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?
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.