Israel’s nuclear reach has been doubled. Its radius of nuclear terror now extends as far as Tehran or northern Pakistan. It is now openly discussed that Israel has a flotilla of German-built, nuclear-capable submarines.
Already, three years ago but without fanfare or media attention Germany handed over to the Israeli navy three state-of-the-art 800-class Dolphin submarines. The Dolphins have nearly a 3,000-mile operating range enough to command the entire Mediterranean. They are equipped to launch conventional torpedoes or nuclear cruise missiles without further modification. The fact that they are intended to be deployed in the Indian Ocean dangerously escalates the nuclear threat in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the worlds attention has been diverted to the rudimentary or mythical threats from Iran or Iraq.
The Dolphins are quite conventional in design, except for one striking difference. Instead of 10 torpedo tubes of the almost universal 533 millimeters (mm) diameter, the Israelis specifiedmost unusuallythat four of the tubes should be 650 mm in diameter. This is a significant, not a cosmetic, change order, requiring considerable redesign work to alter the stress patterns in the forward hull. The question is: why?
The Israelis backtracked publicly, stating that the larger tubes would be channeled down to 533 mm. That statement is disingenuous, however, given the extra cost for the original fitting and the supposed refitting. In truth the explanation is more sinister: one can infer that the larger diameter tubes are intended to accommodate newer, longer-range cruise missiles with heavier nuclear warheads.
This, however, immediately raises a second question: which missiles? The world arsenal of subsurface-launched cruise missiles 650 mm in diameter is tiny. The Russians had several models of large-diameter nuclear torpedoes, but the only listed sub-launched missile of that size, the SS-N-16b, had a range of less than 100 kilometers (62 miles). There seems to be no off-the-shelf surface-to-surface missile which fits the Israelis specifications. The specification is all the more mysterious because the Russians recently decommissioned a nuclear-capable missile with a range of almost 3,000 kilometers which can be launched from conventional tubes, the SS-N-21 (Sampson). Why would the Israelis not have bought or stolen a few dozen of the SS-N-21s, obviating the need for the expensive 650 mm torpedo tubes?
If there is no obvious design or model which Israel could steal, the implications are that it intends to develop one independently, taking advantage of the larger-diameter firing tube. Identification of the missile is key to understanding the mission definition for the new Dolphins.
Israel previously has viewed sub-launched missiles as unnecessaryits land-based, long-range nuclear missiles had sufficed. Already the countrys primary radius of nuclear terror includes almost all of the sites it hitherto wanted to threaten: Damascus is within easy range, Cairo is scarcely 400 kilometers away, and Egypts Aswan DamIsraels threatened target in 1973also is easily reachable with the Jericho-2. The throwweight of this two-stage missile, which Israel introduced some 10 years ago, is more than adequate for modern nuclear warheads.
Riyadh, at 1,500 kilometers, and the vital desalination plants in Saudi Arabias Eastern Province are at the known limit of accurate Israeli targeting. The Libyan capital of Tripoli, however, is 2,100 kilometers distant, while the principal Saudi base at Khamis Mushait is almost as far. Both are beyond the working range of the Jericho-2.
The Dolphins, though, can operate in the Mediterranean, closer to targets in Libya. More ominously and more importantly, they can patrol the Indian Ocean, permitting targeting of sites in Iran or Pakistanor any of the key Saudi bases in the countrys southern desert. Although submarine-launched missiles have shorter ranges than the Jericho or other land-based missiles, the submarines can move closer to the targets. Nonetheless, the ranges are still long.
Kahuta, a principal Pakistani nuclear facility, is some 1,000 kilometers from tidewaterwell beyond the range of the Harpoon series of missiles which the Israelis allegedly have been given by the U.S.and it is just at the limit of the range of U.S. Tomahawks, which Israel supposedly will not be given. It is, however, within the capability of Russias recently decommissioned SS-N-21.
Assessing the range needed to strike Iran is more problematic. It is unlikely that an Israeli Dolphin would risk penetrating the Gulf. Consequently, the likely mode is a stand-off attack from a point east of the Musandam Peninsula. But Tehran is still at least 1,200 kilometers distant, the alleged nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak are 1,000 kilometers removed, and even Bushire, directly on the Gulf, but at the northern end, is at least 700 kilometers away.
sraels extended nuclear threat is thus incomplete until it conjures up a missile with a range of at least 1,500 kilometers. The Russian Sampson would be ideal. Ostensibly decommissioned by the Russian navy, it may not be for sale. But the Israelis could readily steal the design and manufacturealbeit at considerable unit costseveral dozen. Or they may be developing a large-diameter missile of their own from scratch.
John Pike, with Global Security.Org, offers a hypothesis for the 650 mm tubesthat they are intended to accommodate Israels home-grown Popeye missile. Originally designed for air-launching, the Popeye Turbo does not fit into the 533 mm tubes, according to Pike, so the Israelis developed a 650 mm-diameter capsule, which permits sub-surface launching of an extended, longer-range version of the Popeye Turbo.
Either way, a longer-range missile is indispensable if the Dolphins are to be fully effective.
Another issue is basing. The Dolphins cannot commute from the Indian Ocean to a home port in Israelsay, Haifaand no submarine pens are reported in the area of Eilat. Rounding the Cape of Good Hope is a trip of 20,000 kilometers, an unsupportable strain on crews and machinery on any regular basis. A regional base for Israels flotilla is thus indispensable.
India or Sri Lanka suggest themselves immediately. The political links existIsrael is a major supplier of arms to both, girding Indias loins against Pakistan and helping Sri Lankas Sinhalese majority suppress the ambitions of the Tamil and Muslim minorities. India is geographically attractiveBombay or Surat are but 1,000 kilometers from the likely attack station. Israeli nuclear weapons in India would be hard to conceal, however, and feared as a casus belli, so it seems improbable that Delhi would risk the possible international repercussions. Sri Lanka, while more pliable, also is more distanta 2,000-kilometer run to any holding area off Karachi or the Musandam Peninsula.
The Dahlak Archipelago emerges as a prime suspect for a home away from home for Israels Dolphins. Located at the southern end of the Red Sea, some 100 kilometers offshore from Eritreas port of Massawa, one of the Dahlak Islands offers both convenience and a measure of anonymity. The Russians maintained a submarine base on Dahlak Kebir during the Cold War, and Israelis have been buzzing about the spot for several years. Indeed, the sub pen and harbor may already have been rehabilitated.
The location is not ideal; it is still 2,500 kilometers to a station just off the Musandam Peninsula, and the Bab al-Mandab is a known choke point. Unless the Dolphins were dispatched only for a quick strike, basing in the Dahlaks would require at-sea refueling capability. Diplomatically, the situation is fragile. The Archipelago redounded to Eritrea when the civil war with Ethiopia ended, but Asmara and Addis Ababa still are at loggerheadsleaving Israel caught in the middle, and vulnerable to pressure from both sides. If, for example, it delivers new weapons to Ethiopia, Eritrea can retaliate by complicating access to the Dahlaks. Israel is trapped, since it needs both states back-country borders with the Sudan to pursue its support of the anti-Muslim movements there.
Who Paid and How?
Who paid for the submarines and how also is a touchy matter. The Israelis collect or cash in, but very rarely pay. The usual suspects here are the U.S. or the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG)which raises the collateral questions of how and why. In the early 1990s the Israelis demanded new, nuclear-capable submarinesbut the U.S. is unable to supply conventional boats, since the last diesel electric submarine line was closed more than 20 years ago. Thus, a scheme was contrived where Ingalls Shipbuilding would serve as the front for moving Foreign Military Sales moneyrestricted in principle for expenditure in the U.S.to Germany. Ingalls was to be the nominal prime contractor, but would subcontract the subs to Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) in Kiel, thereby circumventing U.S. regulations and creating welcome jobs in the German shipbuilding industry. It is unclear what happenedeven though the Israelis had lobbied successfully for the scheme and President George H.W. Bush had approved.
The German role is clear, howeveralbeit rife with anomalies. First, in direct contravention of its explicit restrictions on arms exports, the FRG delivered the submarines. Second, the German government paid for most or all of the bareboat costs.
Germanys applicable constraints on exports are unusually precise for diplomatic documents:
Respect for human rightsis a key factor in the granting of licences. Israels unsavory record is voluminously documented, and the FRG recognizes not only reports by international organizations but also NGOs such as Amnesty International.
Consideration must be given to whether the recipient is involved in armed conflict or where exports may stir up, perpetuate or exacerbate latent tensions and conflicts. Facilitating the nuclearization of the Indian Ocean certainly applies here.
It must be weighed whether the recipient country complies with international obligations concerning the use of force and international humanitarian law. Israels history of flouting the Geneva Conventions is no less well documented.
The recipient shall have assumed obligations in the area of non-proliferation. Here, too, Israel fails the test.
The restrictions are not theoretical. They are often enforced, so that exceptions are all the more egregious. Germany actually does refuse sales to certain countrieseven when they are capable of payingwhich highlights the extraordinary circumstances of the gift of nuclear-capable Dolphins to Israel. The Saudis, for example, for many years persistently tried to buyand pay forLeopard tanks from Germany, and German governments no less persistently spurned the propositions. Indicating a quasi-consistency, Berlin has agreed to sell Turkey submarinesbut not tanks or other armor, which, it notes, could be used for internal repression.
The principles have been carried one step further: despite urging from Washington, which has decided to promote greater defense capability for Taiwan, Germany refuses to sell submarines to Taiwan, citing the labile political situation. Here other forces may be at play. According to the FRG policy statement Labor policy considerations must not be a decisive factor. Janes, however,opined that Germanys Ministry of Economy seriously feared trade reprisals from Beijing if it sold eight top-of-the-line subs to Taiwan.
Might there be reprisals from the Arab street if it were bruited that Germany had given Israel nuclear submarine capability? Might attacks on Mercedes agencies replace boycotts of McDonalds? Obviously, the German government discounted such repercussions.
It is not contested that the Dolphins were donated to Israel. The sum of DM 1.2 billion was reported in Einzelpost 60, a special account in the Ministry of Finance used for interest payments or ad hoc arrangements. This was subsumed bureaucratically within Germanys contribution to the Desert Storm begging bowl, even though the U.S. did not receive a penny of the amount.
Other factors also made the deal less painful. In the 1990s, when the subs were to be constructed, the German economy was staggering. Unemployment rates were high, and the shipbuilding industry in particular was suffering from aggressive competition, especially from Korea. The three submarines for Israel kept the HDW yard busy at a critical time when the German arms industry needed contracts to maintain capacity. The money in part was an alternative to additional support for the unemployed.
Why did Germany take the political risk of such high-profile exports, in violation of its own restrictions? The immediate media mantras are that it is an offset for guilt from World War II or compensation for the war materil Germany supposedly delivered to Iraq during the 1980s. These are not convincing. Greater leverage was necessary.
The decision was made by Chancellor Helmut Kohl personally, and it is speculated that he was subject to blackmail over the matter of the covert funds which ultimately cost him his post. The transfer clearly was not in Germanys interest, and may indeed have been approved by the chancellor for the most personal of reasons.
Reprinted for archival sake from the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.