A long-running criminal investigation by Israel Police against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, dubbed Case 3000, hit the headlines in November as the most significant corruption scandal to ever affect the sensitive field of defense acquisitions.

After a lengthy investigation, the Israel Police recommended that 12 senior officials, including Netanyahu’s personal attorney, stand trial for corruption-related charges.

The alleged offenses occurred during contacts between German ship-builders Thyssenkrupp and the Israeli government for the purchase of a sixth Dolphin-class submarine, as well as four German-made Sa’ar 6-class missile ships, designed to protect Israel’s gas-drilling rigs in the Mediterranean Sea.

The investigation also touched on talks that centered around a planned future acquisition of three more submarines from Thyssenkrupp that are supposed to replace the first three 1990s’-era Dolphin submarines in Israel’s fleet.

The media and political firestorm that followed the police’s announcement included questions about the nature of the naval platforms that Israel is looking to buy, with some commentators casting doubt on whether Israel needed a fleet of six submarines.

A submarine is the most expensive platform that Israel can buy, significantly surpassing the costs of other advanced platforms, such as fighter jets. Their ability to move invisibly means they be used to covertly gather intelligence on enemy activities, approach enemy coastlines and strike targets with precision missiles—of the standoff strike variety and long-range torpedoes. According to international media reports, they are also a key aspect of Israel’s nuclear deterrent and second-strike capability.

According to Professor Rear Admiral (Ret.) Shaul Chorev, head of the Haifa Research Center for Maritime and Policy Strategy at the University of Haifa, the platforms in question represent the cutting-edge capabilities of naval warfare and will serve Israel’s defense needs long into the future.

In a special interview for JNS, Chorev, a former Israel Navy Submarine Flotilla commander and the first project manager of Dolphin submarines at German shipyards, drew a separation line between the ethical questions that the investigation exposed, which he said needed to be addressed, and Israel’s genuine needs for the submarines.

“No one with the submarine insignia [on his uniform] was involved with this,” he stressed.

Losing strategic depth

Irrespective of the investigation, “the State of Israel is losing its strategic depth,” said Chorev. “Today, the country is at risk from missiles from all directions. As [Hezbollah chief Hassan] Nasrallah has said, they can strike targets from northern Israel to the Dimona nuclear core. They know all of Israel’s strategic targets. Hence, identifying the sea as the source of added Israeli strategic depth is what is needed.”

In light of the growing threats to surface Navy vessels, especially near coastlines and in asymmetric warfare, submarines with their underwater stealth capability are turning into the modern-day elite force, he argued, and modern naval powers around the world are increasingly relying on them to conduct roles once reserved for surface naval ships, like cruisers and destroyers.

Chorev, a former deputy chief of naval operations and ex-commanding officer of the Haifa Naval Base, traced the deep roots of Israeli-German cooperation on submarine purchases.

Professor Rear Adm. (Ret.) Shaul Chorev, head of the Haifa Research Center for Maritime and Policy Strategy at the University of Haifa. Credit: Zehavit Meir Salman.

Israel, he said, began thinking about buying Dolphin submarines as far back as 1980. For many years, the only real question among those determined to expand Israel’s fleet was whether the Navy should receive five or six submarines.

“Even in 1950s, Yosele Dror [the first commander of Israel’s submarine flotilla] talked about six submarines,” Chorev recalled, speaking in his office at the University of Haifa.

Additionally, he said, there has traditionally been a big gap between the view held by prime ministers and several defense ministers, who grasped the strategic importance of submarines, and the view of chiefs of staff and general staff. The latter often grappled with urgent budget needs and immediate demands, factors that caused them to resist expanding the fleet.

Back in 1960, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion met with Germany’s Chancellor Konrad Adenauer at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York and requested an agreement to purchase advanced German submarines for the Israeli Navy.

Following the Lebanon War in 1982, the growing importance of underwater warfare was becoming evident, as were the ways in which submarines could compensate for the restrictions faced by surface ships, related Chorev. “The events of the Yom Kippur War also contributed to this understanding,” he added. “Submarines started, in the 1980s, to be equipped with long-range cruise missiles like the Tomahawk and the Harpoon, and with a long-range advanced torpedo. Hence, their importance rose.”

At that time, Israel had three Gal-type British-made submarines, which were manufactured in at the start of the 1970s and began arriving in Israel from the mid-1970s.

In 1983, after series of successful submarine operations, officers from inside the Navy, led by Navy Chief Adm. Ze’ev Almog, began lobbying the Chief of Staff at the time, Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan, to buy a fourth submarine. “Raful [Eitan’s nickname] simply said: Fine, go and buy it,” recalled Chorev, who commanded the submarine flotilla at the time.

That year, Chorev joined a Ministry of Defense delegation to the United States, which signed a contract for Sa’ar 5 missile ships and for a fourth submarine. The delegation visited a German shipyard, which rejected the Israeli request to buy submarines, due to political obstacles.

The delegation then traveled to the United States, visiting Quincy shipyards south of Boston, and met with a willingness to build submarines for Israel. But the shipyard soon ran into resistance from the U.S. Navy, which by then was fully based on nuclear-powered submarines and concerned that production of diesel-powered submarines, as Israel wanted, would begin changing its fleet. The delegation returned to Israel empty-handed.

It recommended that Israel focus on kick-starting the Dolphin project since Israel had already mapped out this future vessel’s requirements.

In 1987, a committee of experts recommended that Israel purchase two Dolphin submarines at Germany’s shipyards.

In 1990, the possibility of purchasing submarines from Germany once again surfaced after a new ruling party took power in Germany. The proposal faced resistance from the deputy chief of staff at the time, Ehud Barak, who highlighted the lack of air-force squadrons and the rising tensions with Iraq to the east. He demanded to know why $360 million of American military assistance funds would go to submarines at such a time.

Moshe Arens, the defense minister at the time, simply said: “I will decide on this later,” recalled Chorev.

Arens decided to purchase two German-made Dolphin submarines and reserve an option for a third submarine, and a contract was signed. But then, on Nov. 30, 1990, on the last day it could, Israel—concerned by the need to divert funds to deal with the military threat from Iraq—canceled the contract.

“I was with the Israeli team at the shipbuilding site [at HDW Shipyards in Kiel, Germany],” recalled Chorev. “We took this very badly.”

Germany’s missile shame

The Gulf War broke out, and Germany found itself deeply embarrassed by the fact that Iraqi missiles, developed with the help of Germany companies, were raining down on Israel.

“We had Holocaust survivors sitting in sealed rooms with missiles arriving that could have contained gas. They were saying, ‘The Germans are doing this again,’ ” said Chorev.

“Germany’s foreign minister at that time, Hans Dietrich-Genscher, visited Israel during the Gulf War, and said, ‘It is clear to me that we have to do something.’ At this stage, the defense establishment in Israel spoke clearly and told the Germans, ‘We want you to fund this project.’ The Germans contributed 850 million marks—the shame the Germans felt was so big. Chancellors Helmut Kohl accepted this arrangement,” related Chorev.

A new contract was signed, and Germany funded two of Israel’s first-ever Dolphin submarine—a new type of platform that represented a generational leap forward compared to the German shipyard’s export version of the flagship 209 vessel type at that time.

“We wanted a unique submarine that would answer all of our future naval needs,” said Chorev.

Israel’s requirements and specifications led the Germans to construct a submarine that was the first of its type and class. This changed Germany’s own capabilities, too, and German officials have since credited this encounter with Israel as a milestone in “getting them into the 21st century, with this model of submarines,” added Chorev. “Until then, they kept extending their existing submarine.”

The new Dolphins came with modern combat, command and control, and machine control systems.

Israeli Navy soldiers board the Israeli Dolphin-class submarine in Haifa on Sept. 7, 2009. Photo by Moshe Shai/Flash90.

In 1992, the Chief Commander of the Israeli Navy, Ami Ayalon, decided to purchase a third submarine and ran into wall-to-wall resistance from the IDF General Staff.

Yet Ayalon received the backing of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who overrode the general staff, and Israel and Germany divided the funding for the project 50/50. “The military told Ayalon, you [the Navy] are going to absorb the cost for this from your own budget. It will cost you $120 million. There was lots of anger in the Navy about this,” said Chorev.

Despite these hurdles, the first Dolphin submarine arrived at Haifa base in 1999, marking the start of a new era for Israel’s naval capabilities.

As soon as he was elected into power in 1996, Netanyahu grasped the significance of submarines, Chorev said, and “recognized the importance in having a fleet.”

Five years later, in 2002, Ariel Sharon as prime minister set a policy of having five submarines, continuing Netanyahu’s view.

“Sharon saw the need. And one of the things that stood out to him was American nuclear subs, which could cruise stay submerged for a long period of time and travel around the Earth without needing to rise up to periscope depth. The Dolphins 1 to 3 had a weak spot; they could only remain deeply submerged for a few days before having to reach periscope depth to recharge their batteries. This limited their survivability,” explained Chorev.

By this time, Germany’s HDW shipbuilders had developed a new version of their type 212-class submarines that came with Air Independent Propulsion (AIP), which generates electricity from hydrogen and water. The diesel-powered submarine used new Siemens fuel cells. “This lets the submarines remain submerged for a few more days, and is a very quiet system [evading enemy sonar detection],” said Chorev.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who succeeded Sharon as acting premier after Sharon’s stroke, approved the purchase of two AIP Dolphins, bringing the fleet to a total of five. He found at himself at odds with the chief of staff at the time, Dan Halutz, who “said there are more important things,” recalled Chorev. “Olmert said, ‘This is my decision.’ ” The familiar pattern of prime ministers overriding the general staff on submarines repeated itself.

German Chancellor and European Union president Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert attend a welcoming ceremony on March 16, 2008, at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90.

In 2005, a new German government under Chancellor Angela Merkel had taken power, allowing the decision by Sharon and Olmert to build Israel’s fourth and fifth submarines to go ahead. This included a commitment by Germany to fund a third of the project.

Netanyahu then returned to power in 2009 and called for the purchase of a sixth Dolphin submarine, clashing with the IDF over the matter.

“This is the time that the corruption investigation begins looking at. If you have an agreement between states, why was an agent needed? Why were agents involved? This question is correct. There is no need for agents [to act as intermediaries],” said Chorev.

“But there is no connection between that and Israel’s need for a sixth submarine. Netanyahu thought we needed six submarines. A ministerial commission for acquisition approved this unanimously,” he added.

“The fourth, fifth and sixth Dolphins have technology from the early 1990s, so it is clear that the next three will be their successors. This time, we have to start from scratch, and the process of designing them will take much longer. It’s not just about inserting AIP systems,” said Chorev.

At no point did Netanyahu mean for Israel to have nine submarines, he stressed. The next three submarines will replace the first three Dolphins, and they will come with new engine designs, generators and a range of technology to replace systems that have become obsolete.

“If we once talked about looking through a periscope, now everyone is talking about an optronic [electronic-sensor] system,” he said. “The Israeli Navy must make a technological leap forward.”

“We finished the specifications of the Dolphin submarine in 1980. The first Dolphin arrived 17 years later, in 1997,” said Chorev, underlining just how long it takes to design and construct new submarines, which will serve in the Israeli Navy for the next 30 years.

This means that the time frame for the next generation of Dolphin submarines is tight.

In fact, naval teams are still working closely with German shipbuilders in an effort to make sure that Israel stays ahead of its many challenges in the underwater arms race.