DIGITAL ARTICLE | COMMENTARIES by: Debalina Ghoshal

Every country actively involved in developing nuclear-capable missile capabilities aspires to possess sea-based deterrence to strengthen their posture vis-à-vis adversaries. Nuclear weapon states like Britain and France rest their nuclear deterrence solely on their sea-based deterrent capabilities.  

In October 2016, it was reported that Israel was to strike a deal with Germany worth $1.3billion to buy three nuclear-capable submarines which were more advanced than their previous submarine fleet.[1] These advanced submarines are to replace the older Dolphin class,[2] and may carry nuclear capable cruise missiles, as Israel already does in its older submarines, to strengthen its counter/second strike capability. Though denied by Israel, it is believed that it possesses around 100 nuclear warheads and 200 missiles to deliver them. [3]

Israel does possess submarines with the Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system[4] that enables them to remain at sea for a longer duration of time. For example, INS Rahav is an AIP submarine and under normal operating conditions can operate without resupply for 30 days. [5] These subs can stay in the water almost as long as nuclear-powered submarines can, and their advantage is that there is the least scope of nuclear proliferation, unlike nuclear powered submarines. This is advantageous for a state like Israel which is a non-signatory of the Non Proliferation Treaty.

Another advantage is that they are not as noisy as nuclear-capable submarines. [6] At the same time, since the submarine can carry nuclear-capable missiles, should the need arise, Israel can strengthen its second/counter strike capability, depending on the nuclear policy it chooses to adopt in its nuclear doctrine (first use or no-first use policy).

Israel’s need for nuclear-capable submarines

Israel’s need for nuclear-capable submarines is clear. It faces immense threats from neighboring West Asian countries as well as from non-state actors. Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan - with whom Israel does not share cordial relations - are already progressing their military capabilities, and also improvising their naval capabilities. Under Turkey’s National Submarine Project, it is developing submarines with AIP. [7] Pakistan also possesses AIP submarines, for example on its third Agosta 90 B submarine. Iran also is working on advancing its diesel-powered submarines to increase its influence in the Persian Gulf.[8] Coupled with these is China’s naval base in Djibouti,[9] though not a direct threat to Israel, but given China’s old habit of exerting its assertiveness and influence in its zone of interest, both Israel and China’s economic and strategic interests in West Asia could clash in the future.

Moreover, as the US presence in the Mediterranean Sea increases to counter threats from ISIS and to deal with the Syrian crisis,[10] Israel, an important ally, with an upgraded and advanced naval capability could provide great support. Israeli submarines are believed to be already based in the Mediterranean.[11]

Submarine capability provides a sense of pride and security to Israel’s political elite, and this is clearly evident in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement: “Our submarine fleet serves as a deterrent to our enemies who seek our destruction.”

Israelis, according to Netanyahu,“ need to know that Israel is capable of hitting with very great force anyone who tries to harm us. And Israel’s citizens need to know that Israel is a very strong country that is doing everything to defend them, everywhere and on every front.”[12]

However, the decision to purchase three more submarines took place despite opposition from then defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and the Israeli Defense Force, and a deal was only struck by Netanyahu once Ya’alon stepped down. [13]

Conclusion

In the near future, it will not be surprising if Israel avails itself of nuclear-powered general-purpose attack submarine (SSN) and nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) technology to exert its influence in the Middle East and to strengthen its deterrence posture vis-à-vis its adversaries. While it can be argued that Israel is not a declared nuclear weapons state, it must be noted that SSN and SSBNs imply that the submarines are nuclear powered but do not necessarily equip themselves with nuclear weapons. They could also be armed with conventional warhead fitted missiles.

Debalina Ghoshal is a Research Fellow at the, Centre for Human Security Studies, Hyderabad. She specializes in nuclear, missile, missile defense and artillery issues. Her articles have appeared in Federation of American Scientists, RUSI News Brief, The Diplomat, Yale Global, Defense Review Asia, European Security and Defense Union, to name but a few.

 



[1] “Israel Finalizing $1.3 Billion Deal For Three Nuclear Subs From Germany”, Breaking News Israel, October 25, 2016,

[2] “Israel looks to buy three new nuke-capable subs-report”, The Times of Israel, October 21, 2016,

[3] “Israel Preparing to Buy More Nuclear-Capable Submarines”, Sputnik, October 22, 2016,

[4] “Israel Submarine Capabilities”, Nuclear Threat Initiative, July 30, 2015,

[5] Tyger Rogoway, “Israel’s Newest and Most Advanced Submarine is Their Last Line of Nuclear Deterrence”, Foxtrot Alpha, January 1, 2016,

[6] http://thebulletin.org/israel%E2%80%99s-sea-based-nukes-pose-risks9151

[7] “Submarine Projects”, Turkish Naval Forces, <https://www.dzkk.tsk.tr/icerik.php?dil=0&icerik_id=75>

[8] “Iran Submarine Capabilities”, Nuclear Threat Initiative, August 21, 2015,

[9] Haviv Retig Gur, “Can Israel become a maritime power?”, The Times of Israel, September 2, 2016,

[10] Metin Gurcan, “Military presence increases in eastern Mediterranean,” Al Monitor, November 5, 2014,

[11] Anthony Bellchambers, “Israel’s nuclear armed submarine fleet in Mediterranean, Threatens Middle East and Europe”, Global Research, February 12, 2016,

[12] N.5

[13] Judah Ari Gross, “IDF Getting new German subs, despite Ya’alon’s best efforts,” The Times of Israel, November 7, 2016,

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