Two Dolphin-class submarines will be built in Germany and sold to Israel for $1.17 billion, with the government of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder — who is leaving office Nov. 22 — picking up one-third of the cost. By finalizing the sale on his government’s last day in office, Schroeder is able to reap the benefits of the deal without dealing with the political fallout. Germany has long been hesitant about selling subs to Israel, concerned that the Jewish state might arm them with nuclear weapons. In reality, arming the subs with nukes may not be as technically feasible as people think. Either way, the Israelis probably do not mind other countries believing the subs are nuclear-capable.
The outgoing government of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has agreed to supply two Dolphin-class diesel-electric submarines to Israel. The new sub deal will allow the Israelis to upgrade their fleet without taking any of their active boats offline. There is speculation that the Dolphins could be modified to launch nuclear weapons and thereby give Israel a second-strike capability. Although technically possible, it is unlikely the Israelis will transform the boats into an effective nuclear delivery system — using currently available hardware, that is.
Germany, which is a staunch supporter of Israel, donated two Dolphins to Israel in the early 1990s. The Israelis later bought a third at a greatly reduced price. Israel’s existing fleet of three Dolphins, known as the Type 800 in Israeli service, were built at the Howaldtswerke shipyard in Kiel and fitted out with equipment according to Israeli specifications.
Observers have speculated that Israel’s submarine fleet gives the Jewish state a nuclear second-strike capability, the premise being that if a nuclear attack from another country takes out Israel’s nuclear arsenal, the Dolphins would survive and be able to launch a counterstrike from another location. There also has been speculation that the subs could be used to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to prevent Tehran from fielding a nuclear weapon of its own.
Although it would be possible to arm the Dolphins with nuclear weapons — and Israel’s defense industry is certainly capable of doing this — such weapons would not likely be effective against Iran’s nuclear assets or political targets. The Harpoon is an anti-ship missile, designed to seek out ship-sized targets on the water, and the missile’s guidance system would have to be changed to attack targets over land (making it, essentially, a cruise missile). Though that conversion would be possible, some analysts contend that a nuclear warhead would be significantly heavier than the Harpoon’s normal conventional warhead. A heavier warhead means that the range of the missile would be shortened, and its now nose-heavy airframe could degrade its accuracy.
The range of a non-nuclear-armed Harpoon is approximately 175 miles, which is too short for a Dolphin in the Persian Gulf to be able to hit Tehran, or Iran’s nuclear facilities at Arak or Natanz. Only the reactor at Bushehr would be vulnerable. With its shallow water, the Persian Gulf is an environment in which submarines can be spotted relatively easily by aircraft and ships, reducing the likelihood that the Israelis would risk their Dolphins by operating there. Therefore, the Israelis would be compelled to restrict their submarine operations to the deeper Gulf of Oman, or even better, the Arabian Sea.
The Dolphins operated by Israel are similar to the Germans’ Type 212/214 design and were originally designed for interdiction, surveillance and special-forces operations. They can accommodate a crew of 35 for up to two months of operations away from their base. The submarines are capable of launching the U.S.-made RGM-84F Harpoon anti-ship missile from its torpedo tubes. Any nuclear capability the Dolphins would have would be in the form of Harpoons armed with Israeli-made nuclear warheads.
Even getting to their launch point would be problematic for the Dolphins, with their range of 4,500 nautical miles. The only way they could get to the Gulf of Oman without needing to stop for refueling would be to go though the Suez Canal — Going around Africa would mean that they would have to stop in friendly ports at least twice on the way. If a Dolphin from Haifa refuels in Gibraltar, it lacks the range to make it to South Africa. It would have to stop or be replenished along the way. It would also have to refuel on the second leg of its trip, or be replenished at sea.
Given the advanced state of Israel’s aeronautical and defense industry, developing a system that can reach targets deep inside Iran from the Gulf of Oman or the Arabian Sea is certainly within Israel’s technical means. If Israel does have a nuclear second-strike capability, it is unlikely to come from Dolphins firing nuclear-tipped Harpoons from the Gulf of Oman or Arabian Sea. However, with an eventual fleet of five subs lurking in the waters around the Middle East, the Jewish state’s potential enemies cannot completely ignore the possibility that Israel might be capable of responding to an attack, and must keep that in mind when considering any major action against it.