Israel’s submarine menace raises stakes
No potential adversary can now evade a ‘lethal counter-strike’
Nuclear armed or not, formidable weapon can only bolster delusions of grandeur displayed
by Jewish state’s leaders
Special to The Daily Star
Reports that Israel has armed its new German-built Dolphin submarines with cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads seem to have barely raised a ripple of concern in the region, preoccupied as it is with the carnage in Israel and Palestine. But if these reports are correct and militarily, developing such a capability makes a lot of sense amid the proliferation of missiles and non-conventional weapons programs in the Middle East then the consequences could be far-reaching and perilous.
This is the most radical shift in US strategy for half a century. However, pre-emptive strikes have been Israel’s preferred policy for decades. And in the climate of fear of catastrophic attacks that has swelled since Sept. 11 one can be forgiven for believing that George W. Bush’s new doctrine dovetails rather neatly with Israel’s and could even be seen to be sanctioning such operations by his Israeli allies, who now consider themselves irrevocably locked into the same battle against the “axis of evil” as the Americans. Two of the components of that axis, Iran and Iraq, are deemed by Israel to be major threats.
Although Bush’s doctrine has not yet been fully defined, the Americans like the Israelis, who have ignored the rules of international law for decades seem to be preparing to act as a law unto themselves. In this regard, there have been reports from Washington that the Central Intelligence Agency has created a highly secret paramilitary unit to eliminate known terrorists and their leaders in effect an elite assassination unit.
There are alarming parallels with Israeli operational doctrine here as well which could conceivably entail US and Israeli special forces working together in the covert program to topple Saddam Hussein in which US forces have been authorized to use lethal force “in self-defense.” These developments, taken as a whole, could have disastrous consequences in the Middle East.
For now, let us look at Israel’s small fleet of submarines and what it would mean for it to become the first such force in the region to be armed with nuclear-tipped missiles that give it a second-strike capability. That means that if its nuclear arsenal, which is primarily land-based, were destroyed in a missile attack it would still be able to retaliate against any aggressor with devastating power from the sea. That should give any potential adversary pause before embarking on such an adventure. But it also gives Israel the ability to launch pre-emptive strikes, nuclear or conventional, far from its own shores.
As Yezid Sayegh of St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, postulated a decade ago: “Israelis would have difficulty … in arguing that knowledge of their own nuclear power has not strongly reinforced delusions of grandeur in the strategic thinking of some of their leaders. For example, as defense minister in the early 1980s, Ariel Sharon defined Israel’s area of strategic interest as extending throughout the Arab world and into South Asia.”
With Israel’s nuclear forces now well established within the country’s military force structure and operational doctrine, its adversaries and even those Arab states with whom it has made peace fear that Israel’s deterrent power provides it with a shield behind which it could, in theory, launch conventional or even nuclear attacks while remaining relatively immune from counter-attack.
Israel has three of the Dolphin Type 800 submarines, delivered between July 1999 and October 2000. They are considered to be the most advanced conventional submarines in the world and, even without nuclear missiles, pretty much guarantee the Israeli Navy the edge in underwater warfare in the region for years to come.
The Israelis would like to buy more of these 1,550-ton diesel-electric boats, which have a cruising range of more than 7,200 kilometers, meaning they could lie off the coasts of Iran or Iraq to fire their missiles at close range, extending Israel’s retaliatory or pre-emptive reach in the same way that US nuclear-powered submarines have hurled (conventionally armed) Tomahawk cruise missiles at Iraq during the Gulf War and periodically since then.
The Washington Post reported on June 15 that possible moves to arm the Dolphins with nuclear weapons suggested that the Israeli government was increasingly concerned about Iranian and Iraqi efforts to develop more accurate long-range missiles capable of knocking out Israel’s nuclear arsenal in a surprise attack.
There was speculation, even before the Israeli Navy got its new submarines, that the Haifa-based Dolphins would complete the Israelis’ nuclear triad. Indeed, when the first of the submarines arrived in Israel on July 27, 1999, Ehud Barak, then the prime minister, boasted that “they will change the entire face of the navy and the long-arm capabilities of Israel.”
Two years ago, Reuven Padatzur, director of Israel’s Galili Center for Strategy and National Security, wrote in Haaretz that Israel needed a missile-armed submarine force to counter “the probability that during the next decade Iran, and maybe even Iraq, will acquire the nuclear ballistic capability to hit Israeli targets.” That submarine force would provide a reliable deterrent because these adversaries would not be able to detect or destroy the boats, meaning it would be impossible for them to avoid a “lethal counter-strike.”
Early in June, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank, said in a new book that Israel was trying to arm its Dolphins with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
“Probably the most important nuclear-related development in Israel is the formation of its sea-based nuclear arm,” said Joseph Cirincione, the book’s main author. He is director of Carnegie’s nonproliferation project and a former staff member of the House Armed Services Committee.
The Israeli Navy test-fired the new cruise missiles in the Indian Ocean off the southern coast of Sri Lanka in May 2000. According to reports at the time denied by Israel and Sri Lanka, a regular buyer of Israeli arms the missiles, equipped with conventional high-explosive warheads, hit targets from a range of around 1,500 kilometers.
There was considerable skepticism about the veracity of these reports at the time. But The Washington Post quoted Pentagon officials as saying in early June that the US Navy had monitored the tests, which at that time made Israel the third country able to fire such weapons from submarines after the US and Russia. (Britain also now has submarines armed with US-made Tomahawks, although it is not clear whether these include nuclear-tipped missiles).
The cruise missiles involved in the tests were reportedly developed by Israel, which, if correct, would indicate that it has been able to produce a long-range cruise missile on its own. That is a troubling prospect. Cruise missiles are 10 times more accurate than ballistic missiles because they are guided right onto their targets. A ballistic missile spends the last quarter of its trajectory in free-fall, guided only by gravity. Even if the Dolphins are armed with cruise missiles with conventional warheads they remain potent, high-precision weapons.
In January 2000, Israel asked the Clinton administration for 50 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles, which can carry a 450-kilogram warhead up to 1,600 kilometers, as part of a military aid package. But this was turned down because the Americans were reluctant to enhance Israel’s military power with such weapons and alter the strategic equation in the region, particularly as Arab-Israeli peace talks were under way at the time.
The Israelis already have short-range cruise systems in service, such as the 400-kilometer Delilah and the anti-ship Gabriel-3. But they have been working on an indigenous long-range cruise missile program for several years and this presumably was accelerated after Washington declined to sell them Tomahawks. According to Western missile experts, the most likely prospect would be developed from the turbojet-powered version of Israel’s Popeye stand-off missile. Western missile analysts reported more than a year ago that Israeli officials had admitted they had mastered long-range cruise technology.
Whether Israel having a submarine component in its nuclear forces as a survivable deterrent will avert, or at least diminish, the possibility of a missile attack on the Jewish state remains to be seen. But as weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles in the region continue to proliferate at an increasing rate, that possibility can only grow, particularly with Iraq’s WMD programs not subject to UN inspection since December 1998.
In 1995, Tariq Aziz, then Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister, disclosed that during the 1991 Gulf War the Iraqi military loaded nearly 200 Scud-type missiles with chemical and biological warheads, but never fired them. He said that was because the Americans had threatened nuclear retaliation if they did. In January 1996, Rolf Ekeus, then head of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) charged with dismantling Saddam’s weapons programs, said that 191 weapons were armed with anthrax agent, botulinum toxin and aflatoxin: “Their use, which seemed to have been possible at any time, would have killed millions of people.”
He also said his inspectors came across an Iraqi document dated 1990 that explained the procedures for authorizing the use of biological weapons.
“If Baghdad had been destroyed by weapons of mass destruction, then the decision to use biological weapons was delegated to the local commanders,” Ekeus said.
“In other words, the document envisages biological weapons being used in retaliation, and not as a first strike. But that document refers only to circumstances in which local commanders can use weapons. We know there was also an option for a ‘thunder strike,’ a surprise attack which seems to mean a first use of the weapons. I assume that a ‘thunder strike’ would have had to be authorized by the top political officials.”
Saddam and his cronies are still in power in Baghdad and no one knows for sure what weapons he still has, or could assemble quickly. But there is clearly a danger that he would strike out in the event of a US military operation intended to topple him. Israel would be a likely target and missile-armed submarines probably wouldn’t be much of a deterrent to a doomed tyrant.