Submarine threat heats up in the Middle East

Oct. 1, 2006
The Israeli navy’s purchase in August of two more sophisticated attack submarines, which experts say are capable of firing nuclear-tipped cruise missiles that can hit targets in Iran, highlights an emerging and dangerous submarine arms race in and around the Middle East.

John Keller, Editor in Chief

The Israeli navy’s purchase in August of two more sophisticated attack submarines, which experts say are capable of firing nuclear-tipped cruise missiles that can hit targets in Iran, highlights an emerging and dangerous submarine arms race in and around the Middle East.

This naval armaments race, which revolves around the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, is placing growing pressure on U.S. undersea forces to monitor developments in the region and contain crises as they inevitably will emerge.

The growing regional submarine force poses a far different threat from the global open-ocean submarine force of the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s.

Centered principally in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Red Sea, and Mediterranean, the Middle East submarine threat is primarily a shallow-water coastal affair, which places a premium not only on super-quiet submarine technology, but also on sophisticated digital signal processing to enable U.S. and allied sonar systems to detect submarines quickly in noisy and sonically complicated littoral areas.

Israel is one of the region’s chief players in undersea warfare. In August Israeli military forces announced its order for two more German-made Dolphin-class submarines.

These boats not only can fire nuclear-tipped cruise-missiles-based Israeli Popeye Turbo, but they also may have super-quiet air-independent propulsion (AIP) systems that render them as quiet as advanced U.S. nuclear attack submarines.

Israeli nuclear-tipped submarine-launched cruise missiles are believed to have ranges in excess of 930 miles. Most likely, moreover, Israeli submarines in a crisis could launch nuclear missiles while submerged; as such they would be virtually immune from interdiction or retaliation.

Put simply, with submarines operating in the Mediterranean, Arabian Sea, Red Sea, or Persian Gulf, there is not one target in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, or anywhere else in the Middle East that is out of range of a potential Israeli nuclear strike-not Tehran, not Damascus, not Riyadh, not Cairo.

This, of course, is a central component of Israeli military strategy. With the emerging nuclear weapons threat of Iran in mind, Israel has the ability to respond to a future Iranian nuclear attack on Israeli soil covertly in a massive and devastating way. This capability would have to make even the most radical, hard-line regime in the region think twice before unleashing a nuclear attack.

The U.S. Navy, which has tasked itself with monitoring submarine traffic and developments throughout the world, has its work cut out for it in this volatile region that is rife with terrorism. The Middle East submarine threat today will pale in comparison with what’s in store for the future.

I pose this question simply out of curiosity: how long might it be before this capability to launch nuclear missiles covertly falls into the hands of rogue regimes, or worse, into the hands of powerful terrorist organizations like Hezbollah or al-Qaida?

The submarines operating today in Middle Eastern waters are not always the rickety, obsolescent, poorly maintained boats that one might expect. The Israeli Dolphins are some of the quietest and most advanced submarines in the world, and are not the only submersibles in the region with air-independent propulsion.

India, for example, has what experts believe to be at least 12 to 15 submarines, some of them quite sophisticated. Moreover, India has six submarines on order-at least three of which are expected to have AIP capability.

India is acquiring six Franco-Spanish Scorpene diesel-powered submarines, with an option for six more. These boats will be built in India, and will be super-quiet vessels, some of them with AIP, which can give diesel-electric submarines the ability to operate submerged for as long as four to 18 days-perhaps longer-without surfacing or snorkeling.

Translated, that means AIP-equipped submarines like the Israeli Dolphin class are undetectable to all but the world’s most advanced and sophisticated sonar systems.

AIP systems, furthermore, are not limited in the region only to Israel. In coastal Central Asia, India may have as many as six AIP-equipped submarines as part of their submarine fleet, experts believe.

Pakistan, meanwhile, operates a fleet of at least eight submarines, four diesel-electric French Daphne-class submarines purchased in the 1970s, two French Agosta-class diesel-electric submarines, and two advanced French Agosta 90B-type quiet diesel-electric submarines that could be improved even more with AIP.

This certainly is not the end of the list of Middle Eastern countries with at least some sort of submarine capability.

Iran reportedly has three submarines, admittedly, however, of the 1980s-vintage Russian Kilo class of diesel-electric boats, which are vulnerable to advanced antisubmarine warfare equipment, have young and inexperienced crews, and are limited to laying mines in undefended waters.

Iran, however, also is reputed to possess advanced maritime mine capability, including nonmagnetic, free-floating, and remote-controlled mines, as well as pressure, acoustic, magnetic, and rocket-propelled rising mines.

Egypt reportedly has four 1960s-vintage Russian/Chinese Romeo-class diesel-electric submarines, while Saudi Arabia reportedly operates only mini-submarines, but is trying to acquire as many as eight full-size submarines from European suppliers.

Put together, this is a formidable maritime threat that the U.S. and its allies face in the Middle East. In response, U.S. military officials are developing advanced anti-submarine and countermine capability for the U.S. Navy’s future Littoral Combat Ship (see “New ship takes lead in countermine and anti-submarine warfare, M&AE August 2006, page 28).

U.S. officials also are launching a research program called Tango Bravo to lead the design of a new attack submarine with the capabilities of the state-of-the-art Virginia-class nuclear attack submarine, but at half the Virginia’s size.

A program of the Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Tango Bravo revolves around advanced submarine technology in five areas: propulsion not constrained by a centerline shaft; externally stored and launched weapons; conformal versions of today’s spherical sonar arrays; simplified hull, mechanical, and electrical systems; and machine automation to reduce crew workload.

Programs such as Tango Bravo, to augment upgraded Los Angeles-, Sea Wolf- and Virginia-class attack submarines, are coming none too soon to help contain a growing submarine threat in a dangerous part of the world.

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