Ha'aretz Daily Newspaper Tuesday, June 9, 1998

Swimming with the Dolphins

Israel's new Dolphin submarines, built in Germany, will add a new dimension to the nuclear arms race in the Middle East
  By Yossi Melman

At the beginning of 1999, when the navy will bring into active service the first of three Dolphin submarines constructed at German shipyards, the Middle East arms race will take on new proportions. One submarine, whose construction already is complete, is now conducting exercises in the North Sea. According to official navy reports, 45 crew members will serve on the Dolphin. It is 75 meters long and is powered by diesel and electric engines. Its carrying capacity while under water 1,700 tons. According to the same reports, the Dolphin will be fitted with pipes for launching 10 torpedoes.

Public discourse recently has centered on the implications of the Pakistani and Indian nuclear experiments on Israel and the Middle East in general. Most experts agree that the experiments on the Indian subcontinent will spur Iran in its attempts to arm itself with nuclear weapons, and subsequently, Iraq as well. According to American and Israeli intelligence estimates, Iran will have the capability to manufacture a nuclear bomb in another five to seven years.

This served as the background for a number of media scenarios, which centered on what Israel can do to prevent additional countries from going nuclear. This was the concept that guided Prime Minister Menachem Begin in June 1981 when he ordered the Israeli Air Force to bomb and destroy the Iraqi nuclear reactor, Tamuz. Based on the prime minister's reasoning, Israel has formulated the "Begin doctrine," that Israel will not allow any country in the Middle East to lay its hands on nuclear weapons.

It is generally accepted throughout the world that Israel has had nuclear weapons for more than a quarter of a century. (A new book, soon to be published in the United States, claims that Israel already had nuclear weapons during the Six-Day War, in 1967.) Israel's nuclear monopoly gave it its deterrent ability and military-psychological edge over its enemies. The loss of the nuclear hegemony even if it does not actually threaten Israel's existence certainly would threaten Israeli military superiority and its ability to dictate political conditions and settlements with the Arab world. The assumption by experts is that Israel will do everything in its power to prevent countries like Iran or Iraq from leveling the balance of terror. Consequently, there are those in the West who believe that sooner or later, Israel is likely to decide on a preemptive attack on Iran's nuclear sites, to keep it from developing nuclear weapons.

A number of Israeli leaders have dropped hints in that direction, as did former Air Force commander Major General Herzl Bodinger. What is clear is that it will not be an easy task. Iran has studied the lessons of the Israeli attack on the reactor near Baghdad: its nuclear installations are scattered over a number of different sites, unlike the situation in Iraq. But it can be assumed that all the difficulties notwithstanding, Israel's air force has the operational ability, with F-16 planes, to seek out and destroy these sites.

Under the assumption that it is not possible to prevent Iran from purchasing military nuclear capability, experts estimate that the Middle East will find itself embroiled in a nuclear arms race. This could mean the development of second nuclear strike capability.

According to foreign reports, Israel has always tried not to lag behind the state-of-the-art technology, and it is among the leaders in the world in the development of scientific and technological advances. Those reports also claim that Israel has a large array of such capabilities or the technological ability to attain them. According to American intelligence estimates, Israel has about 200 atom bombs, apparently including neutron bombs as well. It has varied means of launching, from planes and missiles. According to foreign reports, Israel has Jericho ground-to-ground missiles, Gabriel sea-to-sea missiles, and at least the knowledge and ability to develop cruise missiles.

The Washington Post, in an article eight years ago, quoted American and Western European intelligence experts and strategists "who claim that submarines could give Israel second nuclear strike capability." The article stated that "if Arab forces succeed in striking the nuclear reactor at Dimona, ground-to-ground missiles and air force bases, Israel could still respond with a cruise missile launched from a submarine."

The same article quoted two experts, Paul Rogers of Bradford University in England and Seth Kraus of the Naval College of Rhode Island, who estimated that Israel already then had the knowledge and technology necessary to develop a cruise missile. The cruise missile is unique in its capability to move along a set course at a low altitude, until it hits its target. That is why it is so hard to hit or intercept.

The American and West European experts estimate that if Iran or Iraq do attain nuclear weapons, Israel will not be able to stand aside and see the foundation of its deterrence undermined. While participation in the nonconventional arms race is costly, international experience in general, and recently that of the Indians and Pakistanis, shows that occasionally countries can be drawn into such a race to attain or conserve superiority or as the result of the over-ambitiousness of policy-making bureaucrats and technocrats.

The need to replace the old fleet of navy Gal submarines arose in the 1970s. A small book, published by the submarine flotilla organization, tells the story of the efforts to obtain new submarines. A committee headed by Major General Yisrael Tal, known to favor the development of advanced weapons systems, discussed the issue and recommended that the navy equipment be renewed. Practical preparations began in 1979, while Rafael Eitan was chief of staff. Under Eitan's guidance, a delegation set out in 1981 to locate suitable shipyards. However, despite the recommendations of the Tal committee, and the support of Chief of Staff Moshe Levy, who succeeded Eitan, and Minister of Defense Yitzhak Rabin, the execution was delayed. Officers of the General Staff objected to the submarine initiative, considered it superfluous and that it would cost money that could be better used for more important equipment.

In 1989, the German government decided to allow Israel to construct its submarines in one of its shipyards, but it was not clear where the funding would come from. Israel wanted to take the money from the American aid budget, but there were objections in the United States to funding a venture that would only benefit the German economy. Eventually, U.S. President George Bush's administration agreed to grant the money needed, after it became clear that there was no American shipyard capable of building the submarines for Israel. In February 1990, the first payment was made, and in August the second. But on November 30, 1990, Minister of Defense Moshe Arens decided to cancel the venture. It turned out that despite the American aid, Israel would have to pay for a considerable part of the deal out of its own defense budget.

Arens' decision was made as part of a series of cutbacks in the defense budget forced on him by the government. There was great agitation in the navy as a result. Navy commander Michah Ram said that being told of the cancellation was the worst moment in his life. Senior submarine flotilla members protested. They published an ad in the papers and, led by Brigadier General Yisrael Leshem, former commander of the submarine flotilla, demonstrated in front of the prime minister's office in Jerusalem. The protest was to no avail. A few months later, however, the defense cabinet met and canceled the defense minister's order. The cabinet decided to provide funds to build the submarines.

The decision to save the venture was brought about by the Gulf War, which began in January 1991. The German government, which felt guilty following disclosure that German companies had supplied the materials for Iraq's nonconventional weapons program including chemical weapons announced that it would fund the construction of two submarines for Israel. Colonel (Res.) Mike Eldar relates in his book, "Dakar," that consequently the two subs are known in the navy as "Sadaam" and "Hussein." Israel decided to pay for the third submarine itself.

There was a good reason for the navy to stress that the submarines were needed for more than just the navy. Former navy commander Major General Avraham Botzer, interviewed on "A New Evening" on Channel 1 in December 1990, made sure to couch his message in general terms. "The submarines must be a means of the State of Israel, not just the navy," he said. "Submarines all over the world serve as part of the deterrent system against nonconventional warfare," he added. "They are a way of guaranteeing that the enemy will not be tempted to strike preemptively with nonconventional weapons, and get away scot-free.

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