The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine
The soldiers of the deep blue sea
The IDF’s YALTAM unit specializes in deep water missions
At Haifa Port, behind an unassuming gray door, is a small unit that not many have heard of, working under several meters of the deep blue sea in complete silence. The IDF’s Special Forces Underwater Missions Unit (UMU) is an elite underwater force, specializing in diving, sabotage and special missions deep under the sea.
The unit (YALTAM in Hebrew: Yahida Le’mesimot Tat-Yamiyot) of less than 100 soldiers – both women and men – is a vital part of Israel’s regional maritime superiority.
The unit, which was founded in 1963 to carry out naval missions, ambush and combat operations, was known as Unit 707. It merged with the Navy Special Forces (Shayetet 13) in 1976 and acted as its sabotage team. In 1981, the unit again became its own independent force, responsible for all of the Navy’s underwater missions, from sabotage to search and rescue operations.
Though the unit is mainly defensive in nature, it has undergone many changes over the years, from acquiring new techniques and equipment to taking on more challenging missions, sometimes far from Israel’s border, as part of the military’s war-between-the-wars campaign (MABAM).
When the Magazine met with the unit at the beginning of the month, we arrived during a training session. In a simulator, troops were working on a scenario where they had to deal with a technical problem dozens of meters underwater.
“When you are underwater, you are alone. And I need to trust the fighters,” said training officer Capt. Lidor Shtruzer.
Despite all activities by the unit being underwater, cadets can come with no diving experience; all they need is a good connection to water and the sea. Troops train all over the country: in the Red Sea, the Mediterranean and even the Dead Sea.
The training is a grueling year-long process where troops learn to dive up to 42 meters deep.
THE UNIT specializes in marine sabotage and can deal with a variety of missions deep below the sea, such as handling explosive devices such as the remains of missiles that fall into the sea or naval mines. The unit also assists the Navy in thwarting the infiltration of Hamas divers (known as frogmen).
“We are a very specialized unit, with shelf capabilities for when they are needed – because when we are called, we have to go from 0-100 in seconds,” said the unit’s commander, Lt.-Col. Oron Inbar. “We have to be ready for anything, at all times. We are a unit that is primarily defensive but with offensive capabilities.”
He explained that even with the integration of new tech
niques and equipment, some of the oldest diving tricks were still being used to train the soldiers. “The unit has been undergoing changes and getting new equipment but, at the end of the day, the training of the diver is what’s most important,” he said.
And he should know. Inbar has spent years in the Navy, 20 of them in YALTAM before he became its commander in 2019. Coming full circle was a dream come true for him. When he took the helm, he had a clear vision: to make the unit’s procedures and techniques more standardized and organized.
“I wanted the unit to be clearly different than other units.”
YALTAM HAS participated in several large-scale operations in recent years, including the recovery of a Navy helicopter that crashed off the coast of Haifa last year.
Last January the unit was a central part in the tragic crash of an Ataleph AS565 Panther helicopter that claimed the lives of Lt.-Col. Erez Sachaini and Maj. Hen Fogel.
Inbar was at home when he received a call from his staff about the crash.
“It took a second to realize that it’s real,” he said. “We had to get to the helicopter as soon as possible. The Navy and the IAF’s 669 Search and Rescue Unit were there, but they didn’t have our capabilities.”
The first to arrive at the scene was the standby force of a commander and several soldiers. The danger was clear to them, working at night at a scene where it was still unclear what had caused the crash. Although it happened close to shore, there was also a concern that the helicopter could be dragged out farther to sea with troops inside.
Although the helicopter was under about only four meters of water, the recovery operation was a complex and difficult one. When the pilots were finally pulled from the helicopter by YALTAM troops, they were brought to shore, where they were pronounced dead.
The next day, troops from the unit recovered all pieces of the helicopter and towed them to shore in a two-hour operation. Inbar also took part in the salvage operation, diving to recover all sensitive parts of the platform in order for the investigation to be as accurate as possible.
IN JULY, the unit took part in a search and rescue attempt to find 49-year-old Raid Mahamid from Umm al-Fahm, after he had fallen from a motor boat in the Kinneret near Kibbutz Ein Gev. Divers from the unit worked alongside Police boats, jet skis, a helicopter and a drone until his body was found nine days later.
In 2018, divers were sent to Brazil as part of a delegation along with the Home Front Command after a large dam had collapsed near the community of Brumadinho. A total of 270 people were killed in that tragedy, and many of the bodies were discovered by YALTAM soldiers.
The unit was also a central part of the 56-year operation to find the remains of IeAir Force pilot Yakir Naveh, who had crashed in the Kinneret, along with IAF cadet Oded Kuton in May 1962. Starting in 2000, divers from the unit began searching the Kinneret for a month and a half every year.
“We combed the Kinneret in a grid the size of a soccer field,” Oron said. “We spent a lot of time on that mission, and it challenged us.”
Naveh, an air force instructor who was 23 years old at the time, was part of a three-plane formation that was flying low
‘We combed the Kinneret in a grid the size of a soccer field’
over the Kinneret. Naveh’s Fuga Magister training plane suddenly hit the water. Kuton tried to pull up, but the plane dipped back down and was eventually swallowed by a massive wave.
Part of the aircraft was found a year later; Kuton’s body was recovered, but Naveh’s body was never found. Parts of the Fuga turned up over the years, but the searches for Naveh did not produce any results.
The IDF searched for him for decades. In 2008, the IAF’s Unit for the Location of Missing Service Personnel renewed the searches, believing that with new and advanced technology it would be possible to finally retrieve Naveh’s remains.
But the work was not easy, with troops having to dive down to a depth of over 32 meters, where it’s pitch black and very cold. Since many years had passed, everything was buried under more than a meter of mud, and the forces needed to dig in the dark.
“The Kinneret is very different than the sea; at the bottom, it is very dark and cold. And the bottom is like touching powder. We had to learn a lot about near search techniques,” Inbar said.
Ten years later, a civilian company found a small amount of human remains, but enough to say with certainty that Naveh had died.
THE UNIT also takes part in international drills, usually with Americans, Italians, Germans and the French. In 2021, it took part in the Noble Melinda EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) exercise, along with teams from the US, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom and France.
“Partnering with new observing navies allows us to share some of our abilities and approaches with nations that might perceive the same scenarios differently,” Inbar said at the time.
The teams practiced various operational scenarios such as booby-trapped trade vessels, fishing boats and mined ports, along with decommissioned ordnance disposal and live demolition drills.
“Every team brought their abilities and what they understand best,” one soldier told The Jerusalem Post shortly after the drill ended. “We showed how we deal with terror acts (on the sea and below), and during the training each side showed what they would do.”
THE MOVE of Israel to CENTCOM and the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain has also had an impact on YALTAM and its training schedule.
The fleet’s area of operations encompasses some 2.5 million square miles. It includes the Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Red Sea, parts of the Indian Ocean and three critical choke points at the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb.
In April, teams from YALTAM and the Navy’s Snapir (Fin) Unit (Visit Board Search and Seizure) took part in the drill alongside a US Navy explosive ordnance disposal dive team, a US Coast Guard maritime engagement team, and a global health engagement team.
The 10-day bilateral drill dubbed “Intrinsic Defender” focused on maritime security operations, explosive ordnance disposal, health topics and the integration of unmanned systems. The YALTAM unit drilled on neutralizing naval mines at Eilat Bay, as well as neutralizing explosives using unmanned vessels at the Haifa Naval Base.
With over 300 personnel from both countries participating, it was the largest drill between the Israeli Navy and US Fifth Fleet until it took part in the US Navy-led IMX International Naval Exercise alongside dozens of other countries in the Red Sea.
“For the first time, our Flotilla 3 and Underwater Warfare Unit will train with the US 5th Fleet in the Red Sea. We look forward to strengthening security and global cooperation,” the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said at the time.
More than 9,000 personnel and up to 50 ships from more than 60 militaries and international organizations took part in the exercise, which focused on unmanned naval systems and the use of artificial intelligence.
“The 5th Fleet is a very effective cooperative force, and we can learn a lot from them,” Inbar said. “There is a lot of motivation to work together.”
ISRAEL’S MOVE from US European Command (EUCOM) to CENTCOM is believed to not only simplify its cooperation with American troops in the region but one that can also create the potential for a regional coalition with Arab countries that have normalized ties with the Jewish state against shared threats posed by Iran.
Along with the knowledge shared between forces during the international drills, the unit also learns about new technologies and devices that could help them in their operations.
One such device, the Artemis, was acquired by the unit following the Noble Melinda drill several years ago. They finally received three of the British-made advanced diver navigation and sonar imaging systems three months ago and have already put them to use.
St.-Sgt. Elad Kliner has spent two years in YALTAM, a unit he came across “by chance.” Though he initially wanted to join the Snapir unit, he really enjoys the challenges and experiences here.
“At the end of the day, it’s you alone under the water with only the sound of the bubbles as you carry out the mission,” he said, before jumping into the water and disappearing under the deep blue sea with an Artemis in his hands.
Thirty minutes later, Kliner resurfaced, having located the target of the exercise.
The Artemis, he told the Magazine, is more comfortable and user-friendly than similar American devices. It can take pictures, send messages from below the sea, navigate and uses sonar and GPS to help troops locate objects or people.
The Artemis is just one of many new devices the unit uses. Inbar envisions a wide range of innovative new tools, such as marine drones, ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) visual sonar and underwater autonomous vehicles.
But ultimately, despite all the new tools and techniques, it’s the diver who makes the mission succeed or fail.