Interview With Vice Adm. Ram Rothberg, Israeli Navy Commander
In his five years as chief naval officer (CNO), Ram Rothberg has worked with other military branches of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to transform the Israeli Navy from a defender of coastal waters and bit actor in joint battle to an essential provider of what he calls strategic sea superiority.
Now the Navy is a full partner in IDF-networked operations at its borders and beyond, providing strategic depth from the sea domain. A former paratrooper, undercover infrantryman and Navy commando, Rothberg credits IDF-wide interoperability for the surging budgets and missions earmarked for Israel’s once marginalized sea service.
In addition to having enhanced, persistent presence off the coast of Syria, he estimates 60 percent of all IDF special missions in recent years have been led by the Navy. Rothberg retires later this month after 34 years in uniform.
Q. What do you mean when you talk about strategic sea superiority? How far does Israel’s strategic depth extend?
A. I’m speaking about persistent command of the sea domain on behalf of the state of Israel’s security, economy and infrastructure. This extends well beyond our 12 nautical mile territorial waters or our [exclusive economic zone (EEZ)]. To ensure our ability to bring in fuel and food and everything that a state needs, we must remain relevant even beyond our economic waters. It’s the entire Mediterranean basin, the Red Sea and all kinds of places where we have interests in being there. The domain in which we operate and strive to exploit is much broader than the territory from which the IDF operates on behalf of the state.
Q. During your tenure, you took command of two new German-built Dolphin-class submarines, but otherwise, your fleet is essentially the same. How are you doing so much more with such limited assets?
A. The Navy is modernizing and my successor will eventually have command of significant new assets: Another Dolphin AIP submarine and four new, advanced corvettes will come by the end of the decade; all are Israeli designed and are being built in Germany. But yes, what you see now are the same ships that you know from my predecessors. What has changed is the new operational concept and the transformation brought about by interoperability.
Q. Please explain.
A. In the past, our ships operated vis-a-vis the Syrian enemy. It fought the OSA vessels (torpedo boats) with Russian Styx missiles. But this is no longer our primary challenge. Our real enemy has transitioned from the sea to the land. This is what happened in 2006, when our ship was attacked by a [Chinese C-802 missile]. We didn’t know how to distinguish this shift, that our enemy had changed. Now, weaponry we used to face at sea has been transferred from Syria to Lebanon.
But what do we do with the state of Lebanon? How do you deal with a warship that is a landmass? How can you sink this huge metaphorical warship from which is housed some 200 missiles?
Q. You’re referring to the Russian supersonic, sea-skimming Yakhont cruise missile?
A. If we look at the Yakhont or other advanced missiles that came from Syria to Lebanon, our challenge is to prevent as much as possible their use before launch. Detection is critical. We need to remain in a persistent hunt for threats that can strike us. I’m talking about any relevant threats to our sea force. We need to make sure they can’t touch us before we get to them.
I won’t delve deeper into details, but here’s where interoperability-driven sea superiority is critical. We need to create the means to act from these waters, which will be full of missiles.
Q. Can you offer some examples of interoperability?
A. Our systems are connected to the Air Force and serve as a floating part of the Air Force’s integrated air defense system. All our Sa’ar-5s [corvettes] contribute to the air defense picture built and maintained by the IAF. Our patrol boats are connected to the ground forces by way of the Torch [Digital Army Program].
In Pillar of Defense [the 2012 Gaza operation], we didn’t operate in standoff, but in stand-in mode, striking the land as part of the overall campaign. We did five over-the-beach, small commando raids. It’s not just shooting with guided weapons but joint attacking on land.
In Protective Edge [the 2014 Gaza war], we demonstrated this by order of magnitude. The operations officer of Southern Command was operating capabilities from our Ashdod base directly, not by way of requests to me or my staff. In that same operation the IAF was deploying my ship-based missiles as if it was another aircraft. I provided the fire, but he was the commander responsible.
Q. What about the integration of sea power and ground maneuvering forces?
A. Today, a tank commander talks to the commander of one of my patrol boats and gets the direct support he needs to advance, maneuver, coordinate targeting or implement fire. With air, land and intelligence arms, we are now full participants.
The IDF General Staff has defined sea superiority as a top priority. It’s part of the new mission of defending our economic waters and empowering the Israel Navy to participate in the land battle. My colleagues on the General Staff understand sea is accessible. It can be exploited from multiple angles, and provides another means for the ground forces to shorten or release lots of bottlenecks.
Q. Why didn’t this happen sooner. Lack of vision? Lack of budget? The technology wasn’t yet there? Failure to cooperate?
A. Let’s start with vision. David Ben-Gurion founded our national security concept, but the word “sea” is not mentioned. That is sad. And to think that during Ben-Gurion’s time, the European diaspora, from the ashes of the Holocaust, was brought here and strengthened by way of the sea.
The nation of Israel is tough. There is ego and resistance to change. I knew it would be an obstacle.
Q. So what happened?
A. I came in on Day One with a paper I submitted to the [former IDF Chief of General Staff] Benny Gantz, which detailed our grand strategy for exploiting the sea domain for the collective benefit of the IDF and the nation. It went well with his plan for interoperability. From then on, we started to build connections. We needed to convince and build trust and earn support for a plan that was holistic and win-win. Under the current Chief of Staff [Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot], the IDF General Staff has defined sea superiority as a top priority.
Q. And technology? Weren’t you fortunate to come into command at a time when IDF C4ISR systems were mature enough for cross-service integration?
A. Certainly. For sea superiority, first of all, I need the Air Force. I need intel. I needed to build on top of our platforms systems that didn’t exist before I started this job. We needed the network that we have today, in which everyone plays a role, from Northern Command, Depth Command, Southern Command, the C4I Branch … everyone had to claim ownership of this.
Q. What about cooperation? Did it take a former green suiter like yourself to break down parochial barriers?
A. It’s true that in the past, the Israel Navy saw threats from the Air Force and Ground Forces for the budgets it needed. Personal and organizational ego was involved. Many thought that maybe the Navy should remain in this bathtub we call the Mediterranean Sea. Others wanted the Navy to remain as a type of coast guard.
I came from the green suit world. I started in paratroopers. I was in Golani [infantry], I was a commando. I lived the world of Central Command [responsible for the West Bank]. Since I fought with them on the battlefield, I knew how to work with them to create a common IDF-wide language and an operational concept that benefits the IDF writ large. Today, just as battalion commanders and division commanders won’t start a new mission until they’ve understood their theater from the air, they insist on patrolling their sectors from the sea.
Q. Is this translating into extra resources to the Navy?
A. In Plan Gideon, our multi-year modernization plan, the sea arm is receiving greater percentages than ever before for its buildup. When you look at the submarines, the new surface ships, bigger helicopters and all the strike systems, it’s because this vision is already an integral part of the IDF operational concept.
There’s a deep understanding by nearly everyone who is entrusted with national authority that the Navy must be an equal partner. There is no command, organization or service branch that can be decisive on its own.
Q. But I thought funding for the Navy’s big ticket items — Dolphin submarines, the four new Sa’ar-6 surface ships, maritime patrol UAVs — comes from another national account, not the defense budget.
A. There is a black box where government funds outside of the defense budget are supporting the mission of defending the nation’s economic waters. In that fund, there’s money for ships, for intel, air assets and other things needed to establish this order of battle. But in addition to this significant, outside funding, our Plan Gideon is also allocating increasing resources for the sea superiority mission we’ve discussed.
Q. You were on Israel’s National Security Council when it formulated the plan, eventually approved by the government, for defense of offshore energy assets. Aside from the new capabilities to come, what does the plan entail?
A. It’s an operational concept much broader than platforms. It involves presence. Persistent presence. And it requires us to strengthen coalitions among core nations that are in this area.
No other country has to deal with threats the way we do. In the Gulf of Mexico, there are some 400 drilling platforms, each with no more than two or three security guards. They don’t have rockets, missiles and terror threatening them. I’m gratified that the cabinet endorsed our concept of a layered defense.
Q. Beyond the longtime partnership with the US and the cooperation built up with Greece and Cyprus — two friendly nations that share your EEZ — what other nations are part of these informal coalitions?
A. We have strong ties with the Italians. We train with the Italian Navy. Just two months ago, we returned from Taranto port, where we had a submarine, a Sa’ar-5 and a Sa’ar-4.5. We’re cultivating cooperation with the French, which we didn’t have before. I recently returned from a visit to the French CNO, and we decided to raise the number of joint exercises we’re doing with them in the Mediterranean.
And then there’s the British. We have good ties between the CNOs, but we aspire to more port visits and eventual joint exercises.
Q. How has the Russian presence on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad changed the nature of the theater? Are you building up cooperation with the Russians as well?
A. When we look at our sea theater, it’s surrealistic. At any given time, there are American, Russian, French, Turkish, Greek, sometimes German ships. All of them are sailing alongside the other. So the naval theater takes on even added significance. It’s an extension of our national presence. We need to be there all the time to drive home this message that this is our front yard.
Therefore, we have ships across from Syria — between Syria and Cyprus and between Cyprus and Lebanon. Everyone needs to understand that this is our theater, so I sail there. I collect intel there. I am part of the design of a theater that is changing before our eyes.
Q. Do you cooperate with the Russians? Do they have to give notice when they launch cruise missiles from the Black Sea in your direction?
A. There are international codes of behavior at sea; laws and procedures in place to prevent clashes. These codes are well understood in a common language. So the Russians are here next to us and we are next to them. We launch helicopters off our ships and they do the same.
There is no real coordination, but there are international codes that we all abide by. Everyone knows how to respect the other. There isn’t any friction. But the fact that we’re building coalitions is part of our strategy for sea superiority.
Q. Finally, Israeli officials often speak about growing cooperation with moderate Sunni Gulf states driven by the common threat from Iran. How, if at all, is this manifest at sea?
A. We have no friction. We sail wherever we need to according to our operational plans. But there’s no real cooperation either. From an operative, tactical level, there’s been no interaction, at least up until now.