Key Point: Israel’s sea-based nuclear deterrent is here to stay.
Israel’s submarine corps is a tiny force with a big open secret: in all likelihood, it is armed with nuclear weapons. The five Dolphin-class submarines represent an ace in the hole for Israel, the ultimate guarantor of the country’s security, ensuring that if attacked with nukes, the tiny nation can strike back in kind.
Israel’s first nuclear weapons were completed by the early 1970s, and deployed among both free-fall aircraft bombs and Jericho ballistic missiles. The 1991 Persian Gulf War, which saw Iraqi Scuds and Al Hussein ballistic missiles raining down on Israeli cities, led Tel Aviv to conclude that the country needed a true nuclear triad of air-, land- and sea-based nukes to give the country’s nuclear deterrent maximum flexibility—and survivability.
The most survivable arm of the nuclear triad is typically the sea-based one, consisting of nuclear-armed submarines. Submarines can disappear for weeks or even months, taking up a highly classified patrol route while waiting for orders to launch their missiles. This so-called “second-strike capability” is built on the principle of nuclear deterrence and ensures potential enemies will think twice before attacking, knowing Israel’s submarines will be available to carry out revenge attacks.
The first three submarines were authorized before the Gulf War, in 1988, though it is not clear they were built with nuclear weapons in mind. After years of delays construction began in Germany instead of the United States as originally planned, with German combat systems instead of American ones. Most importantly, the project went ahead with German financing; Berlin reportedly felt obliged to finance two of the submarines, and split the third as lax German nonproliferation enforcement had partly enabled Iraq’s nuclear and chemical weapons program.