IDSA COMMENT

Israel’s Dolphin-Class Submarines: A Potent Deterrent?

June 15, 2012

Israel is widely believed to possess the West Asian/Middle East region’s only nuclear arsenal, having achieved this capability during the 1960’s. Of course, Israel does not acknowledge this capability, does not have an articulated nuclear doctrine, has not publicly incorporated its nuclear weapons capability into its security posture and has not tested a nuclear device. This policy of ‘nuclear opacity’ has allowed it to insist that ‘it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region’.

As for delivery systems, Israel is believed to have modified US-supplied F-15/F-16 fighter jets to carry nuclear bombs. It also possesses missiles of varying ranges including the ICBM-range Jericho-III. The June 4, 2012 feature in the German magazine Der Spiegel, titled “Operation Samson: Israel's Deployment of Nuclear Missiles on Subs from Germany”, chronicles Israel’s procurement of Dolphin-class submarines and its possible use as a secure nuclear weapons platform. The article features interviews with some senior Israeli and German policy makers associated with the decision to procure the submarines and their acknowledgment of being cognizant of the fact that these platforms could be used as nuclear weapons delivery systems as well.

In the context of the raging controversy over concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the Der Spiegel article draws attention to Israel’s nuclear delivery systems. Israel has currently three German-built submarines in its fleet, inducted since 1999. Reports note that the fourth submarine was handed over to the Israeli Navy in March 2012. Another two are set to be inducted before 2017. Israel is expected to sign agreements to get three more submarines in the near future. As and when these submarines are commissioned, some Israeli analysts note that they will ensure ‘deep-sea dominance’ for Israel.

The Dolphin-class submarines have 10 torpedo tubes, with four of these being larger (650 mm) than the other six (533 mm) to ostensibly carry Special Forces or cruise missiles. Reports note that the larger tubes can launch the Popeye Turbo sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) which can carry a 200 kg nuclear warhead. This missile was first tested in the waters of the Indian Ocean in 2002. If this 1000 mile range SLCM has indeed been operationalised, it would imply that important targets inside Iran like Natanz or Tehran are within the strategic reach of Israeli submarines from the waters of the Persian Gulf.

Analysts, however, note that these relatively small diesel-powered submarines are primarily designed for coastal patrol purposes and their utility as competent, second-strike platforms will be limited by their operational capabilities. The Dolphin-class submarines are reported to have an operational range of about 2,700 miles. The distance from the ports of Tel Aviv/Haifa to the waters of the Persian Gulf (reduced by about 500 nm if calculated from Eilat) is anywhere between 3000 nm (Oman) to 3800 nm (Kuwait) (reference points at either end of the Gulf for purposes of illustration). With a speed of about 12 knots (snorting speed of 8 knots; maximum speed being 20 knots), the submarines will take anywhere between 10 and 15 days to reach these waters, thus precluding the possibility of launching a punishing strike at short notice. Such a strike can of course be launched by aircraft/missiles in Israel’s arsenal rather than by submarines.

Reports over the past few years have been indicating that Israel has been deploying these submarines in the waters of the Persian Gulf, as a deterrent against possible use of strategic missiles by Iran, Syria or Hezbollah. In July 2009, an Israeli submarine had sailed from the Suez Canal to the Red Sea. In May 2010, it was reported that Israel would ‘permanently’ station at least one of its three submarines in the waters of the Persian Gulf

The reported ability of the submarines to remain unsupplied only for 30 days on station would however mean that, Israel will be stretching the operational effectiveness of its current fleet in maintaining a ‘permanent’ presence in these waters. Reports published in June 2010 that Manama, Bahrain—where the US Fifth Fleet is based—could be used as a possible base/replenishment centre for Israeli submarines was, however, dismissed by Bahraini officials. Israel also does not have any ‘submarine tenders’ (submarine replenishment ships) in its fleet.

Israel’s current operational fleet also does not have Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) technology, which its future submarines are expected to have. AIP would reportedly allow the submarines to stay underwater for more than 18 days at a stretch. The human factor in sustaining prolonged deployment is another issue. Israel currently has only one crew trained per ship, and issues relating to endurance levels and fatigue will be an issue. Reports note that Israel has embarked on improved training courses for crew with the goal of having at least two crews for each ship, thus enhancing their staying time in water.

The possibility of Israel using these submarines for an effective conventional/nuclear pre-emptive strike against Iranian targets is also constrained by the limited number of missiles that a single submarine can carry. Israel is also unlikely to contemplate launching nuclear-tipped cruise missiles pre-emptively. Such a strike would not only go against its current policy of opacity but would also provide justification and international acceptance for Iran and countries of the region to go overtly nuclear.

The capabilities of the Israeli submarines are in contrast to the massive nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) of major nuclear weapon states like the United States. America’s current fleet of 14 Ohio-class submarines have 24 missile tubes, with each missile capable of carrying eight warheads over inter-continental distances, ensuring deterrence as well as potential use as an effective first-strike platform.

Given these limitations, the primary role of Israel’s current operational fleet of ‘Dolphins’ is likely to be limited to serve as instruments of ‘signalling’ strategic intent to potential enemies (read Iran) rather than as platforms that can launch an effective pre-emptive strike or as competent second-strike platforms. Israel of course will be able to better project strategic reach as and when other more capable submarines enter its fleet.

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