By Yaakov Lappin/JNS.org
Silently cruising in the depths of the seas, near and far from Israel’s Mediterranean coastline, the Israeli Navy’s growing submarine fleet conducts missions that are shrouded in secrecy and are considered essential for national security.
Currently, the navy has five German-made Dolphin submarines, with a sixth due for delivery in 2019.
After arriving in Israel, the platforms receive advanced communications and weapons systems that are produced by Israeli defense companies, and which are specially tailored for the navy’s needs.
During routine times, the submarines are primarily engaged with intelligence-gathering missions, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, former national security advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told JNS.org.
“The submarines have a uniqueness that no other vessel has,” said Amidror, a senior fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies think tank.
“As soon as it is underwater, its location cannot be tracked,” he added. “It can reach any coastal location, and poke out a periscope [for visual intelligence] or an antenna, to listen in [on communications].”
In wartime, submarines continue with intelligence-gathering, and can also be ordered to block enemy ports or target hostile ship traffic at sea.
If submarines can rendezvous with a large ship, refueling the submarines and resupplying their sailors with food, the submarines’ range and mission length is theoretically “almost endless,” Amidror said.
Yet recently, the submarines made headlines for all the wrong reasons after Israeli media outlets accused government decision-makers of being in a conflict of interest when they ordered three additional submarines from German manufacturer ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS).
The controversial order is designed to replace Israel’s three oldest submarines with state-of-the-art vessels, enabling the Jewish state to maintain a modern fleet of six submarines.
But the fact that Netanyahu’s personal attorney, David Shomron, represents TKMS in Israel led to a media firestorm in recent weeks, despite denials by the prime minister and by Shomron of any improper decision-making or undue influence during the acquisition.
Subsequent revelations that Iran holds a 4.5-percent share in TKMS did nothing to allay concerns. But Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman asserted that Iran’s financial involvement in the company has long been known and poses no security risk.
The fact that Germany—conscious of its dark past—sells submarines at a reduced rate to Jerusalem likely plays a major role in Israel’s decision to keep buying German-made vessels. The submarines are, according to media reports, capable of carrying nuclear missiles, thereby reportedly greatly enhancing Israeli power projection and second strike capability in the event of an exchange with a nuclear-armed foe.
In October 2015, Netanyahu flew to Germany with Yossi Cohen, former head of the Israeli National Security Council and current director of the Mossad overseas intelligence agency, to discuss the purchase of the three additional submarines with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A year later, a framework agreement between Israel and Germany was signed.
Throughout the current controversy, the Israeli submarines and their on-board crews have continued to prowl the depths of the seas, spending long periods away from their home port at the Haifa naval base.
The vessels’ activities remain a closely guarded secret, and according to Yiftah Shapir, head of the Middle East Military Balance Project at the Tel Aviv University-affiliated Institute for National Security Studies think tank, there is no telling what the submarines are actually doing on any given day.
“One of the problems when discussing the question of whether to acquire three more submarines is that I, as a researcher, cannot say anything [about what they do]. I really do not know,” Shapir told JNS.org.
“In open sources, there is no information whatsoever on the roles played by submarines, other than occasional references to patrols and intelligence gathering,” said Shapir. “And foreign sources say that they enable Israel’s nuclear deterrence. But as a researcher, I have a problem, because I really cannot say what they do….I cannot explain why Israel needs the submarines. It is possible that they are very much needed. It is possible they are not.”
Referring to the three new-age Dolphin submarines that have already started entering service, Shapir said that during discussions about acquiring them, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) General Staff was against the purchase and the Defense Ministry was in favor of it.
“This shows that a big part of the General Staff of the IDF is not aware of their roles. And that only the defense minister and a few others can decide, and say that they are more important than Namer (armored personnel carriers), Merkava tanks and other things,” Shapir argued.
Nevertheless, sources from the Israel Navy have dropped significant hints about their roles.
In March 2015, for example, a naval source said submarines had conducted dozens of covert operations off enemy shores, according to the Jerusalem Post.
"We conducted a series of operations in various sectors. Some lasted weeks," the source said in the report.
The two latest additions to the fleet, second-generation Dolphin submarines, use an advanced means to move around, called Air Interdependent Propulsion (AIP), meaning that they can travelunderwater for longer and further without the need to resurface frequently to charge their electrical batteries.
The latest submarine which came into service in 2016, the INS Rahav, joins its fellow vessel, the INS Tanin—both AIP submarines—in carrying out covert missions based on their increased submersion capabilities.
It seems safe to assume that Israel’s submarines and their crews are in the midst of many secretive missions at this very moment, far away from the stormy public debate about them back on land. From the navy’s perspective, the fact that so few know what the submarines are doing is a central aspect of mission success.