By Joe Buff — Defense Tech Undersea Warfare Contributor
The State of Israel has long followed what early nuclear war-fighting theorist Henry Kissinger called a policy of nuclear ambiguity. Israel, officially, neither confirms nor denies possessing any nuclear arms, although many defense analysts, politicians, and diplomats the world over have long considered Israel an undeclared nuclear power. To have nukes for strategic deterrence would make sense for such a small nation surrounded by enemies. These enemies don’t just include today’s dangerously volatile nuclear aspirant Iran but also Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War (he did have some WMDs then and fired Scud ballistic missiles into Israel), Egypt’s unpredictable Soviet-backed Gamal Nasser in the ‘60s, and even unsuccessful but aspiring nuclear power Nazi Germany coincident with Hitler’s Holocaust – a direct precursor to modern Israel’s birth as a sovereign nation.
Since 1948 the Israeli Navy has had mixed success, helping protect the country’s relatively long, two-part coastline from invasion from the sea by terrorists, defending its vital interests in the Med and Red Seas, but also losing vessels and crews to land-launched anti-ship missiles and tragically losing a diesel sub with all hands in the ‘60s (to what was later shown to be a collision at sea). Don’t forget it’s been at the center of PR crises involving losses inflicted on foreign neutral warships and activist non-combatants alike.
Against this background, Israel has, for decades, maintained a small submarine force – interestingly, in partnership with Germany — maker of “frighteningly effective” (as Winston Churchill called them) diesel subs in WWI and WWII. Germany has since manufactured the Type 206, then the global best-seller Type 209 and most recently, the Howaldtswerke-Deutche Werft AG’s state-of-the-art Type 212 U-boats. (Type 214 designates the export-model 212; Dolphin-class is Israel’s name for their customized 214s.) From the 209 on, these are available with conventional diesel-electric power plus air-independent propulsion. The fuel cell AIP system allows quiet, continuously submerged and non-snorkeling, low-speed cruising for up to 84 days at a time.
Israel is reported to have deployed, for some time, three pure-diesel Dolphin-class boats, and will expand via a total now of three additional Dolphins with AIP to a total of six subs by 2013. Each of these is supposedly armed with nuclear-tipped, torpedo tube-launched cruise missiles in addition to a handful of German-made wire guided high explosive torpedoes. An early version of such cruise missile was derived from the U.S. Navy’s Sub-Harpoon, with a rather small nuke payload and a range of some 75 miles. The boats patrol submerged (as much as each design permits) mostly in the Med but more recently also in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. They serve as a second strike capability, a sub-launched nuclear deterrent analogous to, for instance, the U.S. Navy’s current SSBNs; the aging nuclear propelled Ohio-class which usually go out for 70-day “Hide with Pride” patrols.
That is, except for the first 4 Ohios, which were modified into highly successful SSGNs for conventional cruise missile barrages and heavy special ops deployment and support. The basic German designs and/or the customizations for Israel can be SSGs too, since their (up to ten?) cruise missiles can certainly be conventionally armed. The subs can also carry a few (ten?) commandos with their gear, and deploy and retrieve them via an internal lock-in/lock-out chamber. Swimmer delivery vehicles (up to four?) can be carried in the wider of the torpedo tubes (25.5-inch vice 21-inch) serving as ersatz dry deck shelters. These Israeli U-boats can also deploy undersea mines, useful in extremis in the littoral waters with heavy shipping where the IDF supposedly sends them.
Just last week, more information was released officially in Berlin and Jerusalem regarding Israel’s latest submarine deal; the purchase of a modified “Type 212” (does the media mean Type 214?) from Germany, with – as with prior deals – a substantial level of cost subsidization and financing by the German government. The new sub is also “nuclear capable,” a term generally meaning it has been equipped with the additional electronics and mechanical systems needed for nuclear weapons safety, surety, and firing.
The media is saying this sub can launch ballistic missiles, though almost certainly this should say cruise missiles — such as Israel’s new Popeye Turbo with a range of nearly 1,000 miles at a Tomahawk-like speed of maybe Mach 0.7. The design limitations of both the small sub (22-foot beam) and a big, heavy theater ballistic nuclear missile (Scud B is 37′ x 35”) seem to preclude the one fitting inside the other. A ballistic missile’s fast warhead delivery time, via high hypersonic (Mach 16?) speeds and a necessarily trans-atmospheric trajectory (like the old V-2’s), though valuable for a second-strike weapon, comes at substantial cost in length and mass. The problem is like trying to deploy Trident strategic ballistic missiles inside a lengthened and/or (noisy, unstable) hunch-backed Virginia-class SSN, as some sort of poor man’s Ohio-replacement SSBN. However, in Israel’s case, theater-wide ranges with up to 90-minute delivery times, such as Popeye Turbo’s, are truly strategic.