Israeli Navy and US Fifth Fleet

23 August 2022


In an effort to bolster its defensive posture, the Israeli navy is enhancing its operational cooperation with the U.S. fifth fleet, which is based in Bahrain.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) Navy maintains a covert presence in the Red Sea through an array of ships, including some that gather intelligence and act as forward bases, a top defence researcher asserted last week.

Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall, a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told the Jewish News Syndicate (JNS) that after an alleged Israeli attack on the Iranian ship, Saviz, in April 2021 – described by international media as an IRGC ship acting as a forward and expeditionary base ship – the Iranians replaced it with a new ship, the Shahid Roudaki – a former merchant ship converted into a floating military base. Operated by the IRGC, the newer vessel and is located off the Eritrean coastline. 

"The Shahid Roudaki and other forward base ships are usually equipped with fast boats that can be lowered to the sea with cranes," says Segall. "Usually, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) is active in missions / deployment outside of the Persian Gulf, while the IRGC-N is responsible for the Persian Gulf and Iran's littoral shores. But they also cooperate, such as when IRGC forward naval bases may cooperate with Iran Navy ships in international waters."

Shortly after that, in June 2021, Iran sent two warships to the Atlantic in what was considered a demonstration of its naval capabilities and a test to see how the Europeans and the U.S. will react. Wrapping up its 4-month deployment in September 2021, Iran pledged more international operations in future.

While the IRGC usually deploys forward base ships to act as intelligence-gatherers and enable rapid attack capabilities, the Iranian Navy, which is less well-funded than its IRGC equivalent, unveiled last year its own forward base, in the form of a large ship called the IRIS Markan, a converted tanker, able to act as a mothership for naval operations, such as escorting Iranian tankers.

In recent months, the Israeli Navy has participated in joint exercises using Sa'ar 5 missile ships and a Sa'ar 4.5 missile ship.

The U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in Manama, Bahrain and includes naval forces operating in the Arabian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Red Sea, parts of the Indian Ocean, the Straits of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, and Bab al-Mandab.

The Red Sea and, in particular, the Suez Canal are critical landmarks for Israel. They are among the largest and most important maritime trade routes in the world. No less than 25% of the world's maritime trade traffic passes through this route, including goods and oil – from the Far East and the Gulf countries to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe.

Due to the importance of this international waterway, Israel tries to secure and preserve the freedom of navigation there. This is against the background of Iranian attempts in recent years to influence the route. Iran’s very presence on those waters contributes to their ambition to influence the negotiations on returning to the nuclear agreement or, alternatively, as a possibility to respond to American actions in the Middle East.

In Tehran, they worked to establish a strategic partnership with Sudan, however this ultimately failed – and the latter expelled them. Iran kept ships in port in Sudan, vessels that moved around the Horn of Africa in order to gain influence in the region. Another action carried out by Iran is joining the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Islamic Republic armed the rebels with coastal and suicide missiles – and established its ability to anchor off the coast of Yemen.

Iran is basing its maritime force on manned and unmanned fast boats that carry explosives. This fleet, according to Israeli experts, will grow dramatically in the coming months.

The Red Sea now sees a much greater presence of Israeli navy ships, and the number will grow as Iranian threats to shipping in this waterway also increase. The presence of the Israeli navy in the vicinity of Iran is intended to deter any hostility from being directed against Israel.

In recent months, the Red Sea has seen some attacks on Israeli-owned cargo ships and subsequent counter-attacks. "It is clear that a real war is fought over and under the waters of the Red Sea" an Israeli source said.

Vice Admiral (Ret.) Eliezer Marom, a former commander of the Israeli navy, confirmed to FrontLine that the current maritime threats posed by Iran are mostly commando operations. "They don’t have real modern combat ships, but they have developed a fleet of deadly manned and unmanned combat boats"

Israeli sources point to the fact that the Iranian navy is making a big effort in recent months to achieve a more aggressive capability with what it has in its inventory.

Iranians divers are being trained to operate small "Pocket Submarines" that can attach explosives to cargo ships and return unharmed to small speed boats adapted to this mission.

According to a report on the Israeli news channel, a team of Iranian divers was being trained two months ago in Malta. It is believed that Malta was chosen as a training site due to its proximity to Italy, which is developing modern diving systems and accessibility.

Now, in an effort to protect American and Israeli-owned cargo ships in the Gulf and the Red Se., the U.S. and Israel are actively monitoring the actions of the Iranian navy in the area

The Iranian presence is affecting the deployment of the Israeli navy in the area. Equipped with very advanced SAAR 6 corvettes and Dolphin 2 submarines, the Israeli navy according to sources is "deploying its vessels according to very exact intelligence"

The foreign press claimed that the Israeli navy has at least one submarine in the Gulf. The reports say this submarine is capable of launching missiles to hit targets in Iran.

Arie Egozi is an Israeli defence writer based in Tel Aviv.