Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has had more than its fair share of foreign naval forces presence to its south but the news of Israeli submarines capable of launching nuclear tipped cruise missiles, being deployed off the Iranian coast permanently should be of deep concern, as it has the potential of a ‘game changer’, besides further ratcheting up instability in a region where death and destruction never really stopped when World War II ended in 1945.
Good intelligence on any Israeli weapon system is hard to come by, shrouded always as they are in utmost secrecy. But as per Global Security, the three submarines in Israel’s 7th Flotilla at Haifa and in the news are INS Dolphin, Leviathan and Tekuma. They were all built at German yard HDW in the 90s with a displacement of 1925 tons.
The first two, valued at $320 millions each were gifted by Germany ostensibly ‘to calm Israeli concerns and compensate Israel for economic losses, since during the first Gulf War, German firms were accused of helping Iraq with its chemical weapons system, which led to protests in both Germany and Israel’.
Some reports suggest that the submarines have a total of ten torpedo tubes; six 533 millimeter which, by and large, is a universal standard for launching anti-ship torpedoes and four 650 millimeters. The four larger tubes could be used to launch nuclear armed submarine launched cruise missile (SLCM) with a range of up to 1500 kilometers. Live firing trials in the Indian Ocean off Sri Lanka in May 2000 with conventional warhead validated this capability.
The larger size tubes have always fueled speculations about nuclear role for these submarines since the standard size would be good enough for conventional weaponry. When questioned in parliament, the Germans confirmed their presence onboard and stated that 50 per cent design rights belonged to Israel as a result it had no ‘design authority’ over the submarine and feigned ignorance about the purpose to which these tubes could be put.
Most experts agree that SLCM onboard the Israeli submarines could be a variant of the Popeye Turbo family with a six kilograms Plutonium warhead. Israel has the industrial capacity to simply elongate the fuel tank associated with a 300-350 kilometers range original missile and achieve the 1500 kilometers run needed to strike its arch enemy Iran.
The submarines have sea endurance of 50 days. They also have two Siemens Polymer Electrolyte Modules (PEMs), hydrogen fuel cells, each with 120 Kw output to keep them submerged without snorkeling for about 21 days. This might make their intended permanent presence in the Gulf difficult with just three submarines to rotate around frequently and undertake essential maintenance.
The sub-surface to surface capability includes US made Harpoon missile with a 227 kilogram payload. In 2003, there were speculations in the US press that Israel had successfully modified the Harpoon cruise missile for use with nuclear weapons on its submarines. This would have required reducing the size of the warhead and altering guidance system in order to strike land targets. Surprisingly, Pakistan was also slapped with a similar charge in the US media last year. Both Israel and Pakistan rejected these speculations.
Lee Willett of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies however feels that the Israeli submarines cruise missile firing capabilities have been somewhat over-estimated.
Israel had always been weary of the Iraqi and Iranian nuclear ambitions. It successfully knocked out the Iraqi facility at Osirak in 1981, which its then Prime Minister Menachem Begin famously authorized with the words ‘ In the name of Zionism, go’. It wanted to repeat the raid against Iranian uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, where 3000 centrifuges are installed and is at the heart of the dispute with UN Security Council. There has never been any let up in what defense experts have dubbed as practice runs by Israel.
IAF flew long range missions over Greece recently amidst reports that another such exercise is planned near Gibraltar. Its F-16Cs have been exercising at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Its Transport fleet has been regulary attending Air Mobility exercises at McChord Air Force Base near Washington which showcases such expertise as airdrops, aerial refueling, and timed aircraft egress.
An Israeli attack on a convoy in Sudan allegedly bound for militants in Gaza earlier this year was significant for precision in striking moving targets at considerable range from home bases. The only thing which has come in its way to attack Iran so far has been a lack of support from US, which more than Israel recognizes that Iran is not the same as Iraq. In 1981, the IAF en route to Osirak, skirted the Saudi Arabian northern airspace outwitting both the Saudi and Jordanian controllers. That has changed in the last three decades. Turkey too is highly unlikely to allow usage of its airspace against Iran.
But another Muslim country Egypt, where the 81 years old president wants to stand for election yet again ( with US blessings, no doubt), may be willing to let the Israeli submarines pass through Suez Canal since it shares with Israel ‘a mutual distrust of Iran’.
The Suez option was not available two or three years ago and the submarines would have had to go around Africa for 30 days thus depleting its 50 days stamina by more than half.
To facilitate this passage for weapons of mass destruction onboard Israeli submarines through Suez by Egypt against another Muslim country is a far cry from the 90s when another Israeli submarine INS Dakar disappeared mysteriously on its homebound voyage after acquisition from UK and the kill was claimed by Egyptian Navy. Such alas are the constantly changing colors of Organization of Islamic Countries’ Kaleidoscope.
Whatever be the self-confidence level of IAF about its long arm, it would appear that the aerial route to Iran is no more a realistic option, and hence Israel’s resort to ‘Undersea Diplomacy’; the title of a popular thriller by Israeli Rear Admiral Sholmo Erell (retd), in which he pans out the scenario of a seaward nuclear attack on Iran by an Israeli submarine.
This long drawn Iranian crisis is now clearly entering a dangerous phase. The Middle East situation was aptly described as ‘very very bad’ by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during a recent visit to Damascus.
The latest twist came when Israel showed US the evidence of delivery of Iranian origin ballistic missiles from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah is already reported to have 20,000 rockets in its inventory. Israel has gone public is stating that Tel Aviv is the most targeted city in the world per square foot. In the event of a military intervention in Iran, the first response could well be from its proxy in Lebanon.
So far, the Israeli Prime Minister has pooh-poohed Obama’s advice to abandon construction of new settlements in Eastern Jerusalem, where the future capital of Palestine might one day be located. If the stakes in Middle East continue to rise as at present, it is quite possible that Israel may finally place the Iranian threat over its settlements plans.
The US diplomacy on Iran isn’t making much headway as patience and time runs out fast on all sides. Obama isn’t likely to win re-election with his health care and taxation policies but he might if he derails the Iranian nuclear programme. The Muslim world will surely go wild in uproar, but only too briefly.
The two questions thus hanging thick in the air: Could the Iranian leadership have played its cards better to provide respite to its wonderful people filled with genuine national pride and whether the Israeli submarines deployed in the Gulf will knock off Iranian nuclear ambitions without actually going to war as Sholmo Erell’s informed fiction fantasizes? Watch this space.
Pakistan meanwhile would do well to keep a sharp eye on that deployment for more reasons than one.
The writer is a retired vice-admiral and former vice-chief of the naval staff. Email: taj khattak@ymail. com