Israeli Corvette Emerges With A Double Load Of Iron Dome Missiles As Potential Threats Grow
Israel has tested Iron dome on these ships before, but we've never seen two launchers on one of their decks, and the timing is also peculiar.
A photo has emerged of the Israeli Navy’s Sa’ar 5 class corvette Lahav armed with two Iron Dome air defense system launchers, apparently for the first time. This comes as Israel continues to be on a heightened state of alert as tensions with Iran grow, and amid reports that Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen now possess Iranian-supplied “suicide drones” capable of reaching targets within the country.
The photo of the Lahav is not dated and shows the pair of launchers fitted to the ship’s flight deck at the stern. We have previously seen this ship with a single Iron Dome launcher on this aft deck. You can see the photo further down in this article.
In its basic form, the Iron Dome system consists of launchers firing fast and agile Tamir interceptors, as well as associated air defense radars. The system is primarily designed to intercept and destroy short-range rockets and artillery shells, but can also be used against lower-flying aircraft, drones, and cruise missiles, as well.
Tamir has an active radar seeker to home in on its targets and receives additional targeting information in flight via a data link to get near its target and make it even more effective. Crucial to its ability to defeat trickier targets is a highly advanced proximity fuse system, able to detect a small and fast-flying target and detonate the missile’s high-explosive blast-fragmentation warhead with perfect timing in order to destroy it. You can read more about exactly how the weapon works in this previous article, as well as the U.S. Army’s limited acquisition of it, here.
Images of twin Iron Dome batteries onboard the Israeli Navy corvette Lahav (linked here if the tweet does not propagate below):
It’s possible the Iron Dome batteries — or their C-Dome naval derivative — were installed on Lahav as part of the test campaign for the future weapons systems that will be installed aboard the Israeli Navy’s latest Sa’ar 6 class corvettes. C-Dome employs the interceptor missiles, vertical launchers, and other components from the land-based battle management center, together with the ship’s own surveillance radar. It had been already reported that the Lahav would serve as a testbed for the new class of warships. However, unlike the Sa’ar 5 ships, the Sa’ar 6 class will carry the Iron Dome missiles in fully-integrated vertical launch system arrays. You can read more about these very capable ships — the first of which was handed over in an as-yet unarmed configuration last month — in this previous War Zone article. Still, it is hard to imagine what type of test would require two launchers and their magazines instead of one.
The dual Iron Dome launchers on Lahav could also be related to a test of a new configuration for the Sa’ar 5s or be an actual operational fit for these ships. Israel did declare initial operational capability with C-Dome on these corvettes in 2017. While not as big or as advanced as the forthcoming Sa’ar 6 class, the Israeli Navy’s three Sa’ar 5 boats are still highly capable. These American-built corvettes were acquired in the mid-1990s. They measure 281 feet long and have a displacement of 1,255 long tons fully loaded.
The Sa’ar 5 class ships are equipped with the EL/M-2248 MF-STAR multifunction active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar developed by IAI’s Elta division and known as “Adir” in Israeli service that can automatically track and engage the full spectrum of aerial threats, from aircraft to sea-skimming missiles, at ranges up to 124 miles. Normal armament comprises Barak surface-to-air missiles, Harpoon or Gabriel anti-ship missiles, and a Mk 15 Phalanx 20mm close-in weapon system (CIWS).
Israeli officials recently confirmed that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had moved both Iron Dome and long-range Patriot missile defense batteries to the city of Eilat on the country’s Red Sea coast. While there was no confirmation that sea-based Iron Dome launchers were part of that deployment, the two launchers aboard Lahav would certainly provide additional anti-rocket and artillery capabilities to the coastal town.
Having two launchers aboard also points to this being more than a test program, with an apparent focus on providing additional magazine depth, at the expense of the ability to embark a helicopter. So equipped, the vessel could serve as an anti-air screen to defend against drones and cruise missiles launched from a surface vessel in the Red Sea or lands far to the south, swatting them down before they approach Israeli borders. Similarly, if Israel sees the potential threat of a drone or missile launch from the Mediterranean, the vessel could offer the same capabilities. Hezbollah has sent drones over Israel by way of a route along the shore of Lebanon and into Israel before, as well.
Regardless, additional air defense systems were first reported to have been deployed Eilat around the first anniversary of the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, in the U.S. drone strike that killed him in Baghdad, Iraq on January 3, 2020. Israel has also been bracing itself for possible actions by Iran or its proxies, in revenge for the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, described as the “father of Iran’s nuclear bomb.“ Fakhrizadeh was reportedly killed by Israel’s top intelligence agency Mossad, or individuals working on its behalf, in a complex attack on the car he was traveling in last November 30. Iran has vowed that it will respond in kind to these two killings.
Israeli Air Force Patriot air defense batteries deployed in the Eilat area:
In particular, the Israeli military has reportedly been concerned about a possible attack from an Iran-backed proxy, such as the Houthi militia in Yemen.
The Houthi rebels — whom the United States recently decided to designate as a terrorist group — seized control of much of the west of Yemen in 2015, after which a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states launched a military operation to restore President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s rule. Iran has been a consistent backer of the rebel group, its assistance likely behind the group’s ability to employ ballistic missiles, anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles, and remote-controlled suicide boats, as well as suicide drones.
The Houthis had previously launched high-profile attacks against targets belonging to Saudi Arabia, their other major antagonist in the region. In 2019, they claimed to have struck Saudi oil infrastructure, reportedly using Iranian-supplied drones and cruise missiles, and there have also been successive attacks on tankers in the Red Sea, most recently in December. The exact origin of those attacks is still hotly debated, with many thinking they emanated from Iran itself or from sites along the Iraqi border with Saudi Arabia.
In a major exercise last week, Iran displayed delta-winged drones bearing a striking resemblance to those that were used in the attacks on the Saudi oil infrastructure.
For their part, the Houthi rebels also seem to have been the likely candidates behind the attack on the airport in Aden last month, although they have denied this. You can read all about that incident here.
While Iran has repeatedly denied allegations that it has supplied the Houthis with missiles, drones, and training, recent reports suggest that the rebels now have Iranian-made Shahed-136 loitering munitions, or “suicide drones” in their inventory. With a purported range of between 1,240 and 1,370 miles, these weapons would be able to reach Israel, as well as targets within the wider region, including U.S. bases, and shipping in the Red Sea.
The analysis of the new suicide drones was based on images obtained by Newsweek and confirmed to the magazine by an anonymous expert, but there is little other hard evidence available. Reportedly dating from late December, the images apparently show the Shahed-136 drones in Houthi-controlled territory in the northern Yemeni province of al-Jawf.
Last month, IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman was quoted by the Times of Israel as having told a Saudi news outlet that, while Israel was not aware of any specific Iranian plans to attack Israel, there remained the possibility of an attack by Iranian proxies operating in Iraq or Yemen. He mentioned the threat posed by Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles and “smart missiles” deployed in these other countries.
Zilberman added that Israel had information indicating Iran was developing unmanned aerial vehicles and “smart missiles” in Iraq and Yemen, and that the weapons could have the ability to strike Israel. This is where the Iron Dome-equipped corvette may come in.
Overall, if reports are accurate, the deployment of Shahed-136 drones in Yemen would be in line with an increased Iranian military presence around the Red Sea. Speaking last week, the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Major General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, said that Iran planned to send warships to patrol these waters.
“We are once again in the region of the Red Sea, where the Islamic Republic’s merchant vessels have faced some limited aggression in recent times,” Bagheri said. “We will deploy our naval patrol and establish full security for our oil and commercial fleet in that sea.” That statement was made as Bagheri oversaw the induction to service of two new Iranian warships, including the Makran. This vessel, which you can read more about here, is expected to serve as an Iranian expeditionary sea base and, forward-deployed to the Red Sea, could be of great value in supporting the Houthis.
Israel is also likely to be on heightened alert due to a potential response to its recent spate of attacks on Iranian-backed militia targets in Syria. Here, amid the chaos of the civil war, Iran has been seeking to establish an increasingly robust permanent military presence, from where it can, in turn, support militant groups in the region, including providing advanced weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
IDF Spokesperson Zilberman said last month that Israel had used 500 smart missiles against targets in Syria over the past year. Just last week it was reported that Israel had carried out its heaviest raids on Syrian targets in recent years, the airstrikes on arms depots and military positions killing 57 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Among those said to be killed were Syrian regime forces and Iran-backed fighters.
Tensions between Iran and the United States in the wider region have also been on the increase, with reports that Tehran fears an attack from the United States during the final days of the Trump Administration.
In December, the U.S. Navy publicly announced the transit of USS Georgia, one of its four Ohio class guided-missile submarines, or SSGNs, from the Gulf of Oman into the Persian Gulf by way of the highly strategic and often tense Strait of Hormuz. This was the first time one of these boats has sailed into that body of water in eight years. The rare appearance by an SSGN in the region would seem to be, at least in part, a signal aimed squarely at Iran and its regional proxies. It was followed up earlier this month by the appearance of a video reportedly showing an Iranian Navy Sea King helicopter flying over what was very likely the USS Georgia.
Against this backdrop, Iran also recently announced its plans to press ahead with enriching uranium at up to 20% purity, reducing the time it would take for the regime in Tehran to produce weapons-grade level material for use in a weapon, should it choose to do so. This is in clear violation of the controversial international deal that Iran made with the United States, as well as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China, in 2015. In May 2018, Trump announced that the U.S government would pull out of that agreement and the U.S. government subsequently reimposed sanctions against Tehran.
So far, we have yet to see any response from Iran — or any Iranian proxies — against Israel. But the deployment of additional air defense assets to Eilat shows that the IDF has been preparing for just such an eventuality. Should an attack come in the form of cruise missiles and/or suicide drones, a forward-deployed Iron Dome in the Red Sea, or even the Mediterranean, could provide a vital line of defense.
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