With all the attention in recent days given to short-term political developments, an event with long-term implications for regional strategic balance almost escaped serious attention.
Last Thursday, the high command of the Israeli Navy took part in the delivery ceremony of INS Tanin, Israel's fourth Dolphin submarine, at Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft shipyard in Kiel, Germany. Most of the foreign media reports tend to focus on the rumored special tubes which may also be used by nuclear-tipped missiles. This was the focus of Gunter Grass' poem on Israel's dark plans to annihilate the Iranian population. But the real significance of the new submarines Israel is receiving from Germany, three in all, is the huge boost it will give to Israel's long-range strategic capabilities.
Not only will the three additional subs numerically double Israel's underwater fleet, but the navy is also simultaneously expanding its training course for submariner crews with the eventual goal of having two crews for each ship, rather than one crew per ship that it has today. This will enable a sub to spend more time at sea with a fresh crew, while the other one rests up and prepares back on shore. The first three Dolphins were supplied in the 1990s and are now going through extensive mid-life refurbishments which will equip them for many more years beneath the waves. The new subs are enhanced versions with one major improvement – a new "hybrid" propulsion system which combines the conventional diesel lead-acid battery with an air-independent propulsion electric fuel cell. "Without going into specific details of the new range," explains a senior naval officer, "the new subs will be able to spend much longer time under water without giving its position away, by coming up to the surface to replenish the air in its engine."
Tracking and attacking enemy shipping is only one of the Dolphins roles. A submarine is basically a mobile base for collecting visual and electronic intelligence, dispatching commandos to distant beaches and launching conventional attacks against targets on shore. Almost any future war the IDF may face, be it in Lebanon, Syria, a radicalized Egypt and of course Iran, can be fought from the sea.
The full complement of three new submarines will not be entirely operational until 2016 at the earliest. But since Israeli military planners are already talking about "the next strike on Iran," the one that may be carried out four or five years down the line (after the Iranians rebuild their nuclear program following an Israeli or American attack), the advanced underwater capability is very relevant. Along with the three new submarines, the IDF's most ambitious purchase is a squadron of twenty stealthy F-35s, which in a potential attack would have the role of penetrating air-defenses and carrying out the initial surgical strikes.
But the F-35 is undergoing serious delays in development and early production, and the IAF will probably not have an operational squadron at this rate before 2018. This means that if Iran significantly improves its air-defense system, as can be expected, the next war, or the one after it, could well be launched from underwater.
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