Israel Navy's Submarine Fleet: An Intimate but Demanding Unit

The navy's submarine fleet is due to triple in size in the coming years. A glance into the intense lifestyle of soldiers in this most secretive unit.

The Israel Navy's submarine fleet is one of the Israel Defense Forces' most intimate units. The atmosphere in the unit derives not only from the nature of its missions, which require several dozen men to remain together underwater in an iron tube for many long days, but also because very few soldiers serve in the unit.

In the coming decade, the fleet is to undergo a revolution. It will start when two upgraded versions of the Dolphin submarine join the ranks in the coming two years. But the most significant change will be the expansion of the fleet's manpower from the three existing teams to ten teams by the year 2018. This will allow the fleet to carry out many more long-range missions.

Israeli Navy submarine simulator Sept. 27, 2010 Alon Ron
Alon Ron

In the past few years, as the hidden battle intensified against arms shipments from Iran to Hezbollah and Hamas, the navy has taken over from the air force the role of the IDF's long arm. "From our perspective, the professional achievement of an underwater commando is to be part of the first crew to go into a new arena and study it in depth," says one officer, with a smile.

The IDF rarely publishes details about the submarines' operations, but according to foreign publications, in addition to collecting intelligence and conventional sea warfare, the three Dolphins are equipped with both torpedoes and the ability to launch guided missiles armed with a nuclear warhead. When a Dolphin submarine passed through the Suez Canal a few months ago, the foreign media interpreted this as an intention to station an Israeli submarine in the Persian Gulf.

Secrecy is second nature to the submarine crews. "There are many missions where we ourselves don't know what exactly we are supposed to do," says a former soldier who recently completed his service in the unit. "We get an order to reach a certain spot and that's it. Much of the time, even the officers understand what they were doing there only after the mission."

Cut off from the world

The soldiers begin experiencing isolation already at the initial stages of their training. The training school is part of the busy general Navy training base in Haifa, but their commanders make sure the atmosphere is closed and isolated, like that of basic training in the desert 20 years ago.

"They come for three weeks and the moment they enter, they hand over their cellphones," explains the commander of the school, Maj. Yisrael. "They can speak with their parents once a week, on Fridays, from a public telephone."

Demand to join the unit has increased in recent years, and five recruits now compete for every place. However, more than 40 percent drop out during the first few months. "I take them to see a submarine at the beginning of the course," says Maj. Yisrael. "I tell them that's the place they will live for four and a half years [since submarine crewmen sign on for an additional year and a half of career army service]. There are some who leave the course voluntarily at the beginning because they feel it's not sufficiently combative. They want to see the white of the enemy's eyes."

During the first four and a half months of the course, the trainees at the base are permitted to move only between the school building, the dining hall and their dormitories. Anyone who leaves the area is punished. "They will live in a submarine for periods of 18 to 30 days," Yisrael explains. "If we catch them speaking to someone else on the base, the first time they do so they will receive a warning, the second time they will be severely punished, and the third time we will simply have to say goodbye to them."

He explains that "during the first few months, the instructors are with the trainees all the time and they are under 24-hour surveillance. We see who gets irritated, who is careless, how they work and talk with one another. We take note of the most minute details, and punish them for everything. A submariner has to understand that he has left behind his entire civilian life. This is discipline and meticulousness at a completely different level."

During the 13 months of training, the soldiers are required to memorize thousands of pages of complicated technical details, and learn not only to operate their own combat positions but also to repair them underwater if necessary. "We look for people who value fellowship, and show responsibility and technical skills," Yisrael says, "but mainly people who are able to learn a huge quantity of material in a short period. Even after they complete the course, they study all the time in the submarine."

During the first stage of the course, the soldiers still go out on marches, mainly in order to create a feeling of camaraderie and team spirit, but later the physical side is emphasized less. Submarine crewmen are defined as combat soldiers in every sense, but in terms of weapons training they undergo the same course as non-combat soldiers ("Gunner 02" ). Their combat experience takes place in shorts and T-shirts opposite flickering screens, but they are sent to the most dangerous of arenas, far from the Israel's borders.

1,900 tons under the sea

In order to expand the training possibilities, two advanced simulators were built in the past two years; the trainees practice there for hundreds of hours before they go out on an operational mission. The simulators accurately imitate the combat positions in the submarine's operational spaces: the combat information center from which all operational systems are deployed and the technical center that controls the 1,900-ton submarine's engineering systems.

Navy submarine 2008 Tomer Appelbaum
Tomer Appelbaum

In the technical center, one can generally find a helmsman and two operators (one junior and one senior ) as well as a duty officer. They will be the first who need to react in case of an emergency such as water penetrating the submarine or other physical damage. When there is a real fear of serious damage to the vessel, they have to carry out an emergency weapons delivery, and the submarine then empties all its containers simultaneously and surfaces immediately.

The combat information center simulator is defined as a tactical trainer that is capable of creating a scenario of an entire operational mission. It includes 60 computers and setting it up, which is nearing completion, has taken more than a year. The project cost some NIS 30 million.

The center has two periscopes that enable the men to look out of the submarine, a radar detection position, control and supervision positions, weapons, sonar and a navigation table. In a routine sailing, two officers and five other crew members man the center. One officer always has an eye glued to the periscope, and the senior officer in the group is the duty officer effectively in charge of the submarine at a given moment. In addition to the submarine's commander, the team includes three officers who can fulfill this task. "This officer has immense responsibility," explains one submarine officer. "You are close to a hostile shore, looking through the periscope alone at a target, and if you are discovered you have only a few seconds to respond and make a decision."

During an operation, the tiny combat center is filled with some 20 officers and other crew members. "Everyone here knows exactly where he has to stand and when to talk," explains Major Menahem, the commander of the simulator who was the deputy commander of a submarine until a year ago. "It is very crowded here but also very quiet. Messages are conveyed by glancing or uttering one word."

Only some of the people in the center have a chair or a screen of their own. Even the commander of the submarine does not have a chair when there is an emergency, and generally takes his place somewhere between the two periscopes from where he can see all the most important screens. The rest of the crew know which positions they have to take so they can view relevant information without getting in each other's way.

Everything is documented

A large part of the submarines' work is gathering intelligence. The fleet does not give out details relating to the technical capabilities of the detectors and cameras on the two periscopes, or the distance from shore at which they can operate. "Let's just say that I can see inside people's homes," says Maj. Menahem. "We synchronize the equipment with the traffic lights on the coastal highway."

The tactical simulator allows a wide variety of training possibilities, from preparing an individual for the specific position he will man in the submarine to training future team heads and duty officers, and also entire crews. The simulator's instructors feed the positions with the mission plan and unexpected situations. All activities are filmed and after the training session they go to a debriefing room to examine their moves. The facility makes it possible to create an entire mission for the crew, both of the routine and emergency types.

The simulator has also enhanced the competence test that crewmen have to pass every year. The test begins with a variety of scenarios on the simulator, and then Maj. Yisrael and several instructors go out with the crew on a three-day test at sea.

The officers and crew members who will man the fourth Dolphin, which is due to arrive from a German shipyard next year, are currently undergoing training. The fifth submarine will arrive in Israel in 2012. At this stage, the navy is planning to train two crews for every submarine. The main obstacle today to keeping the submarines at sea for longer periods is the need for crews to rest, study, prepare for operations and spend time with their families.

In the future, the navy plans that the moment a submarine returns to base, it will fuel and leave again with a fresh crew. In numerical terms, manpower will be trebled. Veteran officers in the unit - in its 51 years of existence only some 2,000 officers and combatants have served there - are afraid that, at the same time as the unit increases its operational strength, something of the familial feeling will be lost.