HAIFA, Israel, April 2 (UPI) -- Israel's navy is scrambling to assemble a force of new warships worth some $760 million to protect the country's natural gas fields in the Mediterranean as the production from the first field discovered in 2009 went onstream last weekend.
The navy's talking about at least two patrol-class vessels, but more likely four, as well as an air component that includes unmanned aerial vehicles for round-the-clock surveillance to detect a variety of threats, from suicide frogmen to anti-ship missiles.
The problem is that Israel's had to slash its defense budget to step up spending on social programs and there's no spare funds lying around. However, there's speculation that since it's a U.S. company -- Houston's Noble Energy -- that's operating the gas fields, Washington may wind up footing at least a large part of the bill.
How the Israelis will be able to pull that off is far from clear but time is pressing.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government is struggling to ensure that the $3.1 billion a year the Jewish state gets from Washington won't be reduced under the stringent budget cutbacks under way in the United States.
With growing uncertainty in the region stemming from the civil war in Syria, on Israel's northern border; persistent political turmoil in Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula, on its southern flank, unrest in Jordan to the east and fallout from the confrontation between the United States and Iran in the Persian Gulf, Israel's getting jumpy about the gas fields that are about to make it a regional energy power.
Saturday's start of production from the Tamar field, discovered in 2009, gives added urgency to the efforts to establish an effective protection force. Tamar is 40 miles off the port and naval base of Haifa in northern Israel. It has reserves of some 10 trillion cubic feet of gas.
The largest field in Israel's maritime Exclusive Economic Zone is Leviathan, further north. It contains some 16 tcf of gas.
The navy wants four 1,200-ton, long-endurance warships equipped with defensive missile systems to intercept anti-ship missiles, possessed by Syria and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, aimed at production platforms.
Naval officials say the Defense Ministry has been in touch with eight or nine foreign shipbuilders, but no decision has been made on contracts, likely because of the cost.
The state-owned Israel Shipbuilding company in Haifa is one possibility, although it's understood it was rejected in an earlier program. But cost could result in Israel's using a domestic shipbuilder.
The protection force will have to cover an area larger than the size of the state itself, with the boundary of the EEZ 112-130 miles offshore.
Meantime, the navy's expected to acquire long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles like Israel Aerospace Industries' Heron which can be equipped with special electro-optical systems for maritime operations.
Another possibility is the missile-armed, remote-controlled robotic boat developed by state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems of Haifa.
The 30-foot, unmanned Protector craft can carry a bow-mounted 7.62mm machine gun or anti-ship missiles. Their radar and sonar systems allow them to operate at night.
Military sources say the craft, with a maximum speed of 42 miles per hour, could be useful against suicide boats manned by Hezbollah or Iranian Revolutionary Guard teams.
The navy is reported to be operating Protectors armed with multipurpose anti-armor Spike missiles built by Rafael. Singapore's navy uses them for port protection.
"The gas fields spanning a large area west of the coast of Israel significantly broaden the challenges facing the Israeli navy," the Defense Ministry said in a recent a statement.
"The protection of these strategic assets requires increased resources and extensive preparations."
Just to add to the potential threats, the Russians have a naval base in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus, and with its ally Syria convulsed by civil war it has warships in the vicinity much of the time.
The Russians, eager to revive their Cold War influence in the region, want to re-establish a naval presence for their Black Sea Fleet in the eastern Med, where Moscow deployed warships before the Soviet Union's collapse two decades ago.
The Iranian navy, which is seeking to extend its operations into the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, has deployed warships to Tartus several times in the last couple of years.