* New gas platforms offer riches, but challenge to small
* Mediterranean fields a patrol zone akin to Israeli
* Navy eyes budgets as government tries to streamline
By Dan Williams
TEL AVIV, May 29 When Israeli economists
contemplate their country's untapped natural gas finds far out
in the Mediterranean, they dream of energy independence and
lucrative export deals.
Those charged with Israel's defence, however, worry that the
navy - small and long a middling priority in budgets - may be
hard put to protect the multinational drilling platforms and
rigs out at sea.
"We will do our best, but without a major boost to our
capabilities, our best will not be enough," a senior military
planner said in one of a series of Reuters interviews with
Israeli decision-makers on the subject.
That all spoke on condition of anonymity indicates concern
that such doubts over security might scare off investors and,
perhaps, even encourage sea-borne attacks by Hezbollah, the
Iranian-backed Lebanese guerrilla movement hostile to Israel and
to its exploration of gas fields also claimed by Beirut.
There are internal political considerations, too. With
Middle East instability spiralling, Israel's Finance Ministry is
poring over an unwieldy plan for fiscal cuts combined with new
spending on national security. The navy is lobbying for cash but
is loath to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly.
Maps and other dry facts speak amply.
The huge gas fields centred 130 km (80 miles) from the port
of Haifa in northern Israel, along with Yam Thetis, the existing
gas-production rig just off Ashkelon in the south, make for a
body of water covering 23,000 square km (9,000 square miles) -
more than Israel's territory on land.
Guerrilla raids from the north appear the main threat, with
Palestinian Hamas militants penned in Gaza to the south and
rumbling discontent from the Lebanese government over Israel's
drawing of a maritime border unlikely to take a military turn.
Providing rapid response in an emergency would strain the
Israeli fleet of three corvettes - which have a crew of about 70
and can carry helicopters - 10 other missile boats and fast
patrol vessels, and three diesel submarines, not least given
their existing roles of enforcing the Gaza Strip blockade and
the occasional foray through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea.
"You would need to have at least two missile boats in the
vicinity of the rigs at all time," said a senior officer.
Another declined to give a specific number, saying only the
navy required "several" new vessels to meet future missions.
That would mean major expansion of the fleet - a tall order,
not least as Israel bought another submarine for $335 million in
Visiting Israeli joint defence headquarters in Tel Aviv
reveals the navy's junior status, its cramped command centre
overshadowed by the marbled tower of the well-funded air force.
The navy also faces scepticism from an Israeli cabinet stiff
with former army generals and a finance minister, Yuval
Steinitz, who is a civilian expert on maritime security.
In the spirit of what Israelis mordantly call their
"ad-hocracy", an unwillingness to spend on things that seem less
pressing, the government may not agree with naval commanders
about the urgency of protecting gas fields which are years away
from being fully exploited and operational.
One of the handful of gas development projects under way,
Tamar, has finished a well 70 km (45 miles) from Haifa. An
underwater pipeline will run from there to a production rig that
will be erected next to Yam Thetis, 25 km (15 miles) from
Israel's southern coast, by July 2013.
Another project, Leviathan, is 130 km (80 miles) off Haifa -
a remoteness from shore that would itself appear to provide
protection from guerrilla raids - and is not expected to produce
gas before 2017. A number of firms hope to find undersea oil
reserves, as well as the gas.
Robin Mills, head of consulting at Manaar Energy in Dubai,
predicted an eventual increase in such activity off Israel and
Cyprus, with several new exploration wells supported by supply
ships and pipe-laying vessels.
"It won't be like the North Sea, but not a negligible
presence either," Mills said. "I wouldn't say the security
discussion is premature."
Asked about prospects for protecting the gas fields, a
senior Finance Ministry official said only: "This is one among
the Israel Defence Forces' various missions. We are confident
that the IDF will successfully rise to it."
MISSILES, DIVERS, DRONES
Like its foreign counterparts, Israel's navy prides itself
on a spit-and-polish proficiency, especially in carrying out
missions of strategic importance. The officers who spoke to
Reuters chafed at the idea that, in a fix, they might be forced
to call on NATO powers which sail the Mediterranean, such as the
The Israeli navy has fended off a variety of threats over
the decades, including at long range. Last year it captured
anti-ship missiles which Israel said were destined for
Palestinian guerrillas in the Gaza Strip. From there, the
weapons could potentially have been used to blow up Yam Thetis.
Citing intelligence assessments, the navy fears Hezbollah
guerrillas in boats could fire similar missiles against Israeli
targets in the northern gas fields. Other scenarios include
remote-controlled flying bombs crashing into rigs, or miniature
submarines striking from below. A separate possibility is of
gunmen approaching the platforms in civilian vessels or with
divers' gear, then storming aboard to kill or capture the crews.
"We designated these kinds of attack as having a 'reasonable
likelihood' of occurring," one Israeli officer said.
Anthony Skinner, Middle East analyst at London political
risk consultancy Maplecroft, voiced doubt about the imminence of
any such incident. He argued Hezbollah has a role as a reserve
reprisal arm of its patron Iran, should the latter's
controversial nuclear facilities be bombed by the Israelis.
"Were Hezbollah to target gas platform and production rigs,
such an attack would likely provoke a robust response from
Israeli forces, which may in turn precipitate a broader
conflict. One of Iran's key cards against Israel would be
removed from the table," Skinner said.
But merely menacing the energy assets could have value in
the eyes of Hezbollah and its allies: "It is altogether
conceivable that Hezbollah will seek to deter or frustrate
Israeli extraction. Iran too does not want Israel to be able to
exploit massive oil and gas wealth in the Mediterranean,"
Though outgunned by Israel, Hezbollah guerrillas fought its
army to a standstill in a border war in 2006 and have since
maintained a tense standoff while making clear they are honing
their military capabilities for any new conflict.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, indicated in
a speech last July that any attack on Israeli offshore gas
facilities would be in retaliation for an attack on Lebanon.
Israel's navy says that in addition to enhancing its own
fleet it expects stepped-up air force patrols of the gas fields
and espionage further abroad.
"If there is a Hezbollah guy training in South America to
attack a gas platform, we want to know about it," an Israeli
officer said, speaking hypothetically.
There is hope for stop-gap measures such as unmanned,
machinegun-equipped naval patrol boats that can travel long
distances and remotely challenge suspect vessels. Navy officers
also hint at the development of electronic counter-measures that
would allow gas rigs to block incoming guided missiles.
"The IDF knows how to provide a response for all of Israel's
military needs," said Ohad Marani, a former Finance Ministry
director-general and now CEO of ILD Energy, which plans
to begin drilling the first of two new offshore wells in June.
Texas-based Noble Energy, the main foreign company
developing the gas fields with Israel and its maritime neighbour
Cyprus, declined to discuss security measures for the platforms.
One of the Israeli officers said the rigs had private guards
who coordinate closely with the navy. But they have not yet held
sufficient joint emergency drills, the officer said, citing
reluctance to disrupt work that costs around $1 million a day.
"Noble was the only company crazy enough to work with us,"
the officer said. "We don't want to be inconsiderate."
That leaves the hope that Hezbollah will shrink from the
geographical, and geopolitical, hurdles of strikes at sea.
"The targets are so distant, and if they miss, then they hit
the water and get no effect whatsoever," an Israeli officer
said, channelling Hezbollah thinking. "And if they do get the
target, then they hurt Americans and Filipino crewmen rather
than just Jews. So maybe they'll think it's not worth it."