didn’t know was that the navy was ready, and it went to work eliminating them with naval gunfire.

After the battle with Hamas, the boats began to work with the IDF ground forces that gathered north of Gaza to prepare for the offensive against Hamas.

From the sea, one can view Gaza in a different way. The buildings are stark against the sky. Threats can be seen from the sea, and terrorists eliminated.

The ground forces, such as tanks of the 401st Brigade that struck Hamas along the beach, were able to get support from these boats.

There was so much fighting between October and December that the men on the ship expended more ammo than they would ordinarily during a whole year.

The navy is an intimate world of men in a small space for days on end. It’s different than being buttoned up in a tank because the boat is always lurching back and forth. People get seasick. But they get used to it, the captain says. There is also a lot of camaraderie and humor in this unit. The officers say that it’s important to have levity a bit, to bond with a crew.

The war has also created bonding with other IDF units. The navy has been working at an unprecedented scale with the ground forces and air force to knit together all the sensors Israel can bring into play to take out threats in Gaza.

In the first two weeks of the war, Israeli tanks churned up the road and sand dunes near the beach, heading south along the coastal road and crossing near Shati camp, a former refugee camp in Gaza that is named for the “beach” where it was built. It’s a hotbed of terrorists.

The tanks and infantry of the 162nd Division defeated terrorists in Shati and went farther south to the Port of Gaza, linking up with the IDF’s 36th Division, which had marched across Gaza. The navy was there at all times to help the ground forces.

For instance, on Thursday, February 22, the IDF said, “Overnight, Israeli naval forces targeted and destroyed a number of vessels used by the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist organizations in southern Gaza.”

To knit together the navy and the ground forces, members of the navy went to meet with elements of the ground forces they would be working with so they could learn their “language” of war fighting and assist better in countering the enemy. Similarly, the ground forces sent soldiers to meet and embed with their seagoing peers.

After around 40 minutes of sailing out to sea, the captain tells the sailors to put on their helmets and prepare their weapons. Ammunition is now brought from storage and fed into the starboard (right side) machine gun. Another sailor prepares a grenade launcher that has flares in it.

The two boats now maneuver together, our sister boat advancing to the north of us. The goal is to coordinate fire at a target. It’s nighttime, though, and the boats are close, so all this has to be done with precision and safety. Live rounds are being used.

The two boats make a practice run, passing near the target and pretending to engage. Orders are relayed, there is a shout by the captain, and confirmation.

Then the boats veer off, heading south again, and the target disappears. We head away a few kilometers and make another approach.

Now it’s time for the real thing. The guns are cocked. A sailor with the 12.7-mm. machine gun, which is mounted just behind the captain on the side of the ship, places the butt of the gun firmly into his shoulder. He has gloves on and gets ready to fire. Before he fires, the captain gives the order to use the main Typhoon gun on the bow. There are loud bursts from the weapon, and the ammunition streaks into the distance.

Each round is red, and both ships are shooting at the same time. It’s dark, so all that can be seen are these little red orbs flying into the distance several hundred meters away, and there is a feint red-and-green glow from the navigation lights the ship has lit on the sides.

After a few seconds of using the main gun, the ship turns so its side faces the target, and the order is given to let loose with the machine gun. The man with the grenade launcher shoots a flare in the air, a yellow light that hangs in the sky and lights up the ocean. The gunner pulls the trigger, and dozens of rounds stream into the distance, churning up the water with little spouts.

After half a minute, the “battle” is over and the boats once again drive away from the target. They make one more pass, and then the drill is over.

The deck is now full of casings of ammunition that need to be swept up.

Now the two boats head east, back toward port. The lights of Ashdod come back into view, the cranes of the harbor, the huge cargo ships at berth.

It’s getting late as we arrive. Ropes are thrown to the dock to secure the boat.

I disembark, but others will stay here to eat and get ready for the next mission.

The men have been at sea for days. They will want to be on land for a short period before their next multi-zday patrol begins. For the navy, like the tide, there is an ebb and flow.

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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