Submarines in the 20th-century Arab- Israeli conflicts


A new Israeli Dolphin-class submarine arrives at Haifa, July 1999.

Submarines played only a small role in the 20th-century Arab- Israeli conflicts. The conflicts were of such short duration and involved such a small area of operations that submarines could make little impact other than conducting covert intelligence collection or, in the case of Israel, delivering special forces units. Because all the Middle Eastern conflicts—the Israeli War of Independence (1948–1949), the Suez Crisis (1956), the Six-Day War (1967), and the Yom Kippur War (1973)—involved nations sharing contiguous borders, naval operations were less important than land and air forces. However, the advent of submarine-launched cruise missiles may lead to submarines having a greater role in any future conflicts that may erupt. Israel, Egypt, Libya, and Iran all have submarine fleets, albeit of varying size, quality, and capability. Iran and Israel have received or are developing land-attack cruise missiles for their submarines.

The nature of their fleets’ operating areas and the limited size of their defense budgets have precluded the countries involved in the Arab-Israeli wars from operating nuclear-powered submarines. Instead, they have had to opt for the cheaper and much shorter-ranged conventional diesel-electric models. In fact, prior to the late 1990s they were limited to operating second-hand obsolescent submarines. Since that time, they have acquired increasingly modern top-of-the-line conventionally powered submarines.

Israel acquired its first submarines from Great Britain in 1958: two World War II–era Type S diesel boats. Capable of 9 knots submerged and equipped with six 21-inch torpedo tubes and various deck guns and machine guns, the Type S boats were already obsolete. Israel later acquired three 1940s-era Type-T submarines. At 1,700 metric tons submerged and with a submerged speed of 15 knots, the Type Ts were larger and faster than their predecessors but carried a similar armament. Originally designed to attack enemy surface vessels in the Atlantic, the Type S and Type T submarines in Israeli service operated mostly in the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf, where their primary mission was to land covert operations forces. The Tanin, an Israeli Type S submarine, saw brief action during the 1967 Six-Day War when it landed a team of commandos at the Egyptian port of Alexandria and subsequently attacked an Egyptian sloop. The Type T submarines served during the War of Attrition that lasted from 1967 through 1973, successfully conducting several special operations forces raids.

Israel upgraded its submarine fleet in 1976 with the introduction of the Gal-class boats, which were specially designed to operate in the region. Smaller and faster than the World War II–era boats, they displaced 660 metric tons and had a top submerged speed of 17 knots. The three Gal-class subs supported extensive covert operations, especially during the Israeli 1982 invasion of Lebanon and against Palestinian targets there and in North Africa. Israel began to replace the Gals in 1997, when it bought three 1925-ton German-built Dolphin-class submarines. Capable of 20 knots submerged, the Dolphins carry both torpedoes and possibly the 900-mile-range Popeye Turbo cruise missile. Estimates of the Dolphin’s number of launch tubes range from 6 to 10. Israel has never confirmed or denied that it has nuclear weapons, but the general assumption is that Israel does have them. Although there are no firm indicators that any of Israel’s presumed nuclear weapons are capable of being launched from a submarine, most of Israel’s enemies in the region suspect that this is the case.

While Israel acquired Western submarines, the Arab countries primarily relied on Soviet designs to equip their fleets. Egypt acquired its first submarines, four Soviet-built Romeo-class boats, in 1957. Egypt secured eight in all (four in 1957, three in 1958, and one in 1962). Two of these were returned to the Soviet Union in 1966, and two more were returned during 1971–1972; all four were ex – changed for Whiskey-class boats. The 1,700-ton Romeos are based on the German Type XXI design of World War II, have a top speed of 14 knots submerged, and are equipped with eight 21-inch torpedo tubes (six in front, two astern). Although of a later design than the Romeos, the slightly smaller (at 1,080 tons) submerged Whiskey-class units offered no performance improvements over the Romeos. The Whiskey-class subs had a lower submerged top speed at 13.5 knots and fewer torpedo tubes (four forward, two aft) but did have a longer underwater duration (30 hours versus 24 at a speed of 3 knots).

Egypt’s Romeos and Whiskeys played almost no role in the country’s many conflicts with Israel. Their employment was limited to coastal defense and minelaying (in the Gulf of Aqaba). Finally, Egypt purchased four British-built Oberon-class submarines in 1989 and had their combat systems, electronics, and sonars updated. The Oberons are among the quietest submarines in the world and have a submerged displacement of 2,000 tons and a top underwater speed of 17 knots. Their eight 21-inch torpedo tubes can be used to fire torpedoes or Harpoon cruise missiles.

Syria acquired three Romeo-class submarines from the Soviet Union during 1985–1986. An older Whiskey-class sub was also transferred to Syria in 1986 but to serve as a battery-charging hulk to support the Romeo boats.

Farther west, Libya used its oil wealth to purchase six of the more modern Foxtrot-class submarines from the Soviet Union during 1978–1980. With a submerged displacement of 2,045 tons, the Foxtrot class was the largest of the Soviet submarine designs exported before the Kilo class was introduced in the late 1980s. The Foxtrot’s 15-knot maximum submerged speed was not particularly impressive. However, it could remain submerged on batteries for up to four days and was the quietest Soviet submarine of its day, making it difficult to detect in the coastal waters off North Africa. However, Libya’s submarines have suffered from poor maintenance and crew training and are believed to have never ventured far from the Libyan coast.

After Iran’s fundamentalist revolution in 1979, it pursued an aggressive program of modern weapons acquisition and clearly stated its national policy of eliminating the State of Israel. Consequently, both the United States and Germany withheld deliveries of submarines previously contracted for by the Iranian Navy. This drove Iran to purchase three Soviet-built Kilo-class submarines in the early 1990s. The Kilo-class displaces more than 3,900 tons submerged and has a top underwater speed of 17 knots. The Kilos are armed with six 21-inch torpedo tubes and one surface-to-air missile (SAM) launcher.

The Iranian and Israeli submarines represent the best of the submarine designs in service among Middle Eastern nations. Once considered obsolete by many American defense analysts, modern diesel submarines are now recognized as a serious threat in constricted waters, such as those of the Middle East’s potential conflict zones. Moreover, modern diesels are quieter when operating on their batteries than are nuclear submarines and can remain submerged on their batteries for up to 15 days with snorkeling. Nonetheless, prior to the introduction of submarine-launched land-attack missiles in 1991, submarines traditionally have had their greatest impact in wars that last long enough for attacks on an enemy’s fleet and shipping to have a strategic impact on the fighting ashore. This has now changed. More importantly, Iran’s Kilo-class submarines provide Tehran with the capacity to seriously disrupt if not decimate oil shipments coming out of the Persian Gulf.

References Eldar, Maik. Dakar and the Story of the Israeli Submarines. Tel Aviv: Modan: Aryeh Nir, 1997. Erell, Shlomo. Hed artsi [Submarine Diplomacy]. Tel Aviv: Yehudah, 2000. Katzman, Kenneth. Iran: U.S. Policy and Options. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 2000. Moore, John. Jane’s Fighting Ships, 1977–78. London: Jane’s, 1977. Revelle, Daniel J., and Lora Lumpe. “Third World Submarines.” Scientific American (August 1994): 16–21. Sharpe, Richard. Jane’s Fighting Ships, 1991–1992. Surrey, UK: Jane’s, 1991.


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