HAIFA, Israel, May 23 (UPI) -- The reported delivery of supersonic Russian anti-ship missiles to Syria, which could also fall into the hands of Lebanon's Hezbollah, has heightened Israeli concerns about protecting its offshore natural gas fields.
Israel began production in March from its second largest field, Tamar discovered 40 miles off northern Israel in 2009.
The field, jointly operated by Nobel Energy of Houston, and its Israeli partners, Delek Group, Isramco and Dor Alon, has reserves of around 8 trillion-10 trillion cubic feet -- enough to meet Israel's needs for decades and save the state $3.6 billion a year.
The largest field, Leviathan found further out to sea in 2010, contains around 20 tcf and is to come onsteam in 2014.
These, and other smaller fields, are considered high-priority strategic asset in a country that since its foundation in 1948 has had to import virtually all of its energy requirements.
Another 18 wells are expected to be drilled by the end of 2013, at a cost of $1.8 billion.
Now the Jewish state's expected to become a gas exporter in the next few years.
This will involve the construction of an even bigger infrastructure, offshore and on, including production platforms, pipelines, storage facilities, and possibly plants to produce liquefied natural gas carried by sea in special tankers, all from scratch.
So Israel has a lot riding on its newfound energy riches, and that alone makes these facilities juicy targets for the Jewish state's many enemies.
Offshore facilities are considered to be particularly vulnerable: deep-water Nigerian facilities in the Gulf of Guinea off West Africa have come under attack by pirates in recent years.
But these attacks are primarily for profit, robberies or kidnapping foreign technicians for ransom. Attacks on Israel's offshore facilities would more likely be aimed at destroying them, along the lines of an abortive attack on an Iraqi export terminal in the northern Persian Gulf in 2004 by would-be suicide bombers aboard boats packed with explosives.
The navy's in the process of being expanded from what was essentially a coastal protection force into a strategic blue water force spearheaded by six German-built submarines reportedly with nuclear capability.
So it is scrambling on diminishing defense budgets to meet the specialized requirements of protecting offshore energy assets.
But the myriad dangers springing from the 2-year-old civil war in Syria, Israel's northern neighbor, the prospect this will ignite other conflicts in Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, as well as the geopolitical shifts triggered by pro-democracy revolutions across the Arab world, but particularly in southern neighbor Egypt, leave Israel's emergent energy sector exposed.
The navy, which quickly defeated the Syrian navy in the 1973 war, hasn't forgotten how it was ambushed by Hezbollah during the first days of the 34-day war in the summer of 2006.
Hezbollah nearly sank the U.S.-built Israeli Sa'ar 5-class corvetteHanit in the Mediterranean off Beirut with an Iranian-supplied, Chinese-designed C-802 anti-ship missile, and did sink a passing Egyptian freighter.
"That won't happen again," a senior Israel officer insisted. "We've learned the lessons. We've taken measures in the field and invested a lot of thought ...
"We have clear responses to this threat," he said. "We're conducting tests all the time and testing ourselves to be certain we have responses for these threats."
This includes close cooperation with the navy's development arm and Israel's defense sector, such as state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries which developed the Barak 8 surface-to-air missile that can intercept anti-ship missiles.
That's expected to be operational by the end of 2013.
But it's Hezbollah that's seen as the primary threat. Armed with upgraded C-802 missiles by Iran, it may also get more advanced Russian P-800 Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles that Russia has provided Syria.
These pack a 550-pound warhead and have a range of 200 miles and could be fired from Hezbollah's stronghold in south Lebanon.
Meantime, the Israeli navy is trying to assemble a multi-system force of warships, unmanned aerial vehicles, missile-armed remote-control gunboats and other weapons to protect the gas fields.
It is talking about at least two 1,200-ton patrol-class vessels, but more likely four, as well as an air component that includes 24-hour-a-day surveillance to detect a variety of threats, from suicide frogmen to missiles.