Israel’s Submarines Might Pack a Surprise for Iran

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel has been buying Dolphin class submarines from Germany the last couple of years. Last year, Germany might have even been delaying deals in order to push Israel on the peace process, but as it turns out Israel has gotten more armor from the European giant. In February, it leaked Israel might be buying three more.  That barely amounts to a handful, but the costs make the deal for Israel’s F-35 stealth planes look like a bargain.  Apparently, they cost about $659 million apiece.  But all in all, what could Israel do with merely six submarines?  No other country in the Middle East has that many, but what good does it do compared to the punch planes will have against foes in the field?

What should be appreciated is that Middle Eastern countries have a horrible history keeping navies.  It has been an Achilles’ heel for the past empires of Egypt and the Ottomans in the face of European technology and firepower, going back a millennium.  Facing Crusader threats in the late 1200s (opens PDF), the Egyptian rulers of medieval Palestine decided to literally destroy their own coastline because, “we just can’t defend her.”  Without a navy, they expected to spend infinite sums on maintaining coastal defenses, so they decided to level the fortresses and evacuate the coastal cities, forcing the major fights onto land.

The policy was extremely self-defeating, as it ruined the economic prospects of empires’ different territories and made holding them a chore.  They constantly had to keep troops in the field occupied and interested since they had made places like Ashdod, Yaffo and even southern Lebanon desolate and into a backwater.

Boats & Planes

But with the advent of the air force, is Israel really correcting a historical error by several Middle Eastern powers by investing heavily in this sort of navy?  Planes today effectively represent the navy, even in the United States.  The planes that live on aircraft carriers are actually navy planes.  Israel’s main enemies are adjacent or so close they can be reached in minutes if not seconds.  What do the submarines add?

They add the ability to quietly extend Israel’s reach in the Mediterranean and perhaps even the Persian Gulf.  These submarines can launch torpedoes, and Israel has invested the time into the tests and training on how to shoot them.  In 2000 & 2002, apparently working with India the two countries tested cruise missiles off the coast of Sri Lanka.  The range was thought to be short, but the boats Israel is buying and the ones the orders it’s already received from Germany could fire weapons with much longer ranges like the ones used by the United States.

A cruise missile is much harder to shoot down than a plane, and it takes less work to fire a missile 1,500 kilometers than launching a plane.

Positioning

Ultimately, Israel would have to get these submarines in range to fire.  If Israel had a 1,500-km capable missile, it would be able to hit anywhere in Iran from the Persian Gulf. It’s not an issue. They’ve been there before. But could Israel keep a constant presence in the Gulf at cost and be ready to enter into any battle? Israel only has 4 of its submarines right now. Two more are on the way, but won’t arrive till 2014 & 2016. If Israel goes it alone, does the punch just four offshore secret weapons weigh heavily enough to impact the fight?

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