December 7, 2017

Israel's Dolphin Submarine Nuclear Strike Issues

It is well known Israel has nuclear weapons and considers Iran its main future nuclear threat. But what issues is Israel facing with its main first and second strike platforms - the Dolphin submarines?

Launch Points

To assure a future nuclear armed Iran that Israel’s submarines could destroy Iran in a second strike Israel requires sound geographical deployments (see map below). As Israel’s Dolphin submarine base at Haifa is on the eastern Mediterranean this provides unimpeded access to a second strike launch zone (say) 30 nautical miles (nm) offshore. There is the great advantage of only a short time (2 or 3 hours) from leaving Haifa to arriving at a launch point.

Other close options for launch points, eg. the Red Sea or Gulf of Aqaba, would take days and are easily blocked in time of war. The Suez Canal and Red Sea were both blocked in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1956 and 1967. These waterways are too shallow and/or narrow to be submarine friendly.

Submarine passage through the Suez Canal by international law must, very indiscreetly for a submarine, be on the surface. The risks that an Iranian Kilo submarine or aircraft might intercept a Dolphin are very real, as a Dolphin exits south from the Suez Canal or Red Sea.

This leaves the Arabian Sea, off Iran’s southern coast, as the only other, barely viable, launch zone. But major problems are arduous voyages over excessively long distances. This all complicates calculations of lead times and reduces Israel’s ability to plausibly threaten Iran with a second strike.

From Haifa, via the Suez Canal and Red Sea, to the middle of the Arabian Sea a return trip is just over 6,000nm and takes 30 days at a rapid snorkelling speed of 10 knots. For distance calculations see. With the Dolphin’s “maximum unrefuelled range [of] 8,000 nautical miles” this leaves little fuel for operating on station or fleeing pursuers. Refuelling from a submarine tender or friendly base (if there is one) may well be necessary. Refuelling becomes highly specialised if a Dolphin II also needs AIP chemicals. Refuelling has to take into account the possible need for emergency high-speed tactics, which burn up fuel rapidly.

If the narrows to the south of Israel are blocked or unusable for other reasons then the longer route, via the Strait of Gibraltar and around South Africa (Cape of Good Hope) is even further. This means  12,000nm over a 50 day transit (one-way). This adds up to (2 x 50 days) + 30 days on station = a 130 day mission. For a conventional submarine with only 35 to 45 crew this would be too exhausting, leading to major drops in efficiency and safety. Three indiscrete refuelling and reprovisioning cycles would likely be required.


Perhaps the simplest way to avoid distant launch point operations is to increase the range of the Dolphin’s nuclear tipped land attack missiles. But details of these missiles are unclear. Israel advertises its SLCM as an unlikely and major modification of the Popeye air to surface missile (also see this reference). The Israeli SLCM is advertised to have a range of 1,500km. They may be:

1.  long and one-stage rocket propelled allowing them to operate at the edge of space at least at
     supersonic speed over their whole trajectory. Speed and high altitude would make them more
     difficult to shoot down. But having sufficient range from undersea launch and with a sufficient payload are major technical hurdles of such small rockets. Or

2.  Israel’s answer to the US Tomahawk SLCM. Drawbacks are SLCMs' subsonic speed and
     relatively low and vulnerable altitude would limit their value as second strike weapons.

My theory is the so-called “Popeye Turbo”, as it applies to an alleged SLCM, is a cover name developed by Israel and the US for an Israeli derivative of the US Tomahawk. A derivative created by US Tomahawk scientists/technicians who retired to Israel, assisted by Israel’s well known talent for technical intelligence gathering.

An alternative theory is that “Popeye Turbo” is a small SLBM tested by Israel in the Indian Ocean in 2002. This was a test also involving India. India at a minimum could have provided Israel with a launchpad, testing airspace and sea-space because Israel testing SLBMs in the Mediterranean or close waters would meet much international political resistance. Perhaps a deal included Israel assisting India in developing the mini-SLBM Sagarika/K-15. To control publicity the 2002 missile test was plausibly witnessed by the US, probably after being alerted to watch it.

Israel’s “Popeye Turbo” SLCM, miniature SLBM or Israeli Tomahawk may well be launched through the Dolphins’ horizontal 650mm torpedo tubes. Such missiles from launch zones 30nm west of Haifa can already hit Tehran.


If Israel’s next class of three submarines (Dolphin 3s?) are larger than the current Dolphin 2s, then larger, longer range missiles might be mounted.

Israel’s Dolphins would very likely launch their SLBMs or SLCMs from the Mediterranean Sea because alternative launch points involve indiscrete movement, choke points and/or excessively long voyages.

One day Australia might need to consider similar issues Israel is facing now, that is second strikes using missiles mounted on conventional (for Australia “Future”) submarines.



Anonymous said...

Let's not forget Israel does have several MRBM/IRBM.

Josh said...

The newer Israeli boats have larger torpedo tubes than 533mm, which suggests a new build weapon wider than popeye or tomahawk.

Whatever the weapon is, simple physics pretty ensure it is a turbo jet subsonic weapon to get the distance needed to threaten Iran. There is no alternative. Super sonic missiles are much larger weapons with shorter ranges; compare for instance the Kh-22/32 or YJ-12 with BGM-109: the turbojet weapons has over twice the range at roughly half the weight.


GhalibKabir said...

Israel did not help India with SLBMs. As you can see in available launch videos, It was mostly Russian support till the K-4. (stopped now as Uncle Sam has started to 'cultivate ties')

I would bet that Israel has probably made contingency arrangements to use the sea near the Kerala Coast or Lakshwadeep Islands as a 'sort of base' and launch 'retaliatory strikes' from the Indian Ocean if enough Jericho IRBMs cannot be launched. Likely, the Popeye SLCM launch was carried out in the waters near Kerala to 'test' the scenario.

However, since it is quite possible that the Middle East hots up real bad some time in the future, if not a domestic SSBN, Israel might want to get large 4000 tons plus category 'Dolphin V/VI' series AIP SSKs with large enough VLS tubes to hold the SLBM verison of the Jericho ICBM in service currently. A secure sea based deterrence might prove very handy.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Josh that very long range means subsonic like the BGM-109. If it has a powerful enough booster that can brings it to 3000-6000 meters before separation, then it can fly much farther (than flying at low level). It is most likely shaped for low RCS like the Raduga Kh-101/102 which has a range of 5500km or longer. The key characteristic to ultra long range is having access to a very fuel efficient ultra low sfc micro turbofan.

Peter Coates said...

Hi Ghalib Kabir

Yes I suspected Russia has/is giving India assistance with the K-15 and whole Agni series. Not to mention Russian H-bomb test results - so India hasn't needed to hot-test.

Israeli missile help to India may be a semi-plausible cover - covering more extensive Russian help.

A possible Israeli IRBM launch base at may cause Iran sufficient anxiety - even if its unlikely. One reason being the Jericho IIIs launched in Israel can easily hit any Middle East, Iranian, Pakistani and most Chinese and Russian (including Moscow) targets.

For Dolphin 3s onwards we'll need to wait and see.



GhalibKabir said...

With the Agni Series not much direct Russky help as it was derived off the ISRO SLV program. The Russian help was most visible with the K-4 (I understand it was likely quite limited with the smaller K-15). The K-4 launch videos show in plain sight the Russian help with launching of the much heavier SLBM nearly replicating similar Russian launches.(of course most visible help was with the 'show-how' on the Arihant Hull and Reactor design)

Russian H-Bomb results, again don't think so. India has a working boosted fission device max 200 kT yield and no H-Bomb ability whatsoever at this juncture. MIRV ability is untested but thought to be present and a rudimentary ASAT ability (Agni-IV in a depressed trajectory mode simulated the same which was why the Chinese did their 'Ababeel' jiggery pokery via Pakistan in response imho)

Any repeat Israeli SLCM test in the future from Kerala should in all probability use the same launch paths used i.e. Kerala towards the South of South Africa (guise of a sub launched Nirbhay) or could shift to India's preferred test trajectory in the wide arc between deep southern Indian Ocean and the Western Coast area of Australia if a long range SLBM does get tested by Israel.

Peter Coates said...

Hi Ghalib Kabir [at 10/12/17 11:18 PM] now on INS Arighat

Thanks for your response - I'll respond soon.

A different new matter - the apparent launch (on November 19. 2017?) of the next in the Arihant class known as INS Arighat (?) is a surprise - according to

It seems INS Arighat is the same displacement (?) as INS Arihant. With INS Arighat presumably still only having 4 x K4 sized tubes. So INS Arighat still doesn't seem to be a full-size SSBN?

A 4 tube INS Arighat with a non-appearence of the expected 8 tube INS Aridhaman suggests India still has not progressed from the Arihant/Arighat prototype stage.

The closest thing to SSBN competitor to India is China - with China presumably confused but happy with India's slow progress.



GhalibKabir said...

If China is happy, then hopefully they are wise enough to remember their Jin Class subs & that their JL-1 SLBM was never operational and they had true SLBM capability only in 2009 when the JL-2 tests were done. So a good 3+ decade timeline even with Chinese dedication.

India is making slow progress. Might not be nice, even though the Russian 'Show-how' was available, the reactor was constructed anew and the construction efforts were all a giant learning curve within a slow Indian system. partially India's fault, partially 'cannot overcome' resource limitations implied progress has been labored, progress nevertheless.

The Arighat seems like a replica Arihant with 4 K-4 silos. Sandeep indicates boats 3 & 4 are 7000 t implying in all probability the VLS plug is a 8 celled one. It could mean amongst other things getting finished boats out before tackling issues like enlarging size etc.. (may be they encountered issues with the S-4 and S-4*)

Given the information blackout, we can probably safely say this

Preferable Ideal Situation:

a fleet of 5 12,000 tons plus 12-16 VLS SSBNs that can launch MIRVed SLBMs

Likely Reality:

A mixed fleet of 4 or 5 6000, 7000 and 13,000 ton SSBNs that possibly are only equipped with single warhead SLBMs.

The current priority which I think is right seems as follows

1. Rotate 2 SSBNs fitted with the K-4 on regular patrol to gain experience (by 2022?)
2. Test & perfect the Nirbhay in SLCM mode to equip the SSN VLSs (finish by 2022-23?)
3. Build a 190 MW reactor on the lines of the OK-650 for the enlarged SSBNs and the SSNs (by 2022-23?)
4. Commission the S-4 larger SSBNs (by 2025-26?)
5. Commission the first domestic SSN (2032-33?)

This is kinda realistic even from an Indian project management perspective considering most of the points are already underway.

Peter Coates said...

Hi Ghalib Kabir

Thanks for your 12/12/17 2:28 AM reply.

Like India's mixture of aircraft carriers sizes and projects [see [1] and [2] ] it looks like SSBNs will get the same treatment.



It seems that a Navy needs to have a large budget [old Soviet, and current US Navy] to go into series mass production of vessels.

I suppose having mixed SSBN sizes will keep opponents guessing in terms of detection and ASW weapon solutions.

I would say/guess India needs at leat 4 x 7,000 ton 8 cell submarines. This is assuming warhead accuracy and reliability are up to scratch. Three or five MIRVs per missile would help.



GhalibKabir said...

I would say mixed size SSBNs happened by accident. agree on need for 8 VLS MIRV SLBMs.

During UPA-I, when P Chidambaram asked the navy, at INR 450 billion per boat (US$ 10 bil in 2005), why only 4 cells and not 8?, Apparently two Arihant size boats were already under construction (circa 2006) and the reactor specs had been frozen, so another 1,000 tons addition was considered ill advised and the INS Aridhaman was proposed instead with an upscaled reactor.

However, I am near certain that owing to technological limitations, BARC is still working to juice up the reactor while staying within size constraints and finally decided an upsized larger S-4 boat (could be the Aridhaman) could allow for uprating the reactor through increasing the size. The S-4* could be another 7000 t boat to fill space while the larger S-5 boat (13,000 t?)

3 MIRV K-5 certainly is a possibility. warhead accuracy and reliability are reasonable. But I understand India has never tested MIRV ability as one of the 'quid pro quos' to Uncle Sam's supply of hardware like the P-8 and support for stuff like a greater international role (not to be uncharitable, but, Uncle Sam is to India what Pandora was to Prometheus)

If India fails to replicate the 190 MWt OK650 then it might need to put two 83 MWt reactors one behind the other in both SSBNs and SSNs to get enough shaft power. (we might need triple the SWUs at Challekere ENR facility if that happens)

Plus they need to integrate the torpedo Varunastra and get advanced electronic subsystems from the likes of Elbit to strengthen the boat's capabilities as time goes by.

With aircraft carriers, the issue is that instead of using the Vikrant blueprint to make 2 STOBAR carriers (3 with the Vikramaditya, so 2 on patrol and one in refit), a sort of ambitious midway jump to CATOBAR has created a sort of dog's dinner. Vikrant is limping to completion as the Russians delay aviation complex parts and other critical subsystems. Thankfully the SSBN program is in better shape.

Peter Coates said...

Hi GhalibKabir

Thanks for your 12/12/17 5:59 PM info. I'll use it in a Arighat report for donors in the next 24 hours.

As your info and analyses have helped greatly I'll send a copy of the Arighat report to you.

As I don't have your Email address please contact me via my blogger profile via my Email see left sidebar.