Published by The Freeman Center

The Maccabean Online

Political Analysis and Commentary
on Israeli and Jewish Affairs

"For Zion's sake I shall not hold my peace, And for Jerusalem's sake I shall not rest."

Israel\'s Triad Deterrence Doctrine for the Middle East
by Ralph Sanders

The recent acquisition by Israel of advanced conventional submarines from Germany has ushered in a new strategic age in the Middle East. This shift in naval power, although modest in quantity, has the potential of exacting enormous military and political consequences in the region and perhaps in the entire world.

These consequences flow from the fact that Israel can deliver a nuclear retaliatory blow, capable of inflicting enormous damage.

Although hidden from view, filled with ambiguity, and not explicitly
advertised worldwide, it is widely believed that Israel has a nuclear capability. Israel neither confirms nor denies that it has nuclear weapons. The country still maintains its long-standing position not to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

The coming of age of strategic submarine power represents the second technological revolution in Israeli naval history. By the 1970\'s Israel had jettisoned its hodgepodge of old warships, in large part dating back to World War II. The Israeli navy replaced them with flotillas of small boats that took advantage of high firepower, speed, and maneuverability and depended on missiles like the Gabriel and advanced jamming systems. These technologies performed very well in protecting Israel\'s sea commerce, preventing a possible blockade of Israeli ports and blockading enemy ports during wartime.
Israel used its new surface fleets to attack enemy craft in their home ports, gather information, and capture and destroy small craft used to supply and support terrorist activity on land. However, they did not meet the potential new threats facing Israel in the 21st century.

The New Threat

During the Gulf War of 1991, Iraqi Scud missile attacks brought home to Israelis a new form of warfare. Over time Israel became very concerned about its vulnerability to missile attack, both from stand-off weapons on their borders (Kassam-class missiles) used by Islamic militants and terrorists, and especially from long-range missiles based many miles away in countries like Iran.

A new and dangerous strategic threat was beginning to emerge in the Middle East and Israeli strategic thinkers became convinced that they had to respond. Notwithstanding the claim by Iran that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes (chiefly the generation of electric power), Israel\'s leaders probably cannot take Iran\'s word on this score. They must consider that both India\'s and Pakistan\'s earlier participation in the U.S. Atoms for Peace program provided these nations with the technology and materials later to manufacture and detonate atomic devices. Both countries first announced that their nuclear programs were for preaceful purposes only and later went on to build atomic weapons. It is quite possible that Iran could take the same route.

The recent outrageous remarks of Iran\'s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that Israel must be "wiped off the map" led Israel and the United States to worry about Iran\'s nuclear ambitions and intentions. The Israelis cannot afford to conclude that Ahmadinejad\'s threat is only rhetoric and need not be taken seriously. This unsettling remark, together with the belief that Iran\'s is building more long-range weapons capable of carrying atomic warheads, most likely convinced the Israelis of the wisdom of building an invulnerable deterrent force.

Despite the harsh Iranian rhetoric we simply do not know how Iranian leaders would actually behave if they acquired nuclear arms. Russian, Chinese, and Indian leaders seem to have come to realize the enormous risks of launching an initial nuclear strike. Whether Iranian decisionmakers would follow suit remains a moot question. However, the Israelis believe that they have to be prepared in case the Iranians prove reckless.

Several sources suggest that Iranians are strenghtening their air forces. Their Russian-made TU-22 M-3 "Backfire" and SU-24 long-range strategic bombers provide the Iranian Air Force with a strike capability. These forces have the capacity to attack Israel.

Other sources suggest that the Iranians are developing a more capable land-based strike capability. They are building a long-distance missile, the Shehab-3, with a range of some 1,200 miles. Israel, U.S.bases in the Persian Gulf, and American troops in Iraq lie within their range. Israeli strategic experts suspect that the theological zealots who rule Iran eventually might arm this missile with a nuclear warhead. If the U.S., Russia, and the European Community fail to stop Iran from producing atomic bombs, Israel will face a very troubling situation.

The Iranians have to take into account several factors that constrain its nuclear options, including the fact that Jewish and Palestinian communities are near each other. Unless Iran\'s missiles are extremely accurate (not very likely), they could very well inflict collateral damage by killing many Arabs. By launching a first strike, an Islamic militant nation might even destroy or damage the sacred mosques on the temple mount in Jerusalem.

Israel\'s Triad Response

Israel\'s deterrence is based on demonstrating Israel\'s willingness to use its nuclear might. The country\'s leaders must threaten an enemy with a retaliatory blow that will deliver unacceptable damage. Its enemies must come to believe that the costs of an initial attack on Israel will exceed the expected gains. This doctrine assumes that a potential enemy values highly self-preservation and will choose a rational option. In short, it will refrain from attackig first.

Many Israeli strategists argue that a survivable deterrent is essential because of the country\'s unique geopolitical and demographical vulnerability to nuclear attack. Israel is a country smaller than New Jersey and has a population of 6 million. At its narrowist point Israel proper measures only ten miles. In addition, most of Israel\'s population is located in or near a few urban centers. A few accurate nuclear hits could cause catastrophic damage.

Israel\'s political and intelligence sources suggest that without the new submarines, Israel\'s nuclear arsenal is vulnerable to a preemptive strike by Iran or any other future Islamic regional power. In other words they are looking for a way that an enemy will not be tempted to strike preemptively with unconventional weapons and get away with it.

Moreover, if the "road map" peace process, under the auspices of the Quartet (the U.S., European Union, the UN, and Russia) ever materializes, it will lead to an independent Palestinian state. As a consequence, the territories under Israel\'s control will shrink. Israel already has given up the Gaza Strip.

Even if Israel and the Palestinians do not implement the "road map," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made public his "convergence plan," under which Israel will pull out from some 90 to 95 percent of the West Bank and from several Jerusalem neighborhoods by 2007. This pull-out would result in a major shrinkage in Israel\'s current territorial depth. Accordingly, Israel\'s leaders always will be concerned with self-defense and taking the fight to the enemy.

Given these factors, Israeli leaders reportedly opted for the same type of triad configuration for its strategic forces that the major nuclear powers had adopted during the Cold War. Namely, Israel chose the delivery of a retaliatory strike by air, land, and sea. In contrast to the U.S. and Soviet triad, Israel designed its triad model on a regional rather than on a global basis.

The air-based leg of Israel\'s triad depends on U.S.-made F-16 and F-15 aircraft. These war planes are believed to be dual-capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear armaments.

After many years of tests, Israel deployed a ballistic missile, Jericho I and II. The Jericho II has an operational range of 930 miles. Satellite photos show that many are hidden in limestone caves southesat of Tel Aviv. Some experts claim that this base lacks hardened silos. Most likely, in an emergency. the Israelis could arm this missile with a nuclear warhead. The Jericho missiles constitute the land-based leg of Israel\'s triad.

There is one problem with both of these components. They are vulnerable to a preemptive strike by any future Islamic nuclear power in the region. With Israel\'s lack of strategic depth, the Israelis have to be concerned with self-defense and taking the fight to the enemy. As General Israel Tal, the famous Israeli tank commander and designer of the highly touted Merkava tank, has suggested, "Israel must turn the sea into part of its defense depth." General Tal also wrote that, "The designation of the Navy must change - no longer an assistance branch, but a branch of strategic deterrence."

The only sea-based vessels that make sense in this regard are submarines. Operating under the surface of the sea, they are difficult to locate. Thus, they provide the most secure source of retaliatory power. If everything else fails, the Israelis could rely on submarines to deliver their retaliatory punch.

Some Israeli authorities suggest that submarines might help establish a potentially stable regional "balance of terror." It would resemble the global strategic situation that prevailed during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The major difference is that Israel\'s "balance of terror" would have a regional basis. U.S. officials have commented that they do not consider a nuclear-armed Israel as a threat. They tolerate the nuclear arms of Israel as they do those of Britain and France.

Some American strategists argue that other countries in the Middle East have nothing to fear from Israel\'s nuclear arms. After all, Israel has had nuclear arms for decades without threatening its neighbors. On the other hand, Israel has much to fear from threatening Islamic countries. The Israelis have noticed that Iranian leaders have been quoted as saying that they would be willing to pay a heavy price in order to wipe out Israel. Moreover, United States officials have concluded that Iran is a destabilizing country capable of launching a first strike against Israel or against American forces in the region.

Israel\'s Submarine Fleet

Israel\'s interest in building a survivable deterrent prompted the Israelis to acquire three modern conventional diesel-electric submarines from Germany in 1997. The Germans have had a hundred years of experience in building submarines. There is speculation that the German government felt guilty because Iraq had used some German-made components in its military programs during the Gulf War. Germany thus came to favor Israeli requests.The United States reportedly was originally to have supplied these submarines to Israel, but claimed it lacked the capability to build modern conventional-powered vessels.The acquisition of these submarines is having a major impact on Israel\'s naval future.

The Israeli navy initially established a submarine fleet at the end of the 1950s. The Rehav and the Tanin arrived in 1959 and 1960, respectively, and ended their service in 1967. In 1957 some 38 sailors volunteered to become the first Israeli submariners. Yosale Dror received the first submariner qualification pin in 1959. Dror convinced Shimon Peres, who at the time was the Director General of the Defense Office, to buy "S" class submarines from Great Britain. In 1964 Israel bought the Leviathan, the Dolphin, and the Dakar.

In 1968 the Dakar and its crew of 69 sailors sank on its maiden voyage from England to Israel. The Dakar was not found for 31 years, resting on the floor of the Mediterranean Sea, between Crete and Cyprus. The bridge of the vessel was located and raised in October 2000 from a depth of 2,952 feet and brought to Haifa. The inauguration ceremony for the Dakar monument took place at that port city in May 2003. Some Egyptian sources claim that the Egyptian navy sank the Dakar, but the conclusion of those who found and examined the submarine conclude that mechical failure caused the tragedy.

For most of its existence Israel\'s underwater attack force had the following objectives: (1) attacking enemy craft in their home ports; (2) covertly gathering information; (3) capturing and destroying small craft used to supply and support terrorists on land; and (4) acting as support units for other vessels in the Israeli fleet.

During the 1980\'s Israel\'s navy came to rely on three Gal-class submarines. Built in the 1970\'s in Great Britain, based on German blueprints, these vessels are small, sophisticated, and difficult to detect. In the late 1980s the navy modernized and modifed these vessels in order to improve their effectiveness. However, these submarines lacked the ability to serve as the sea-based leg of a triad strategy.

The new diesel-electric submarines acquired from Germany gave the Israeli navy the ability to launch a retaliatory strike against any nation in the Middle East. Israeli commanders have argued that with these submarines, the Israeli navy is becoming at least as potent as the Israeli Air Force. Senior Israeli defense officials claim that the acquisition of these submarines is Israel\'s most important military procurement in decades. The Israelis acquired these submarines despite calls for cutting the defense budget and the growing competition for arms among Israel\'s military branches.

These German vessels are twice as large as the aging Gal-class submarines.The Dolphin-class submarines are equipped with the most advanced sailing and combat systems in the world. They combine existing sophistication with very easy operation.This submarine has a low and balanced acoustic signature and is equipped with sophisticated sensors and state-of-the-art torpedos.

Israeli designers are developing the submarine\'s internal technologies that would make a sea-positioned strike possible. The country\'s defense industries reportedly have undertaken research and development as well as production of the submarine\'s navigation, communications, and weapons systems.

Two Dolphin class submarines, the Dolphin and the Leviathan, joined the fleet in 2000. Israel took delivery of the third, the Tekumah, a short time later. The Dolphin is 75 meters long with a carrying capacity, while under water, of 1,700 tons.

The Dolphins are perhaps the most advanced non-nuclear-powered submarines of any navy. In fact, the diesel-electric submarine is the most popular export model in the world.

These ships are able to stay submerged for a longer period than Israel\'s older submarines and to remain at sea for up to a month. They perform the mission of lingering undetected for extended periods anywhere the Israelis send them. Some experts guess that these submarines have a total of ten torpedo tubes each.

These submarines cost some $320 million each. Germany allegedly donated the first two Dolphins to Israel as a gift and split the cost of the third.

The Dolphins were built according to Israeli specifications, based on Israeli submarine experience. This diesel-electric-powered submarine is among the most technologically advanced in the world. The ships would be able toi stay submerged for a longer period than Israel\'s older submarines and remain at sea for up to a month. The mission of these submarines is to linger undetected for extended periods anywhere the Israelis send them.

Recent photos of the Leviathan confirm that the submarine is equipped with the Elbit Systems TIMNEX II combined electronic support measures/ electronic intelligence system. This equipment is reportedly designed to provide a high omnidirectional detection capability. Other photos indicate that the Levianthan has seven-bladed, low acoustic noise propellers and rudder planes with horizintal stabilizers.

The Dolphin has an elite 35-man crew whose members have been nicknamed "force 700" because of the average 700 points they scored in psychological tests (an equivalent IQ of 130 to 140). The navy will add another five specially selected officers solely responsible for the warheads to each vessel once the missiles are operational. The crews started training in 1994 and participated in the building process as well as in designing acceptance procedures for weapons systems.

To assist in the training of Israeli crews, in 2003 Simens Nederland reportedly delivered an EMCS-simulator for Israeli submarines, installing it at the Haifa naval base. The EMCS simulates all valves and movable parts of the submarine. The Dolphin also has considerable room for transporting commandos.

Cruise Missiles

These submarines carry a wide variety of weapons, including anti-ship missiles, mines, decoys, and Atlas wired-guided torpedos. These weapons enable them to perform interdiction, surveillance, and special forces operations. However, it is by arming these submarines with surface-to-surface sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs), armed with nuclear warheads, that the Israelis could revolutionize naval warfare.

Sea-skimming cruise missiles move along a set course at low altitude, making them hard to hit or to intercept. The Dolphin sends the missiles to the surface of the sea in capsules fired from torpedo tubes. On reaching the surface, these capsules blow off their tops and then launch the missiles.

In May 2000 reports appeared suggesting that Israel secretly had carried out its first test launches from Dolphin submarines capable of carrying SLCMs. Israeli vessels off Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean launched these missiles. They hit their targets some 930 miles away. At this time the U.S. Navy reportedly monitored the testing of a new cruise missile from a submarine.

Authorities have suggested that there is little doubt that Israel\'s defense industries have the ability to adopt a model of its indigenously developed Popeye Turbo cruise missile to hit strategic targets at such a distance. Although this missile is promoted as an air-launched weapon, it might be adapted for submarine launch.

In 2003 the London Observer made public an unprecedented disclosure that "Israeli and American officials have admitted collaborating to deploy U.S.-supplied Harpoon cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads in Israel\'s fleet of Dolphin submarines." The Israelis allegedly have successfully reduced the size of the warheads to fit inside the missiles. They also are reported to have changed the guidance systems in order to enable these missiles to hit targets on land. However, Israeli officials have denied that the Harpoons can carry a nuclear payload.

Some sources allege that the Dolphins carry 24 cruise missiles that can be tipped with nuclear warheads. Should the Iranians fashion indigenous nuclear weapons, this sea-launched capacity should enable Israel to target Iran with much less difficulty.

Although experts had long expected the Israeli\'s intention of using these submarines as roving nuclear launch platforms, few expected them to develop the capability to fire submarine-based cruise missiles so soon.

Criticisms of a Regional "Balance of Terror"

Israeli strategic thinkers at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies argue that Israel lacks a large enough submarine fleet to make deterrence viable. In addition, the long distances that Israeli submarines would have to travel also lessen their deterrence potential. During the Cold War the U.S. and the Soviets had large submarine fleets, located continents apart.

The Begin-Sadat analysts argue that one submarine must stay in port for maintenance, another will be en route to a designated attack area or on its way back to its homeport, leaving only one vessel to carry out the deterrent punch. Other sources suggest that two vessels could remain at sea, one in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf and the other in the Mediterranean. Only a third one would remain on standby. In this rotation scheme two submarines would be in a possible attack mode.

What\'s more, Israeli submarines might have to launch cruise missiles from the Indian Ocean or the Gulf of Oman, close to Iran but far from Israel. Such a long distance presents Israel\'s submarines with some major problems. In a crisis, for political reasons, Egypt might not allow these submarines to transit the Suez Canal. The Israelis might choose to avoid that vulnerable waterway, fearing a terrorist attack. In that case Israeli submarines would have to take a long voyage around Africa. Having to travel for some 4,500 nautical miles, the Dolphins would require at least two stops for refueling at friendly ports or to refuel at sea.

The Israelis could avoid this difficulty by stationing one or more Dolphins at Eilat on the Red Sea and use a shorter route to the Persian Gulf. Although unlikely, they also might develop the capability to transport the submarines over land from Haifa to Eilat (with imagination and determination not an impossible feat).

The Israeli navy reportedly is preparing a request to buy two additional Dolphin-class submarines from Germany. After careful study the Israelis seem to agree with the analysts at the Begin-Sadat Center and now believe that three submarines might not be enough. Because the vessels need relatively frequent maintenance and servicing, the Israeli navy has concluded that it requires five vessels. With a fleet of five, the navy\'s commander argues that the navy could become one of Israel\'s strategic arms, capable of countering threats at a considerable distance from its borders.

Given the high cost of the purchase, some $850 million, Israel will have to look for outside financial assistance. There is no guarantee that such funding will become available. In addition, Germany has to consider that providing Israel with additional submarimes could exacerbate Germany\'s relations with Arab states. Thus, by May of 2006 this project is still in the planning stage.

Even if Israel acquires a total of five submarines, the Begin-Sadat analysts still question whether the Israeli navy would possess an adequate survivable deterrent punch. They contend that Israel must strike before Iran arms its weapons with nuclear warheads.

For well into the future, Israel still might benefit from having a survivable submarine attack force. For example, Israel\'s retaliatory attack might fail to destroy all of Iran\'s dispersed nuclear facilities, giving the Iranians a residual option to launch more strikes.

In sum, with their current three submarines the Israelis probably can deploy at sea at least one nuclear-armed submarine at all times. Given the destruction that nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from even one submarine can inflict on enemy targets, one might just prove enough (although the risks would increase). If they acquire two more ships, the Israelis might be able to deploy three Dolphin submarines on the firing line.

Israel is relying on more than a retaliatory capability to thwart an enemy first strike. The Israelis also have built an anti-ballistic missile defense, the Arrow system. The Arrow is designed to destroy incoming missiles originating from locations within the Middle East. Although recent tests have proved successful, the Israelis do not really know just how reliable the Arrow will prove in response to an attack.

An Insurance Policy

Proponents of Israel\'s Dolphin submarine fleet tend to look at it as an insurance policy for the nation\'s security. These submarines represent an investment in weaponry that hopefully will safeguard the nation against catastrophic loss. Hopefully, these invulnerable fleets will never have to be used to launch a retaliatory strike. Yet, their very existence should induce any potential enemy to pause before launching a first strike against Israel. It is like insurance that car owners buy, but hope that they will never have to use.

It may be expensive for Israel to build this submarine fleet, but if it works it will prove cheaper than the losses that Israel would sustain in an enemy\'s first attack.

Yet, we have to understand the risks that might accompany Israel\'s acquisition of submarines with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Above all, it could complicate U.S. efforts to avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and elsewhere. Some Egyptian strategists already have warned that Israeli submarines could pose a great threat to the security of Israel\'s Arab neighbors.


The Israeli navy has adopted an agendum of accelerating transformation of its fleets. In the past half-century the Israeli navy has undergone two revolutionary changes.

First, it went from a navy comprising relatively large older surface vessels, such as destroyers, to one comprising small, but fast and maneuverable craft, some of which are armed with sea-to-sea Gabriel missiles.

Second, the Israeli navy is moving from a collection of outdated submarines to one of a modern diesel-electric variety, carrying guided missiles. According to former American national security officials, Israel now has a triad of land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear weapons for the first time. In addition to sea-based forces, Israel now has land-based ballistic missiles and dual-capable aircraft. Hopefully, these weapons will provide Israel with a formidable deterrent posture.

Such a capability might create more tensions in the Middle East as Islamic countries grow apprehrensive. However, given the possible acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems in the hands of potential enemies, in the coming years this survivable naval power could easily become the most important line of defense for the Jewish nation.
Ralph Sanders
J. Carlton Ward Jr. Distinguished
Professor Emeritus
National Defense University/Industrial
College of the Armed Forces