The Army of the Deep

The warfighters of the YALTAM (IDF Navy's Underwater Mission Unit) maneuver along Israel's maritime borders and prevent underwater intrusion along the shores of the Gaza Strip. Meet the warfighters of the deep

Photo: IDF

"Do you scuba dive?" was the first question Lt. Col. Ido Kaufman, commander of the IDF Navy Underwater Mission Unit (UMU), presented to me. My reply disappointed him. My value dropped instantly, deep into the abyss. When one enters the locality of the UMU at the Haifa base of the IDF Navy, one realizes instantly that this is the realm of diving and divers. A unit of professional divers who just happen to be doing what they like more than anything: put on a diving suit and head for the depths of the sea.

The IDF Navy Underwater Mission Unit was established in the early 1980s. "At the time, there was a unit designated 707 which emerged from the 13th Flotilla (Naval Commandos) and those were the two diving units of the Navy," recounts Lt. Col. Kaufman in an interview to Israel Defense. "During the War of Attrition (1967-1970), the 13th Flotilla had numerous missions assigned to it, and back then, Unit 707 executed naval missions, ambush and combat operations as well. After that war, they reached the conclusions that two combat diving units were unnecessary. In Operation Spring of Youth (April 10, 1973), demolition specialists from the unit joined the raiders in Beirut, and today the unit is in charge of the entire technical field of underwater missions and diving in the IDF Navy. The Navy has offensive divers and there is the UMU which operates in the maritime medium. The unit includes a technical-logistical troop. This troop is responsible for the diving equipment, tools, transportation vehicles, mission vehicles and surface vessels – that's a lot of equipment. There is also the training troop, the diver troop and the demolition troop – naval demolition specialists. The first thing we do is rescue. This is our most important mission. For example, if a Navy submarine encounters a technical problem while out at sea, we can locate the submarine and help it. First we have to find it. We work within the maritime medium – we do not use it to go from one point to another."

Are you saying that a part of the qualifications of the UMU is the ability to repair a malfunction in a submarine located even thousands of kilometers away from Israel?

"Yes. The submarine itself has all kinds of procedures and drills for extrication. Firstly, they can sit and wait. They can exit the submarine one after the other into the water, and then they surface and we pick them up. We are also required to be able to assist them when they do not want to exit the submarine."

So as not to jeopardize the covert nature of the mission, for example?

"They may prefer to remain inside the submarine. We know how to get to them and assist them even when they are inside the submarine, insert an air hose for them and repair the malfunction. The Navy conducted a major exercise in Italy a while ago that included assistance to submarines. In reality this never happened, but the capability has significantly improved and the scenario has become highly realistic pursuant to the INS Dakar disaster. If required, we will be able to reach any point, even thousands of kilometers away from Israel, and assist the stranded submarine."

But the UMU also knows how to assist in extrication missions that are far less complicated…

"We assist in situations such as floods, for example. You will always see us there, every year in the winter. The IDF GHQ Operations Department alerts us and we arrive on the scene with small dinghies and perform the rescue operations required, like when you have a flood and gas cylinders are floating around. The State has improved significantly with regard to storm water drainage. When I was a young member of the UMU we were alerted every winter to the 'Krayot' area and to the Jordan River, and today the state is more acutely aware of this issue."

The Search Operations in the Sea of Galilee

Let's talk about the most significant search operation the UMU has been conducting since its establishment, the search for the body of Lt. Yakir Naveh, an IAF flight instructor who crashed into the Sea of Galilee in 1962 with his Fouga Magister trainer…

"UMU has been leading the search for IAF pilot Yakir Naveh. In 1962 (and I am mentioning the year intentionally, as no other country in the world invests so much time, efforts and resources in a search for someone who we know had been killed just to give him a proper burial), an IAF jet trainer crashed in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. A year later a part of the aircraft was found, the body of the flight school cadet was recovered but the body of the pilot (flight instructor) was never found. About ten years ago we established the location of the aircraft's tail, in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. A few hundreds of meters away from it, we found the wing. We started fishing the various parts of the aircraft out of the Sea of Galilee. We employed a sonar, charted the lake and started fishing out everything. He was never washed out of the lake. There were parts that protruded from the bottom like some sort of ledge. In all of those years, the bottom of the lake became more densely covered. We practically assembled a complete aircraft on the bottom and charted the bottom in cooperation with the Eitan Unit – the unit in charge of locating missing servicemen. Then we found this part, which is the cockpit wall, the wall next to which the pilot sits. We started vacuuming the bottom using a vacuum pumping device we had built. You pump water and everything piles up at a nearby location, and then we salvaged Yakir Naveh's handgun five years ago, and a watch that his widow identified. In the picture you can see that it is the same watch. And we found Yakir's helmet. Today we know that his remains are in that area. We dive to a depth of 32 meters. It is pitch dark down there, and you are digging in the mud. Everything is buried under half a meter of mud and you cannot see anything. We have an anthropologist with us who can differentiate between human bones and animal bones. We found a lot of animal bones but thus far we have not found him. We are cooperating with IAF and I believe that we will find him eventually. It is a very methodical investigation – a highly unusual case. We invest one month out of every year in this effort – normally in March-April. In the summer it is extremely difficult to work there, and we want the most favorable sea conditions. During the winter we face the limitations of the winter, so we normally work during a transition season. The objective is to find him. We analyzed previous accidents in order to determine the dispersion funnel of the crashed aircraft. It is all highly professional. He was 23 years old when he was killed. His parents have already passed away, but his widow and his brother are waiting to give him a proper burial. I am confident that we will find him."

What is your peacetime function in repairing Navy vessels?

"One of the good things about this unit is the ability to work under a naval vessel and repair it (while it is in the water), thereby preventing it from being dry-docked, namely – being taken out of the water for repairs in a shipyard. If a Sa'ar-5 missile frigate encounters a piping problem that affects its cooling engine, this will have an adverse effect on its worthiness. It cannot be opened up at sea, as you will have to remove the piping and then the ship might sink. Dry-docking a vessel means taking it off operational status: drain all of the fuel, remove all of the weapons. This takes a very long time. So we built a rig that you can attach to a vessel from below, seal it and then it is dry inside. We work for 4 hours and prevent the missile frigate from being dry-docked. There is no particular glory in it, but it is highly complex work. It means taking huge gaskets and adapting them to the missile frigates. We have the knowledge required in order to repair missile frigates and submarines. I must seal them from the outside so that water may not leak into them. These projects come and go."

What is the function of UMU in defending Israel's maritime borders?

"In our country, regrettably, there is a massive fence system along all of the borders on land: look at the border with Egypt and at the Golan Heights. At sea, unfortunately, we cannot provide such a fence, as the sea will destroy it immediately. In order to erect such a fence we will have to dry out the sea. So we have a few options available: we place buoys along the borders. We should take into consideration not just the enemy but also the civilian population that fishes: the Lebanese fish, the Gazans fish and we must draw a line as to how far out they can go in order to fish. If you are a fisherman, you do not care about the border – all you care about is your catch, and they want to get closer and closer to us all the time. The routine security units and coastal stations of the Navy are in charge of defending the borders but we place the buoys. In the Gaza Strip, just a while ago, we extended their fishing range from six to nine nautical miles pursuant to political decisions. We deploy highly complex transducers along the border. I cannot say where and I cannot say how many. We are responsible for installing, securing and maintaining this thing. Take a coastal Radar system, for example: it undergoes testing and maintenance and servicing. The only difference is that in our case it is a submerged Radar on the high seas. Another definite difference is the fact that no one knows where it is. Its function is to detect underwater activity."

Can we expect to see an increase in the attempts by Hamas and Hezbollah to intrude through the sea?

"They have already attempted to arrive through the underwater medium as we saw during Operation Protective Edge at Zikim beach. The Navy does everything possible to stop them. The Navy conducted a debriefing and is working in that direction and has significantly improved the underwater defenses. Some excellent work had been done and eventually we stopped them. We conducted a comprehensive debriefing and analyzed this issue very thoroughly."

In other words, we can expect attempted intrusions through the shore during the next round in Lebanon or in the Gaza Strip?

"We need to prepare for these things and we are preparing for them. During Operation Protective Edge we took part in naval missions associated with the Navy that I cannot elaborate on."

How does the UMU mark the maritime borders?

"Along the maritime border, at some point it becomes too deep and you cannot anchor the transducers to the bottom of the sea so you cannot position them there. Along the border on land, you can employ a bulldozer and stick a pole in the ground. At sea you have wind and waves. We cannot afford to allow the transducer to become entangled and be swept away to Lebanon or to Gaza, as that might develop into an incident. These systems, these buoys, weigh a few tons and according to them the Lebanese fishermen know how to avoid crossing the border. Eventually, this thing has to live out at sea and during storms it is shaken fairly violently. If the Navy thinks it should install a sensor on those buoys, we will do it… Our diving systems are closed circuit scuba systems that to not produce air bubbles that rise to the surface, just like the systems used by the men of the 13th Flotilla (Naval Commandos)."

Hazardous Dives

How concerned are your divers about the years during which they were still diving in the polluted Kishon River?

"After my dives in the Kishon River, when it was still possible, I was placed under yearly monitoring, so personally I am not worried. The Navy has improved tremendously since the events of the Kishon River. Today, along the entire coastline, water samples are being collected every week and taken to a laboratory for biological testing. Once a year they carry out chemical tests to ensure that the water contains no heavy metals. Today, anyone at the naval officer course or in the 13th Flotilla can log in to a website and check whether the state is red or green – whether or not it is safe to dive there. If we have to carry out an operational mission in a polluted area, we will use dry suits that monitor the diver so that the pollution would not harm him. We had operational situations in the past where we had to dive in a polluted area and the previous commandant of the Navy, Eliezer Marom ("Chiney") did not authorize the dive because of the pollution. I am referring to the case of Rose Pisam, the murdered girl whose body was found in the Yarkon River. We intended to dive in the Yarkon River and eventually some civilians found the suitcase containing the body floating in the river. They wanted us to participate and dive in the Yarkon River using our dry gear, but we were not authorized to do it. If the civilians had not found her, I am confident that they would have used us. We possess the capabilities and the means required in order to dive in polluted areas."

The men of the UMU have another mission assigned to them, which is unique and original: they participate in all of the trials of the missile testing unit that launches the Israeli-made missiles westward, into the sea, sometimes to great distances.

"In trials involving missiles like the Arrow, you have to fish whatever's left from the bottom of the sea. I need to locate the missile, hook it onto a crane and fish it out, so that it does not fall into the wrong hands and also in order to have it returned for analysis. Our demolition troop is like the YAHALOM Unit (the special engineering mission unit of the IDF Combat Engineering Corps – O.H.), but it can dive. We take care of the entire engineering issue like YAHALOM. The men of the 13th Flotilla place explosive charges and we can neutralize and dismantle explosive charges on naval vessels.

"Every Saturday during the summer, civilians call us to handle unused ammunition found in or by the sea. For example, in Kalya at the northern tip of the Dead Sea. A tourist finds something so he calls the police and they call the UMU. We encounter that every Saturday during the summer. A civilian who finds a hand grenade somewhere, soldiers who take military equipment home and then go on trips around the world. We destroy unused ammunition. We are like a YAHALOM Unit that knows how to dive. As divers of the UMU, we need to know how to neutralize underwater mines that all of the naval forces in the region have. A naval mine is Casus Belli. If you sink a ship it will not be like a regular terrorist attack. There are a few hundreds of kilograms of explosives in there. The gas produced by the explosion can easily sink a Sa'ar-5 frigate by the huge bubble the explosion creates. The UMU also assists in disarming the weapons and munitions captured on board the Iranian arms ships the 13th Flotilla seizes, like the MV Francop and the KLOS C."

What was the role played by the UMU in the attempted terrorist attack by Hamas, where barrels containing explosives were sent north out of the Gaza Strip?

"The sea current regime of the Mediterranean is northbound. So they (Hamas in the Gaza Strip) throw something out to the sea, and they do not care whom it may hit. With floating explosive charges, the best way is to destroy them from afar using the most convenient weapon available on board the routine security vessels – a MAG machine gun or a Typhoon RCWS. Since the explosive barrel incident you referred to, I have not encountered any other similar attempt by Hamas."