Saturday 1 August 2009

A Sub in Suez

It was recently reported that an Israeli submarine passed through the Suez Canal, apparently in an exercise linked to the escalation in tensions with Iran. It felt a little strange to be reading about Israeli naval exercises. The Israeli Navy (IN), after all, seems to be the area of the Israel Defence Force (IDF) that one seems to hear least about. In an attempt to try to redress the balance, I wish to write some words about the IN, and about its submarine fleet in particular.

The IN was established along with the state of Israel in 1948. Its first ship was "A16", an old reconditioned American icebreaker. A16 would later become the INS Eilat and see service in the War of Independence. Eilat was later joined by other ships that were originally illegal immigrant ships, and were later reconditioned to join the IN. IN ships were in action during all of Israel's wars and military operations. Unfortunately, INS Eilat was lost during a routine patrol in October 1967. She was struck by four missiles 14 miles east of Port Said with the loss of 47 out of the 199 crew on board.

Today, the IN fleet numbers approximately 85 water craft to protect its 273 kilometre-long coastline. The craft include Corvettes, missile boats, patrol boats, commando boats, support ships and of course submarines. Naval bases are located in Haifa, Ashdod, Eilat and Atlit with the naval headquarters at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv.

The IN currently has three submarines in its fleet. They are all Dolphin class- Type 800 coastal submarines based at the Haifa naval base. Two of the submarines were acquired in 1999 with the third a year later. All three submarines were acquired with the help of German military financing. Prior to the Dolphins, Israel relied on three Gal-class subs. Two of its three decommissioned Gal-class submarines were reported to have arrived at a German shipyard in 2003 for refit and modernisation. They are due to be reactivated for the IN.

There has been significant interest in the weapons capabilities of the Dolphin-class submarines. The submarines were reported to have been delivered to Israel including standard missiles for such a vessel i.e. four 650mm torpedo tubes. It is believed that the missile systems were adapted and that the submarines were fitted with cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads. The range of the missiles fitted to the submarines is unconfirmed and also the subject of much speculation. There are those who claim that Israel fired a cruise missile in a test in the Indian Ocean in 2000. This missile, which is claimed to be nuclear-capable, was reported to have hit targets 1,500 kilometres away. This has been denied by the IN. Ongoing reports of missile tests by the Israeli submarine fleet, and its unsuccessful attempts to acquire US Tomahawk cruise missiles at the end of the Clinton presidency continue to fuel discussion and speculation. It is widely believed that Israel will have the ability to fire nuclear weapons from its submarines if this is not already the case. At the end of 2005, the German government also approved the sale to Israel of two additional Dolphin-class submarines.

It is difficult to write about Israel's submarine fleet without mentioning the sad story of INS Dakar. She sank on her maiden voyage from Portsmouth to Haifa following an extensive refit in 1968 with loss of all 69 crew members. Her last reported position was in the Eastern Mediterranean not far from the Greek island of Crete. For many years, the location of the Dakar and the reason for her sinking were unknown. The remains of the Dakar were finally discovered in 1999, but the cause of her sinking remains a mystery.

The story of the submarine crossing the Suez Canal made world headlines for a number of reasons.
1. It is well known that the submarines are based in Haifa and the IN has made it clear that there is no intention to base submarines in Eilat. If this is the case, the submarine was clearly on its way to another undisclosed destination south of the Red Sea. This gives rise to speculation about where the sub was going, and for what purpose.
2. Israeli submarines are not known to have sailed through the Suez Canal before. This act, with the canal under Egypt's control, demonstrates ongoing Egyptian cooperation with Israel and its military activities.
3. The submarine sailed unsubmerged through the canal indicating that the Israelis were not attempting to hide the sub from Egypt or others who may have been watching.
4. With the escalation of the hostilities with Iran over its nuclear program, this was viewed as a show of strength against Iran.

As is often the case with Israeli military exercises, it is difficult to know precisely what is intended. We will be sure to keep a watch for any further activities.

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