June 1, 2010

Israel's underwater wild card

Recent press reports have cited a little-known Israeli military capability - its submarine force. There have been submarines in the Israel Defense Forces since Flotilla 7 was formed in 1959.

The current Israeli inventory consists of five German-built Dolphin class diesel-electric submarines - the latest two are equipped with a very quiet air propulsion system. Some of the submarines were purchased using American military assistance funds - which required special dispensation - and some were donated by the German government.

For years, the top students in Israeli high schools were selected to be fighter pilots, while the second tier were selected to serve in Israeli military intelligence. Over the last few years, however, the second tier have been named to serve in the submarine force, earning those selected the nickname "fighter pilots with glasses" since pilots are required to have perfect vision, and submariners are not. This change underscores the value Israeli military leaders place on a viable underwater capability.

The German-made submarines are excellent vessels - the Israeli fleet easily outclasses the anti-submarine warfare capabilities of its Arab neighbors, but the real threat to Israel comes not from the likes of Syria, but from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Anyone who has read anything about the Middle East for the past five years understands that Iran is feverishly developing a nuclear weapons capability, and has continually made bellicose threats against the Jewish state.

On my last two visits to Israel, virtually every government and military official with whom I had contact stressed the "existential threat" posed by Iran. Whether or not the United States seriously considers the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran, the Israelis do. In response, the Israelis have planned and exercised for an air strike on Iran.

Launching an air strike on Iran will be pushing Israeli aircraft capabilities to the absolute limits - there is no room for error. (See my earlier articles, Iran - Israel's Air Strike Options, updated by Iran - Israel's Air Strike Options Update.) An attack on Iran has a high likelihood of failure, but if the Israelis believe the Iranians are on the verge of building a nuclear weapon, they will strike regardless.

There are very few options for the Israelis, but one weapon that has been overlooked is the submarine fleet. There is a reason for that - Israeli submarines can easily operate in the Persian Gulf, well within weapons range of Iranian nuclear facilities. The submarines can carry a variety of cruise missiles, however, they are limited in the number and size of warheads. The submarines will certainly be complementary to any air operations, but by themselves cannot achieve the level of destruction necessary to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

There is a wild card, however. I will preface my next statements with the assumption that most people believe that the Israelis have nuclear weapons. It would be illogical to assume that the Israelis have not produced nuclear warheads for their submarine-launched cruise missiles. Of course, use of nuclear weapons is a major step and would only be taken under the gravest of conditions.

Certainly if Iran launched a nuclear attack on Israel, there would be instant nuclear retaliation, although that threat does not seem to have deterred Iranian rhetoric. In fact, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to welcome the end of the world and what the Shi'a believe will be the return of the Mahdi. More than a few Israeli military officers have expressed the opinion that Iran cannot be deterred - the threat must be neutralized.

On the other hand, many senior Israelis have made the calculation that Israel cannot wait for an Iranian nuclear attack to take action. They have assessed that Israel may not be able to survive the massive damage to not only the country, but to a sizable portion of the Jewish people. Should they determine that the Iranians are about to act, they will act first.

The question is - will the Israelis use nuclear weapons (either air or submarine delivered) first? If the very existence of Israel is at stake, the question is more than just academic.