Can the American-Israeli Alliance go to Sea?

“In a world of important and rapidly transforming regions, none is more strategically significant and wildly volatile than the Eastern Mediterranean.”

During a recent Hudson Institute panel, former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith echoed a report that has been co-written by the Hudson Institute and the University of Haifa and which calls for the United States and Israel to collaborate in a mutually beneficial Mediterranean naval buildup amidst increasing global naval threats.

According to Hudson Institute naval expert Seth Cropsey, the United States Navy’s Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean once had two aircraft carriers and a large contingent of marines permanently assigned to it. This is in dramatic contrast to the report references, which pointed out that following post-Cold War cuts, the “Sixth Fleet’s permanent naval presence is now a single command ship in Italy and four Aegis destroyers equipped for ballistic missile defense, all based in Rota, Spain, just outside the Mediterranean.” Retired United States Navy Admiral Gary Roughead said that Americans “have essentially ceded the Eastern Mediterranean, at least from a maritime perspective.”

According to Cropsey, “the presence that was predictable – that was credible – that many of us recall from decades past is essentially gone. He added that this phenomenon is just part of the general decline in global American sea power. Roughead reported that warship transit and repair times mean that the permanent deployment of one warship anywhere in the world necessitated a total of four vessels. Therefore, if the United States wanted to permanently deploy aircraft carriers to four separate crisis zones, the USN would need a total of 16 aircraft carriers – but it currently possesses only 10.

America’s NATO allies “are in the same, if not a more dire, situation,” Roughead said, while Cropsey noted that Turkey’s “future in NATO, if not in doubt now, will be in doubt eventually.” Ankara’s recent political history under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has created an undemocratic country that could not even qualify for NATO’s Partnership for Peace for non-alliance members. Cropsey wondered whether America and its allies like Israel could contain an “increasingly assertive and avowedly Islamist Erdoğan.”

Turkey “used to be one of the most reliable countries, from an American perspective, and it’s not reliable in any important respect anymore,” Feith said, noting in particular the strong relationship that once existed between Israel and Turkey in the fields of defense and tourism prior to Erdoğan’s ascent to power. “It’s dizzying when you think of how Erdoğan made a special effort to essentially destroy the relationship between Turkey and Israel that had been built up in an extremely friendly way,” he added.

Roughead noted that while Western power waned, potential threats waxed. “China has a strategy that clearly has shifted toward the maritime domain,” he said, pointing out that Russia has made impressive seaborne strikes against targets in Syria’s civil war. This “showcased to the world the military reach and the military power that Russia wants to be known for. When you can wage a war in Syria from the Caspian Sea, that is quite a demonstration.”

Meanwhile, Iran “sees itself as the power in the Middle East and in the forefront of the Shia-Sunni conflict that is taking place,” Roughead said. According to Cropsey, after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s sanctions relief, Iran “is likely to use its newfound resources to increase its naval presence in the region.”

The recent report also noted the July 2006 Hezbollah attack upon the Israeli corvette INSHanit off Lebanon with a Chinese C-802 anti-ship missile, indicating growing threats at sea from terrorist groups. Amidst these dangers, the eastern Mediterranean’s importance is only growing.

The panelists also highlighted Israel’s recent natural gas findings. “The discovery of large energy reserves within Israel’s Mediterranean exclusive economic zone is one of the Eastern Mediterranean’s transformative recent developments,” read the report. Therefore, Israel “could supply domestic natural gas needs for 30 years and still allow for substantial exports.”

Israel’s new natural gas reserves only emphasize the mismatch between Israel’s sea dependency and its lack of naval power. “Israel is an economic island, with virtually all (approximately 99 percent by volume) of its foreign trade transported by sea,” the report said. Naval power in the Eastern Mediterranean “gives Israel strategic depth – more area from which to operate militarily than is afforded by Israel’s landmass, [which] is geographically small and narrow. It is therefore impossible to overstate Israel’s interests in maritime security. Yet surprisingly, the maritime domain is almost absent from public discourse in Israel, a nation not known for its maritime culture or history.”

Retired Israeli admiral and report author Ami Ayalon discussed these findings from Israel via video chat. “More than 600 military campaigns were fought on this small piece of land,” he said of the Holy Land, yet pointed out that Israelis never fought at sea. Nonetheless, he recalled how Jews like his father illegally immigrated via sea to the British-ruled Palestine Mandate prior to Israel’s independence.

“A strong, present Sixth Fleet and a strong Israeli navy … will allow both states to maximize limited resources to achieve joint strategic objectives,” Cropsey concluded. Roughead noted that although the Israeli navy is small, the “quality, the professionalism, the ethos that runs through that navy is absolutely extraordinary.” He referenced the increasing importance of ocean sensory technologies – in which Israel is a global leader – while Cropsey noted a complementarity between the American and Israeli navies. “We are good at things that they don’t have, and they are good at things that we are struggling to get for a long time,” he said, indicating small vessels in particular.

The panel’s title “Can Israel Become a Maritime Power?” calls for thinking outside of typical Biblical understandings of Israel. Jonah’s being thrown overboard and swallowed by a whale, Jesus’ first apostles’ fishing in Lake Galilee, and the Apostle Paul’s shipwrecking provide little maritime guidance for the men who “go down to the sea in ships” in Israel’s region. When the Israelites needed to cross the Red Sea and Jordan River, God miraculously provided a dry path. Unsurprisingly, Cropsey noted that the “U.S. and Israel have large substantive interests in the Eastern Mediterranean’s maritime security, but strategy, resources and a significant presence remain over the horizon.”

This article originally appeared on Philos Project, November 16, 2016, and reposted with permission.