The Beast: On Board IDF's Most Advanced and Expensive War Machine

Haaretz’s military correspondent joined the crew of INS Rahav, the Israel Navy’s newest submarine, on a brief training cruise. He learned about the unique physical and mental demands of service on the IDF's most expensive war machine, its technological capabilities and why Israeli subs are still off-limits to women.

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The Israel Navy's INS Rahav submarine.
The Israel Navy's INS Rahav submarine. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The commander of Israel Navy Ship Eilat, a Sa’ar-5 class Israeli missile boat, was extremely displeased. For some time, INS Rahav, the navy’s latest Dolphin-2 class submarine, had been cruising in the waters beneath him, at fairly close quarters. The sub occasionally lunged up and trained its periscope on the missile boat. Observers on the boat, whose task is to spot such potential threats, hadn’t noticed the periscope’s tip, which is the size of a fist, on the surface.

The sub was practicing intelligence gathering, using the missile boat and its surroundings as targets; it wasn’t spotted even when sailors from the boat were lowered into the water in a rubber dinghy. The commander of the missile boat sounded rather offended when the Rahav informed him, somewhat late, of its presence, but Lt. Col. Shalom made no effort to apologize. The whole doctrine of submarine activity is based on total secrecy. In an operational mission, the sub’s identification by the enemy could prove fatal. After all, a submarine is not an aircraft, which can take action to cut off any contact with an adversary’s aerial defense system and escape danger within tenths of a second.

Last week’s exercise dovetailed with the farewell cruise of the outgoing commander of Shayetet 7, the Israel Defense Forces submarine squadron, Col. Doron. Military censorship forbids publication of the officers’ surnames.

Indeed, there are few areas in which the country’s defense establishment is so stingy about releasing information. In 1999, when the first German-made Dolphin-class submarines arrived in the country (INS Rahav, which the navy took possession of this year, is the fifth), Western media reported that Israel had equipped the vessels with nuclear cruise missiles. Israel, it was explained, had thus acquired second-strike capability: If Iran were to launch a nuclear weapon at Israel, the Islamic Republic would be the target of a nuclear reprisal, as Israel had an alternative offensive capability that was itself immune to attack.

These are issues that the country’s political and security chiefs never talk about in public. At most they describe them as “media fantasies,” without elaborating.

Accordingly, an attempt to explain in detail the operational activity of INS Rahav, based on observation of a half-day training exercise off the Haifa coast, recalls the fable about six blind men who try to describe an elephant. It’s not because of the short duration of the exercise: A previous cruise, of three days, off the coasts of Norway and Germany aboard Israel’s first Dolphin-class submarine 17 years ago, also produced only partial reportorial results.

Being a submarine commander is a state of mind. You can’t take advice from anyone in the rear. It’s leadership in extreme conditions of uncertainty.

Exclusive club

Doron, the outgoing squadron commander, is 45. Born in South Africa, he immigrated to Israel as an infant with his family and grew up in the Be’er Sheva suburb of Omer and in Rehovot. His naval career began with an officers course, followed by service on missile boats, but he spent the following 22 years on submarines. He will now take a year off for academic studies before being promoted to brigadier general and taking up a sensitive post in the General Staff’s operations directorate. Like Shalom, from the Rahav, he believes that no other assignment in the IDF could afford him the satisfaction he had as a submarine commander. “During my stint as commander, I told myself that it’s really weird that the army is actually paying me to do this,” he notes.

The exercise was part of the long and comprehensive training period for the officer with the rank of major who will succeed Shalom in the near future, at the conclusion of his five years as a submarine commander.

“Rahav” is the name of a sea monster in the Bible, and in conversations with the officers onboard, they harp on the word “monster.” That, in fact, seems like an appropriate word to describe the IDF’s most expensive war machine. The cost of the sixth diesel-electric powered sub that Israel plans to acquire from Germany in 2020 will be in the neighborhood of 400 million euros.

In a long sea deployment, of up to a month, the commander of such a vessel is chiefly and indeed exclusively responsible for the sub itself and for the lives of about 50 people – submariners and others seconded to the vessel. While at sea, contact with his superiors in the rear is minimal at best. The expansion of the IDF’s submarine squadron from three to five (and eventually to six) demands that additional commanding officers be trained. But it’s still a tiny, exclusive club. A naval officer will be marked out as a submarine commander as he approaches the age of 30. By the time his training ends, he will be 32 or 33. There have been two cases in recent years when the training was halted midway through when candidates were considered inappropriate. But no sub commander in Israel has ever been removed in the course of duty.

“Being a submarine commander is a state of mind,” Doron says. “You can’t take advice from anyone in the rear. It’s leadership in extreme conditions of uncertainty. As squadron commander, when I send a sub commander out on a mission, I have to trust him implicitly. He is the one who will decide whether to take action or not. I am a long way away. In a truly problematic situation, there is no one for him to talk to; the next-ranking officer in the chain of command is eight years or more younger. What he has going for him is the tactical preparation I gave him before the mission and the long training process. Ten days might go by before I can talk to him and find out exactly what happened, because speaking to him any earlier could put him at risk [of detection].”

A sleeping cell aboard the Israel Navy's INS Rahav submarine houses seven officers and NCOs. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Shalom confirms this description. “There is no one to tell you what to do out there,” he says. “There’s no checklist that you memorize. What’s permitted today might be prohibited tomorrow.”

Doron, who is analytical both in demeanor and in the way he explains things, draws on terminology from a different sphere. “Commanding,” he observes, “is a spiritual event. It doesn’t come only from a place of authority. They [the crew] know that you will get them back safely and that without you it won’t happen. As such, they have confidence in you. You aren’t always able to give yourself a deep explanation of why you acted as you did. I imagine it’s the same with pilots. I always tell a new submarine commander that his actions have to come from the gut as well as from the head. I remember, as a submarine commander myself, waking up in the middle of the night and jumping out of bed, because in my sleep I had heard someone make an incorrect report over the loudspeaker system.”

Privacy in the toilet? Not really. The door has to remain ajar to allow access, in an emergency, to equipment that’s stored even there.

The long periods spent on a submarine demand an ability to adapt to seriously cramped quarters – even on the new, more spacious models. Only the commander has small, separate quarters of his own, offering a bare minimum of privacy. Seven officers and noncoms squeeze into microscopic berthing compartments, each with a locker for personal equipment. The top-security wing of a prison is less crowded, but of course the company and the conditions are definitely better on the sub. Privacy in the toilet? Not really. The door has to remain ajar to allow access, in an emergency, to equipment that’s stored even there. Silence is a vital condition: Under certain conditions, the noise made by the slamming of a door could reveal the presence of a submarine. When Haaretz photographer Tomer Appelbaum raised his voice for a second, crew members gave him a shocked look.

Nevertheless, there’s high demand to serve on an Israel Navy sub: One of every 10 candidates makes it through the tough classification and integration process, and only one out of two who are accepted to the track itself will finish the course a little more than a year later.

What does the navy look for in a submarine crew member?

Doron: “The ability to delay gratification; the ability to get along with others during an overload of missions and severe crowding. You need people who understand that they can’t quarrel with the person in the position next to them, because afterward they will be together for two weeks or more without being able to disengage. Other requirements are high cognitive ability and self-discipline to allow rapid learning of extensive materials.

“In a mission, the sub is completely self-reliant. Every crewman is also a technician who can deal with hitches in his area of responsibility. Modest types who can delay gratification aren’t enough for me, and I can’t accept brilliant people if they’re incapable of being team players either. Military operations are often compared to sprints or marathons, but on a submarine, it’s a relay race.”

Officers come from two main tracks of military service: either outstanding graduates of naval officers courses (or hovlim; the commander of Shayetet 7 has first pick among them) or crewmen who served as team leaders and became officers relatively late, around the age of 25. A regular submariner gets 13 months of training, signs up for 16 months of career service and ends up doing four years in the IDF. Team leaders serve for seven years and then are eligible for two years of academic studies. In other navies, a crewman signs up for 12 to 20 years of service up front. “In other words,” Doron notes, “my team leaders are 22 years old, compared to 30-plus in other navies.”

About a year ago, Doron took part in a conference in Germany with submarine squadron commanders from 27 other countries. “All 27 colleagues reported staffing problems,” he relates. “Holland and Germany are operating only half of their submarines because of a shortage of professional crewmen. The Italian fleet is also undergoing a serious manpower crisis. The average age of crewmen in those navies is 37. Recently, the Italians opened the submarines to women, to fill the ranks. The fact that our service is shorter probably helps us sign up soldiers.”

But the primary difference in motivation, he suggests, is apparently related to the feeling of a security threat. “With us it’s not work, it’s service,” Doron says. “I imagine that it’s harder to tell submariners in Holland that it’s important for the sake of the homeland.”

One outstanding feature of submarine service is the need for total severance from the outside world during long missions – almost unparalleled in other operational units. Is such a disconnect still feasible in an era when 20-year-olds are as active in the digital world as they are in the real one, if not more? Doron acknowledges that this has become a problem and necessitates more intensive preparation.

The INS Rahav submarine at the Haifa Port.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“In the submariners course, they already can go weeks without a cell phone,” he explains. “They have to undergo a socialization process geared to service on a sub, and that applies to the parents, too. These days, if a parent can’t get hold of their kid for 10 minutes, they’re already calling the police and the hospitals. That’s the level of availability we’ve become accustomed to.

“But,” he continues, “I tell the crewman’s parents: You have to know he won’t be available. And that if I suddenly have to send someone out on sea mission, he won’t be able to call his mother and tell her he’ll be incommunicado for a while, because that could expose the mission. I need the parents to come to terms with their son’s unavailability as part of the deal. At the same time, military service must not become a parental nightmare. That too is part of our contract with them. Parents have the phone numbers of the squadron’s personnel officer; they know that if something happens, we will update them.”

People leave here in order to become physicians, engineers, lawyers. The country needs them in those jobs, too. When a 25-year-old tells me he’s going to study medicine, I don’t try to convince him to stay with me.

Even when the submariner is allowed to be active on the social networks back on land, he is subject to stricter rules of secrecy (which are also the standard in some intelligence units and in the air force). “You come back from a mission of a few weeks opposite the shores of an enemy state,” Doron says. “You’re in a bar with a friend who tells you about an operation in Jenin – but I don’t allow you to say a thing. Nor do I allow you to upload photos of yourself in uniform, and certainly not from the submarine.”

This difficulty becomes more acute when a career man has a family.

Says Doron: “The squadron maintains constant contact with career men’s wives. We talk to each family at least once a week during an operational mission, in order to let them know that everything is fine. We also ask the wives how they are getting along. If they’ve had a burglary and the house is a mess, I will send people from the unit to help out. Also if there’s a problem fixing something that her partner would normally deal with. But things would be even better if we had a contract with a civilian firm that could take care of problems normally handled by the partner who’s on a mission at sea. The cost would be negligible compared to the burden that falls on the family and the need for their support.”

The support of the family is also required when it comes to persuading a crewman to sign up for additional years in the career navy. But not all are required. “I need them as combat personnel until the age of 25,” says Doron. “Afterward, most of them are transferred to reserve service. People leave here in order to become physicians, engineers, lawyers. The country needs them in those jobs, too. When a 25-year-old tells me he’s going to study medicine, I don’t try to convince him to stay with me.”

New challenges and responses

The training mission allows a glimpse, albeit very limited, of the submarine’s tasks and abilities. As part of the mission, it practices intelligence gathering related to the situation on the Haifa coast. A peek into the periscope by an accompanying journalist shows long-range observation and photographic capabilities.

“You can make out the model of a car from a very long way off, and from close range you can know whether the person you’re watching is smoking a cigarette,” Doron says. “You can get close to a place where no one will know you’ve been and execute a specific operation or gather intelligence that’s inaccessible by other means.”

With INS Rahav’s entry into active service, the navy’s sub squadron is operating a significantly large number of vessels simultaneously. Doron: “This situation enhances our operational potential and turns it into something else completely. I can decide to assign a submarine commander to operational activity only. I will want him to think of and initiate operations from morning till night; I won’t want him to deal at all with training and preparing crewmen.”

Doron commanded a submarine in the Second Lebanon War, in 2006: “We had impressive achievements, but I also know what more we could have done and didn’t do. The navy didn’t realize what it was capable of at the time, when it came to waging a battle against an enemy in a way that’s a far cry from classic submarine warfare. We weren’t dealing with destroyers or submariners.”

Part of the change over the years in sub crews’ training and capabilities is due to heightened cooperation with the IDF’s air force and infantry units. Division commanders from other forces are regularly invited to participate in sea deployments, to acquaint them with the submarines’ capabilities, and to devise joint training schemes and afterward joint operational plans.

According to Doron, “The IDF has enough firepower. What’s needed is to locate more high-quality targets, and that’s something we can do, from the sea.”

The political upheaval in the Middle East over the past five years, he notes, has also demanded changes in the nature of the submarines’ activity: “We always need to examine what is relevant and not be afraid to take risks. We’re now doing things that I would never have imagined a year and a half ago. There were cases when operational necessity dictated a new response, by means of submarines, because of their ability to move undetected. In my opinion, we haven’t even scratched the surface of the potential.”

Soldiers in the submariner track don’t get to witness the true essence of the squadron’s activity until their training is completed. In the meantime, Doron tells them to watch movies about submarines.

“There are enough films like that on the National Geographic Channel,” he says. “I won’t reveal details about the essence of the work during the course, because not everyone completes it, and we can’t risk information leaks. The whole story here is to prevent the submarine’s being exposed. Operational tension is very high when the submarine is in enemy territory. True, it’s different from being shot at with an M-16 from the next alley. But when something goes wrong, it happens very fast. The submarine is a small, sealed platform. If the problem isn’t dealt with immediately, you’ll find yourself in trouble very quickly.”

No one here would refuse an order for women to serve on submarines… Possible sexual tension on a long cruise could make it more complex, but that won’t break a submariner – he’s used to giving up a lot of things.

Shalom, the commander of the Rahav, interrupts when Doron is asked about operational activity. “These aren’t things that can be shown,” he says. “This is not an F-16 aircraft, where you can say that it attacked a particular target. If we reveal where we go, they’ll be waiting for us there. The moment a submarine makes a little noise, it’s liable to be exposed. You can still get out safely, but it costs in blood, sweat and tears. There’s no ‘Sorry, we made a mistake’ here. If you’ve been discovered, you are in trouble and that means chaos.”

Doron’s approach is more open. “Ultimately, the Israeli taxpayer should know where his money goes. The submarines are an important element of Israel’s national security. I can’t go into details about everything we do, but people ought to know that this is the most advanced vessel in the Mediterranean. There are many aspects to national security, and public trust is one of them. Openness to the public is like reporting to shareholders. It’s also important for us in terms of recruiting new crewmen. In contrast to the past, I don’t think we can maintain total silence about our activity.”

The navy is due to receive the sixth and final last submarine in the Dolphin project in 2020. Its name, despite the inherent sensitivity, will be INS Dakar, after the Israeli submarine that sank in 1968, with all 69 sailors aboard lost. (It was located in 1999, and the crew’s surviving remains were brought to the surface.) The commander of the navy, Vice Admiral Ram Rothberg, accepted the squadron’s recommendation to adopt the sadly evocative name, Doron says: “Some of the bereaved families were opposed to it. The navy commander and I visited with them to explain our viewpoint. I think the time has come and that it’s a worthy commemoration, especially now that we know where the Dakar sank and what happened.”

A fierce dispute broke out five years ago about the acquisition of the sixth sub. Top IDF brass argued that there was no need for another one, but the defense minister at the time, Ehud Barak, was insistent and persuaded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of its necessity. To date, the project overall has cost 2.5 billion euros. According to officials in the German government, Berlin has subsidized about half the cost. This was a form of belated compensation for the fact that in 1991, in the first Gulf War, German companies were revealed to be involved in the manufacture of chemical weapons for the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The three last submarines to be acquired by the navy – Tanin, Rahav and Dakar – will all have been equipped with air-independent propulsion that precludes the need to surface frequently for atmospheric oxygen; they are also 12 meters longer than their predecessors. The operational life of Dolphin-class submarines is estimated to be 30 years or a bit more. Nevertheless, in a briefing with a senior IDF officer last year, it emerged that the General Staff’s Planning Directorate is readying for the possibility of taking the first submarine, purchased 17 years ago, out of service when the sixth becomes operational. This is apparently related more to the high maintenance costs of submarines than to their lifespans.

For his part, Doron admits that “even within the IDF, we are not yet taken for granted: In general, the army always wants more planes, not subs. Objections always existed, as far back as the period of David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres at the end of the 1950s, but they forced the navy to acquire its first submarines instead of destroyers.”

No women allowed

One thing hasn’t changed since the first Dolphin arrived: In the Israel Navy, submarines are off-limits to women. Women can serve as combat pilots and combat navigators in the air force, and as commanders of missile boats, as artillery commanders and fighters and as combat personnel in the Border Police – but not on submarines (or in infantry assault units or tank crews). In 1999, senior officers promised that the possibility of integrating women on submarines was being examined, but nothing came of it. According to Doron, the possibility was reconsidered recently but with the same conclusions.

“Because of the cramped conditions on submarines, it is impossible to avoid physical contact,” he explains. “There are very few toilet and shower compartments. Some countries, such as Italy and the Scandinavian countries, decided that this need not be a limitation. Women and men dress together in the same room. It’s not perceived as a sexual thing. In Israel, one or two women complete every naval officers course. Conditions on the missile boats are roomier. A small area could be closed off for two women with a bit of privacy. I’m sure that if we were to ask them, some would want to serve on submarines.”

This might be justified if there were a large number of potential female submariners, not just one or two. “We asked the U.S. Navy for input – they’ve had women on submarines for the past two years,” Doron says. “But they have 72 subs, some of which are bigger than ours, so they have room for maneuver. The Australians have six women in their submarines, which are also larger, and they allocate them a specific area. If a woman gets sick, she is replaced by another woman. But assignment problems arise. The Italians concluded that their effort was a failure. Things were better in Denmark, where a woman has already been a submarine commander.

“Discussion on the integration of women on submarines is legitimate,” he continues. “No one here would refuse an order for women to serve on submarines. In my view, though, in the present physical conditions, it would be wrong. If it’s to be done in the future, it has to be planned accordingly. We’ve had women on trial sea deployments and asked them about the dilemmas and complexities they face. It’s not a matter of superstition, as, for example, in the past, there were navies in which sailors took an unfavorable view of women being in certain parts of a ship. It’s also not a matter of restraint. Possible sexual tension on a long cruise could make it more complex, but that won’t break a submariner – he’s used to giving up a lot of things.”

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