A New Israeli Submarine — Part of Strategic Deterrent and More (Think Nuclear)

[This analysis was written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, for the website of the independent TV news service broadcasting from Israel, i24news.tv.  The original is at:  http://www.i24news.tv/en/opinion/43241-140910-analysis-israel-s-visionary-sub-fleet.]

A few days ago the submarine INS Tanin (Israeli Navy Ship ‘Crocodile’) began its 5,000-mile voyage from Germany’s North Sea port of Kiel, where it was built, to its future home in Israel’s Mediterranean harbor Haifa.

Tanin is the Israeli Navy’s fourth submarine, joining three previous models of the Dolphin class vessels. Two additional submarines will enter into service within four years, making the Israeli submarine fleet one of the biggest and most powerful in a region from the Indian Ocean, via the Persian (Arab) Gulf, to Europe.

An Israeli Dolphin-class Submarine (photo courtesy shlomiliss)

An Israeli Dolphin-class Submarine (photo courtesy shlomiliss)

Israel began expanding its aging, outdated submarine fleet in the early 1990s, when it only had two British-made vessels. It was partly a strategic decision and partly exploitation of circumstances.

In 1991, during the first Gulf war and Iraq’s Scud missile attacks on Israel, then-German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher visited Israel in a gesture of solidarity. He was confronted with revelations that German companies had sold equipment, materials and technology to Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program. Apparently feeling guilt at the German firms’ involvement in a program that could have threatened to gas the Jewish state, Genscher agreed to Israel’s request to finance its navy’s first two modern-day submarines. The total cost of the six subs is estimated at 2.5 billion euro.

Strategically, this was a visionary approach. Realizing that Iraq already had nuclear aspirations, and anticipating that other nations such as Iran would follow suit, Israeli leaders concluded that their country – which had always tried to maintain a strategic edge over its enemies – needed to have second-strike nuclear capability, according to foreign media reports.

Though Israel’s nuclear policy is defined as ambiguous – neither denying nor confirming reports that it possesses such weapons – it is widely assumed to have a nuclear arsenal.

Such a powerful fleet of submarines will upgrade Israeli military capabilities in two areas.

Firstly, improving its intelligence gathering efforts: a submarine is a launching pad that sails undetected near enemy coasts, listening to communications or landing naval commandos.

Even more importantly, however, as stealth vehicles the submarines can store and fire missiles, either conventional or nuclear, even if the country’s alleged land-based nuclear arsenal is destroyed by an enemy’s first strike.

The arrival of the fourth Tanin submarine has brought back into the public discourse an old reality. Despite the recent Gaza war — and the current panic over the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) as an additional terror threat to Israel, its pro-Western neighbors, Europe and America — the Israeli leadership under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still mainly concerned that Iran will eventually have nuclear weapons.

This possibility is even more acute because of IS advances in Iraq and Syria. IS military successes would serve Shi’ite Iran as further justification that Iran actually requires a strategic and deterring weapon against its enemies – not necessarily Israel, but the Sunni Islamist barbarians.

In the last decade, when it became evident that Iran was rushing toward a nuclear threshold, there were voices both in Israel and outside advocating for an Israeli rethinking of its own nuclear possibilities. Scholars – but also some within the defense establishment – wondered about the causality of events, suggesting that Iran’s nuclear ambitions were a reaction to Israel’s alleged nuclear monopoly. Some even suggested that Israel promote a Middle East nuclear-free zone, and thus eventually agree to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.

Fortunately, this advice was rejected by Israeli decision-makers. With the changes and uncertainties in the Middle East, a region which today seems to be in the process of redefining its boundaries and national entities, it is clear once again the extent to which Israel’s founding fathers displayed vision when they decided that the only way to survive in this rough and hostile neighborhood was to have strategic state-of-the-art tools.

The ambiguous nuclear policy must remain in place. It will provide Israel not only with the ultimate insurance policy for its existence and also will give the leadership – though probably not the current government – the self-confidence necessary to take risks in peace negotiations, regional security arrangements and territorial concessions.

September 10, 2014

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