Peacetime or Wartime: Israel’s Long Naval Arm

Israel’s submarine fleet increases the number of its operational activity hours against the background of the challenges in the region. In preparation for the arrival of the Navy’s fifth submarine, Or Heller spoke to the commander of INS Tanin 

Former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi had a standing joke he once shared with the former commander of the IDF Navy, Vice Admiral Eliezer “Chiney” Marom: “There are only two elements in the IDF I cannot control once I have dispatched them on a mission: a battalion of the Golani infantry brigade, and a submarine.”

This joke reverberated loudly in my mind as I descended the ladder into the hull of INS (Israeli Navy Submarine) Tanin, an AIP (Air-Independent Propulsion) Dolphin-Class submarine – the Navy’s latest and most advanced submarine which, according to foreign sources, can destroy most of the Middle East with a single salvo of nuclear missiles.

“When we load the missiles from the outside into the submarine, we raise the floor. It takes a few hours to load them,” one of the submarine commanders answers the million dollar question of “Where do you keep the missiles?”

According to overt publications, the weapons openly discussed with regard to Israeli submarines are torpedoes and surface-to-surface missiles. Foreign sources discuss radically different weapons: cruise missiles with nuclear warheads.

One thing is certain: this is the most expensive weapon system of the IDF – about half a billion dollars’ worth, more than the F-35 stealth fighter. According to those foreign sources, Israel is evolving into a global submarine power whose nuclear second-strike capability places it within a highly prestigious – and restricted – club, worldwide.

According to IDF Navy data, the submarines are getting busier, doing more and more. In 2010, the number of operational submarine hours had accounted for 35% of the total operational hours of the Navy. By 2013, 58% of the total operational hours of the Navy were logged by submarines.

The commander of this half a billion dollar submarine is Lieutenant-Colonel (Commander) Guy. He is 36, a native of Jerusalem who currently lives in Atlit. He had also commanded the ferrying of the INS Tanin from Germany to Israel.

Lt. Col. Guy, commander of the INS Tanin, completed his naval officer training course in 1999, and over the last four years he commanded another Dolphin-class submarine, the INS Leviathan. After completing his term as commander of the INS Leviathan, the Navy sent him to the shipyards in Kiel, northern Germany for two years, to monitor the construction of submarine number four – INS Tanin, the most advanced platform in the IDF Navy’s submarine fleet.

The INS Tanin first sailed under the Israeli flag in June 2014 and reached the port of Haifa in September of that year, after a long four-week voyage. INS Tanin reached Haifa fitted with only a part of the systems it was designed to contain. Communication, warfare and mainly classified Israeli-made weapon systems are being fitted to it only now, as it prepares to depart on its first mission in the coming weeks. The arrival of submarine No.5, the INS Rahav, will enable the Navy to continuously maintain one submarine on a mission at sea at any given time.

The submarines cooperate with IAF, with the IDF Intelligence Directorate, with Israel’s Mossad and with IDF special operations units. The 7th Flotilla, the Navy’s submarine flotilla, was awarded the Navy Commander’s citation for a secret operation executed last year. The key word here is secrecy. “Submarines that were detected are worth nothing,” says a senior officer of the submarine flotilla, “If we were detected, we would no longer be relevant to the mission. We would have lost the mission.”

Were you ever detected?

“Not that I know of. Whomever sees us does not necessarily understand that what they see is an Israeli Navy submarine.”

A submarine commander is probably the job with the heaviest responsibility in the IDF. Forget the fact that he commands a vessel worth half a billion dollars. Forget the fact that according to foreign sources, he commands a vessel that can destroy half of the Middle East with nuclear missiles. Even during peacetime, on a relatively simple intelligence gathering mission, one small mistake by the submarine commander can get the State of Israel severely entangled in an international incident that can easily deteriorate to war.

The submarine commander is located on the bridge, 13 meters away from the helmsman. Any error by the helmsman can, for example, get the submarine too close to the shore, thereby exposing it. If the sonar operator or the navigator makes a mistake, the result could be similar. When you spend weeks at a time in a submerged metal tube, the personalities, the psychology of the submariners is of critical importance. “A submarine commander must be able to think fast and sail slowly,” concludes the commander of the INS Tanin.

“Making Decisions from the Gut”

Giving orders is very nice on land, but “distance” only does not last very long during a month-long mission, a thousand kilometers away from home, with the submariners wearing casual civilian clothes for comfort. “Sometimes you must make decisions from the gut,” admits a senior commander in the submarine fleet, “in a submarine you sometimes command people who are smarter than you are, who are more familiar with their systems than you do – and there is absolutely no margin for error.”

Following the initial psychological screening, the submariners are not subjected, for example, to any periodic mental examinations. Admittedly, however, so far the screening method has worked just fine. The number of submariners dropping out of the unit during their service is very small.

Major Yagel Sharabi has been serving as the psychologist of the IDF Navy’s Naval Officer School for the past two and a half years. Among other things, he is responsible for screening the officers who would serve on board the submarines.

“What are we looking for? We train naval officers, and one year into the training course, we actually separate the submarine officers from the officers intended for the missile frigates and the Dvora patrol boats. Submarine officers are required to demonstrate a high level of professionalism and the ability to cope with new material. To begin with, only volunteers serve as submariners. Anyone who’s not interested will not be screened for the training course. They go through a psychological interview, a voyage on board a submarine, meetings with a submarine commander and with serving submarine officers.”

Do you have a representative psychological profile for people who choose to spend long weeks at a time under water?

“There is a profile. For example, the command style on board a submarine is different from the one on board a surface vessel. You must have the ability to establish a position where you are an officer who’s professionally less proficient than the submariner you command as he had graduated from an eighteen month long training course and has already been serving on board a submarine. The officer must have the ability to position himself and fit in and consolidate his position from the ground up. This requires excellent sociability skills and the officer must keep learning all the time.”

If you have a Polish or an American passport and you want to serve on board a submarine, you will have to give up that passport for security reasons.

“They know it and we do not hide it from them, and there are quite a few individuals who gave up their foreign passports in order to serve in the submarine fleet,” says psychologist Sharabi. “The cadets in the naval officer training course must cope with command and maritime challenges anyway, so to be assigned to the 7th Flotilla means to select the cream of the crop from among the very best.”

What are the chances that we may see the submarine fleet opening up and accepting servicewomen?

“We currently have a servicewoman training to be a naval officer on board a Dvora patrol boat, so we have already accomplished a breakthrough in this context. I believe that we may have female submariners eventually. Today, servicewomen are doing well in the naval officer training course. A servicewoman who can comply with the criteria that pertain to physical capabilities and thinking and social skills may qualify – we may see such servicewomen as submariners in the future. This issue is highly complex.”

Under a Veil of Secrecy

Since the 1960s operation involving an Israeli submarine at the Egyptian port of Alexandria, nothing could be told about whatever the Navy’s submarines are doing. As the Navy’s submarine fleet goes from three submarines to six, it needs to double its submariner manpower, too, thereby competing against the IDF’s other elite units – without being able to tell the recruits anything about their future service.

“We tell the new recruits: I am going to cut you off Facebook, off your WhatsApp groups, for weeks at a time – and never tell you why,” says Guy, commander of the INS Tanin.

Are there missions where the submariners themselves do not know the purpose until the end?

“There are very few missions where they are not aware what the purpose of the mission is or where they are. The entire crew has to sign non-disclosure forms.”

One thing is certain: the submarines are extremely busy. They are at sea all the time, and have logged thousands of hours of operational activity in 2014, about which we have not heard even a single word on the news.

The IDF Navy’s current estimates maintain that Lebanon and Syria do not possess the capability of spotting Israeli submarines at sea, but their Radars and routine security vessels are definitely taken into consideration. The Egyptians, on the other hand, possess advanced submarine detection capabilities. The IDF Navy makes every effort to conceal the actual activities of the Israeli submarines in the Mediterranean Sea and in the Red Sea.

Sometimes, reality knocks on the door in the middle of a secret mission in which the submarine is involved: it may range from a hatch that slams shut on a submariner’s finger to more serious health-related incidents where the submariner involved must be evacuated to a hospital. In some situations, the submarine commander orders the submarine to surface somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, in hostile waters, just so that one of the submariners may send a congratulations telegram to his brother, who’s getting married. Incidentally, one party that spots the submarines in the open sea very often are dolphins – who regard the submarine as a friend and accompany it.

The primary advantage of INS Tanin is the fact that it is an AIP (Air-Independent Propulsion) submarine, which enables it to remain at sea for longer periods of time. It is ten meters longer than the older submarines – which made it possible to fit it with additional systems that also enable the submarine to remain at sea for longer periods of time.

Within two to three years, the INS Tanin should be ready to dive in one minute. The thing is, one can simply pick up a pair of binoculars and spot it from many points around Haifa. The IDF Navy takes it into account that all kinds of over-curious elements are monitoring the submarine’s movements. In the near future, a roof will cover the Navy’s polynomial building, the submarine base inside the Navy’s base in Haifa. Until then, they practice what they call “habituation”, namely – they depart and enter the port of Haifa several times a week in order to confuse the enemy, so that they can never know whether the submarine had actually departed for operational activity.

What about the submarines’ share of the effort to defend Israel’s “economic waters”? Apparently, 55% of the gas used by the State of Israel come from the offshore rigs. By 2040, not less than 80% of Israel’s gas supply will come from the sea. On top of that, 99% of Israel’s trading pass through the sea. The members of Hamas, Hezbollah and ISIS understand these statistics, too.

Just a few months ago, an ISIS detachment in the Sinai seized an Egyptian Tiger missile boat, probably through the cooperation of Egyptian troopers “from within”. ISIS will not encounter any special difficulties if they attempted to seize a Lebanese or a Syrian vessel and run it into an Israeli offshore rig. On land, you can secure similar installations using a fence system, but at sea the task of securing these installations is much more complex. Very few countries, worldwide, know how to secure offshore gas drilling rigs.

So what can be done about it? The IDF Navy relies heavily on intelligence, but they want to be at the offshore rigs physically with their surface vessels, with their submarines and with maritime patrol UAVs, with the aspiration of having each offshore rig protected by its own missile frigate guarding it with Barak-8 missiles against Kamikaze UAVs or missiles. If anyone in the Navy had ever entertained the idea of deploying mobile Iron Dome launchers on board the drilling rigs, a closer examination of that idea concluded very quickly that the combination of gas and explosives is not a very good idea, assuming you want to keep the rig rather than exploding it. At some point the Navy even thought about deploying defensive rigs alongside the drilling rigs, fitted with Iron Dome launchers and other elements, but that idea, too, turned out to be completely impractical.

Within two to three years, the Navy’s new missile frigates will patrol the area around the “Tethys Ocean” drilling rigs in the south, not far from the Gaza Strip, the “Tamar” drilling rig, located about a hundred kilometers to the west of Haifa, and the “Leviathan” drilling rig, located even further west of Haifa.

Another drilling rig is expected to commence operations to the west of Haifa in the near future, which will push the defensive plans up to four missile frigates for four drilling rigs. During Operation Protective Edge last summer, the Navy allocated missile frigates to protect the drilling rigs, fearing rocket and missile attacks, mainly against the “Tethys Ocean” rig, located about 30 kilometers to the west of Ashqelon. During the recent period of tension opposite Hezbollah, pursuant to the elimination in Syria of the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah command group, attributed to Israel, the Navy was ordered to protect the offshore rigs owing to concerns that Hezbollah’s revenge will be implemented by the launching of a Yakhont shore-to-sea missile, which has a range of 300 kilometers.

The IDF Navy realized, however, that the security blanket of the “offshore gas drilling rig navy” was too short. Gone are the days where people in the IDF would ask “What do we need a navy for? Couldn’t we settle for a coast guard? What do we need submarines for? Couldn’t we settle for patrol boats?” The Navy of 2015 can be called upon, at short notice, to find out not only what happens within a range of 12 nautical miles, but also within a range of 70 nautical miles, where they would have to patrol, secure, protect and collect intelligence above water as well as deep under water.

In order to provide the necessary information, the Navy has what they call a “maritime command and control unit” – an “Oren Adir” Radar (the EL/M-2080S AESA Radar system by IAI/Elta) mounted on INS Lahav, a Sa’ar-5 missile frigate. That Radar system can pick up aircraft targets at ranges up to 200 kilometers. Another Radar system is a part of the Barak-1 missile system, soon to be converted into the Barak-8 system, which is capable of intercepting missiles, UAVs and manned aircraft. 

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