20 September 2016
"Look at this huge 'Adir' radar on the missile boat's deck," says Major-General Ram Rothberg, as we approach the platform at Haifa's military port. "From here, this radar can see missiles launched from Turkey to Syria."
This enthusiasm and teen spirit repeat themselves when fighters of Shayetet 13, the special operations unit which Rothberg commanded in the past, lead us far out at sea from their boat to the deck of the Navy's newest submarine, INS Rahav, and Rothenberg points at the coastal town of Atlit and says: "The most beautiful place in Israel. Look how pretty, the people, the systems. I get excited seeing this strength."
The sparkle in eyes of the outgoing Navy chief, who will leave office at the end of September, is apparent as we sail to the submarine on the INS Eilat missile boat as well. None of the soldiers we met during the sail appeared tense or intimidated by the general. In other corps, a major-general is considered a type of god, one that soldiers see maybe once during their entire service.
Thirty-three years and 10 ranks separate Rothberg and the young soldiers he meets during the sail, talks to and sometimes even laughs with. "That's Ram," one of the junior officers on the ship clarifies. "On the shore, in the base and in the sea, he talks to everyone at eye level, without any distance, sometimes even like a pal. It's a disputable approach, but it's hard not to connect to it."
In a memoir, in his small handwriting and personal approach, Rothberg chose to share with the fighters of the Navy's new submarines, Rahav and Tannin, his experiences from his long journey with them from the Port of Kiel in Germany to the Port of Haifa. On each experience they went through together far out at sea for about three weeks, mostly in deep water, the general signed: "Ram Rothberg, Navy commander." He did not mention his rank.
The senior officer, a member of the IDF's General Staff, is far from being a typical general. Until he reached the rank of brigadier-general, he says, he did not pursue a military career and just "went with the flow."
In a special Ynet interview, conducted far out at sea, Rothberg reveals that Hezbollah is not just arming itself with advanced Yakhont missiles, and says one military corps alone cannot decide the next war and explains why a Navy chief has never been appointed IDF chief-of-staff.
A submarine and infantry brigade working together
A small piece of history was made about a month ago in the cooperation between the IDF's Ground Forces and Navy forces: For the first time, a submarine took part in a ground exercise conducted by the Paratroopers Brigade. The brigade's commander, Colonel Nimrod Aloni, advanced with his soldiers near the village of Jisr az-Zarqa, while receiving secret assistance from a submarine commander in deep water, who cleared the ground for the forces to progress, described the developing intelligence picture and more.
Despite the submarine's strategic status, the Navy has dropped its ego and in the next war in Lebanon it will provide the Ground Forces with what a senior officer from the Paratroopers Brigade defines as "an advantage over an aerial observation, because unlike a UAV the submarine is stable, doesn't fall down if it runs out of fuel and doesn’t move on to other missions.
Outgoing Navy Commander Rothberg, who has led such operational collaborations within his corps as well, including secret operations of submarines with Commando fighters, recounts processes from the beginning of his term: "We were afraid to integrate with everyone. We saw is as a threat to our power building. Here's a confession: We were afraid that the Air Force would take our place in the naval battle. The Air Force was even a red rag as far as we were concerned, because if there is air the sea is probably unnecessary.
"When I took office, along with (former Chief of Staff) Benny (Gantz) and (incumbent Chief of Staff) Gadi (Eisenkot), I said we should do things completely differently. We want to prepare to fight on two fronts, with quick portable tools, so we changed the command and control perception. Today, an infantry regiment commander talks to a missile boat commander, a company commander talks to a warship unit's commander. I don’t think one corps will decide."
Facing Syria, approaching TurkeyMany warships, some much bigger than the Navy's missile boats, are currently in the front yard of the IDF's main fighting arena – the northern front, facing Syria and Lebanon. In the interview, Rothberg reveals that Navy ships are constantly sailing in international waters opposite Syria and Lebanon.
"The Syrian arena attracts all the world powers and fleets. It's a main battle zone which includes the Iranians, the Turks, the Russians, the Americans, the French, the coalition states. We want to strengthen our naval coalitions and we have strengthened our ties with all the relevant countries.
"We are present in the arena vis-à-vis Syria and vis-à-vis Lebanon as part of designing a reality in the key arena where the danger will come from. We sail in international waters near Cyprus and Turkey as well. We have to feel the ground intelligence-wise and we talk to other missile boats in NATO language, international codes. The Air Force's coordination mechanism vis-à-vis the Russians operates in the sea as well. We are constantly approaching, but there is no friction."
The Navy ships and submarines are not only following politely what is happening on the Lebanese or Syrian shore from an intelligence perspective. "We already offer a response to the Yakhont with our Barak 1 missile, and we will offer a response w3ith the Barak 8 missiles as well," Rothberg states, elaborating on the Yakhont threat, Russian made anti-ship cruise missiles, which are considered the most advanced missiles in the world and are launched from land.
"The Yakhont is a quick, supersonic missile, and the question is where will we find it. Naturally, according to the naval supremacy perception we have developed, we would like to attack the Yakhont before it is launched, and we will therefore use the perception of hunting down the launchers, which comes from the Air Force."
According to foreign reports, in the past few years the IDF has attacked advanced arms shipments to Hezbollah from Syria, which included Yakhont missiles. The Sunday Times reported three years ago that an Israeli Dolphin submarine attacked a warehouse in Latakia in which 50 missiles were hidden.
'Attack the enemy at its starting point'But the Yakhont, which can reach a 300-kilometer radius, threatening the Port of Ashdod and the gas rigs, is not the only missile in the Navy's line of fire. According to Rothberg, "The state of Lebanon has become a huge fleet which cannot drown and is constantly armed. The Syrian fleet, with the old Russian ships and the four small Iranian stealth vessels, the size of our Dvora (patrol boat), is no longer relevant.
"Hezbollah missiles can be launched at us from northern Syria, and the other way around. Apart from the Yakhont, Syria also has Iranian missiles with a range of 300 kilometers like the Ghadir and a future missile called Qader, which are upgrades of the C-802. This is not a work premise but an understanding that missiles will be fired on us from the northern arena."
In order to reduce Hezbollah's abilities in the third Lebanon war as much as possible, the IDF often operates in the "war between wars." That includes many secret operations to thwart the arming of Hamas and Hezbollah, such as the operation against the KLOS C arms ship two and a half years ago, which Rothberg commanded from far out at sea.
"I will modestly say that the 'war between wars' was written about the Navy, due to its versatility and access to all arenas, the understanding that the enemy must be attacked at its starting point, operations that combine courage and valor, planning and decision making on the level of the chief of staff and defense minister. We carry out additional operations like the KLOS C, which was a unique operation against naval smugglings."
For every such successful operation, how many smugglings do succeed?
"I invest all the resources to ensure that won't happen, and that we will catch everything at its very beginning. I am unaware of any other smugglings, but it's possible that we won't know."
During Operation Protective Edge, a Shayetet 13 operation in the northern beach of the Gaza Strip was revealed after fighters were wounded by Hamas fire. Did that operation go wrong?
"Complicated operations are under my command, like Operation Hod Vehadar, which I ran from the Ashdod base and the Shayetet commander oversaw on the ground. In such operations you need the strongest chain of command. In the command post I spoke with the forces on the ground, I directed the fire and intelligence and coordinated the guidance and advancement. In my opinion, it was a successful operation which reached all its effects and targets."
A dispute in deep waterRothberg, who will be replaced by Eli Sharvit, is considered an officer who does not hesitate to speak his mind even in top forums. Quite a few eyebrows were raised in the IDF when former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided on his appointment. The highly regarded offer carried a stain from 2006, when he was reprimanded by Chief of Staff Dan Halutz for his part in the failure that led to Hezbollah missiles hitting the INS Hanit ship off the shores of Beirut and to the death of four fighters on the ship. At the time, Rothberg served as head of the Naval Intelligence Division.
Since then, the Navy has undergone a facelift, such as the arrival of the two new submarines from Germany during Rothberg's term. Some in the General Staff raised the initiative to do away with the veteran Dolphin-class submarine (which is considered operationally efficient at least until 2030), upon the planned arrival of the sixth submarine, Ahi Dakar, in 2019.
"The submarine can be the eyes of Shayetet 13 and operates as far as the imagination goes," says Rothberg. "The submarine fighters have brought about a breakthrough in the number of operations, and there has not been a single mission they were unable to carry out in the past few years. From a world of DNA which includes total secrecy, the submarines have now moved on to both."
So why are there those in the army who want to give up on a submarine which only arrived at the beginning of the previous decade?
"It's a decision on a General Staff level, and we will get into it when we get there. The Navy commander will always want more, but there is a decision making process and I will honor every decision. There are operational considerations which I understand. Our next submarines, the seventh to the ninth, will be for 40 years, and the current ones are for 30. As for the agreement with Iran, when you build power you don’t look at short ranges of five years but at 15 years and more. There will be changes on the way, and the submarines will be part of it."
Rothberg's April Fools' DayRothberg's sharp sense of humor is one of his distinguishing features, but it has not always made people laugh. At the beginning of his term, Navy fighters were furious after he ordered them to prepare for a training session in Italy for a whole night, and then in the morning they were told that it was an April Fools' prank initiated by the general himself. Since then, he has not been missing out on the annual practical jokes day, but has been keeping a lower profile.
"It was a light event," he explains. "I don't regret it and I apologized to the people afterward. I told them to take it in the right spirit because it also happens to me at home.
"I am in favor of a creative spirit and freedom of action among people, as long as there is no harm to human life, property or dignity. When facing the enemy, one must think in a free, non-fixated manner. In order to lead a team through a battle one cannot just work with orders, but also have an ability to motivate and connect. I remember that after a successful operation in Lebanon, we left the beach and an officer in the force asked me a question. I replied with a good joke, and immediately received sympathy, pride, laughter and strength to move on, because it was a long operations and it can sometimes be broken with the proper humor."
An IDF chief from the Navy?Rothberg is married to Michal and has three children. He does not have a computer in his office, apart from an operational screen, "which is closed most of the time." He does have a secret Facebook account under a nickname few people know of.
The senior officer, who calls on his colleagues to "peel off layers of ego," does not settle for many conversations – almost around the clock – with his young subordinates, and also visits youth villages to talk about the Navy. The missile boat unit, which few people wanted to serve in, has become so popular, he says, that every two new recruits compete for an available spot in it.
"We must let go of the ranks. They sometimes confuse people or confuse a situation," says the outgoing Navy chief. "I am interested in people and I care about them, so I personally get back to each one. It's a personal code which must not be broken. I am part of the Navy's full fabric. What does a person want? Personal treatment. He wants people to believe in him.
"I study the ground with the most important eyes: The eyes of soldiers in compulsory and reserve service, and not through what they want to show generals in briefs or presentations. So I don’t work with emails and I prefer interpersonal communication – listening to the gesture, to the voice, to the tone. The moment you write an email, it's processed differently.
"Commanders in the IDF must understand that our youth is the best, and the question is how should we connect to it, if we remain in the hierarchy of the old generation. I take off all suits and try to teach something complicated: We are commanders in the IDF and educators in the State of Israel. The commander is not the smartest person, and the soldier won't volunteer to do something just because I am responsible for him, give him orders or let him leave for an event, or because of the ranks."
In the recent rounds of appointments Navy officers were appointed as brigade and division commanders, but when will we see a chief of staff who comes from the Navy, after already having a chief of staff from the Air Force?
"We must wait. Being a chief of staff is a profession. You have to grow into it and be in that place, create a partnership and faith in the road you take." At this point Rothberg hesitates, but then adds: "Other armies have it. If the Navy commander will have added value in the future compared to other candidates, it will happen."