Israel’s Offloading of a Big-ticket Sub Is Unprecedented

The military has kept F-16s for 30 years and helicopters and personnel carriers for half a century.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
A German-built Israeli Dolphin-class submarine sails near Tel Aviv during special naval maneuvers ahead of Israel’s 60th independence anniversary, on May 5, 2008.
A German-built Israeli Dolphin-class submarine sails near Tel Aviv during special naval maneuvers ahead of Israel’s 60th independence anniversary, on May 5, 2008.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The army’s multiyear plan, called Gideon, has been drawing intense media scrutiny. Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot’s ambitions to spearhead major reforms, the Locker committee’s caustic analysis of the defense budget, and the annual controversy over that budget’s size have raised outsize public interest in matters usually reserved for the business press.

Eisenkot is portrayed as a revolutionary chief of staff, one willing to take risks. Many of his predecessors starting with Ehud Barak (of the “small and smart army” school) spoke of revolutions and often made changes, but this is the first time in a while the military is undergoing a shake-up.

Eisenkot, not yet one year in office, is apparently operating under the maxim that whatever changes aren’t done early in one’s term will never get done.

Very few areas remain untouched by Eisenkot. The list is long: the publication of a document describing the Israel Defense Forces’ strategy, the setting of strict standards for units' training and preparedness, the cutting of standing-army personnel, the changing of the operations model, the curbing of pensions, and a methodical reduction in rear units such as the military advocate general’s corps, the military rabbinate and the education corps.

In the IDF’s barrage of illustrations of the new program – the spokesman even posted a video on YouTube describing the plan – a significant detail lies hidden. This issue received only cursory attention when presented to journalists in recent days. Israel will augment its fleet of German-made Dolphin submarines when it receives its sixth Dolphin in 2019.

But according to the plan, the IDF no longer plans to keep all six. When the new one arrives the navy will get rid of the first one it acquired in 1999. The question is what should be done with a second-hand submarine in good condition.

The Dolphin project was born in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, when German firms’ links to the military industries of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq became apparent. Israel leveraged a second round of German guilt, receiving from Chancellor Helmut Kohl a gift worth $1.5 billion over two decades, according to some publications.

This is the largest amount of military aid Israel has received from a country other than the United States. Three submarines were delivered and then a deal was signed for delivery of three more subs this decade, ones with prolonged-submersion capabilities.

The Dolphin is the most expensive military gear the IDF possesses. The estimated cost of the newer second model is 400 million euros ($440 million). These subs are considered the long arm of the navy. According to foreign media, they can launch long-range cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

In 2012, when the final deal for supplying the sixth submarine was signed (in which Germany again bore half the cost), Barak, the defense minister at the time, was the moving force. He actually imposed the deal on Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and his predecessor Gabi Ashkenazi.

The backdrop was a potential Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites. If these submarines indeed possess, as reported by foreign news organizations, a “second strike” capability, namely a nuclear strike on an enemy after Israel is attacked with similar weapons in a horror scenario, the size of the fleet is of great importance.

The army’s priorities have changed since the deal for a sixth submarine was signed. According to the IDF’s current estimates, most of its efforts in the coming years will be devoted to battles, and possibly wars, on fronts closer to home: the Palestinians in the territories, jihadi Sunni groups along the border and maybe Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, backed by Iran.

And yet, a decision to give up such an expensive weapon after 20 years is unprecedented. In two years the air force plans to decommission a squadron of second-model F-16s after 30 years in service. Thanks to the wonders of maintenance personnel and defense firms, the IDF still operates helicopters, personnel carriers and other vehicles that will soon mark 50 years of service.

The military notes that maintaining a submarine costs money. This led to the conclusion that there was no justification for six submarines when five can fulfill most objectives.

A senior defense official told Haaretz in recent days that the final decision will be made when the sixth submarine arrives at the end of the decade, “but at the moment it seems five will suffice.” He noted that selling one submarine earlier will guarantee a higher price, and that no objections from Germany are expected.

In the introduction to his excellent new Hebrew-language book about Israel’s defense policies, “The Courage to Win,” MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) describes how the public and politicians are moving away from David Ben-Gurion’s principle of the early 1950s under which security should be based on quality. Defending a country with limited resources depends on “keeping only what’s good, appropriate and what we’ll use when needed against real threats.”

After more than 60 years, Israel’s flip-flopping regarding the sixth submarine suggests that even though Eisenkot and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon are leading the military in the right direction, the earlier lesson is far from being studied and learned.

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