Israel's Submarine Menace: Israel's Three Dolphin Type 800 Submarines-Considered the Most Advanced Conventional Submarines in the World-Are Reported to Have Been Equipped with Cruise Missiles Capable of Carrying Nuclear Weapons. (Military)

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Reports that Israel has armed its new German-built Dolphin submarines with cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads seem to have barely raised a ripple of concern in the region, preoccupied as it is with the carnage in Israel and Palestine. But if these reports are correct--and militarily, developing such a capability makes a lot of sense amid the proliferation of missiles and non-conventional weapons programmes in the Middle East--then the consequences could be far-reaching and perilous.

It is also interesting that these reports have surfaced as the Bush administration has been unveiling its new strategic doctrine of pre-emptive military strikes against hostile states and terrorist organisations armed with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons if it appears they plan to use them against the United States. This is the most radical shift in US strategy for half a century. However, pre-emptive strikes have been Israel's preferred policy for decades. And in the climate of fear of catastrophic attacks that has swelled since 11 September one can be forgiven for believing that George W Bush's new doctrine dovetails rather neatly with Israel's and could even be seen to be sanctioning such operations by his Israeli allies, who now consider themselves actively and irrevocably locked into the same battle against the "axis of evil" as the Americans. Two of the components of that axis, Iran and Iraq, are deemed by Israel to be major threats. Although Bush's doctrine has not yet been fully defined, the Americans, like the Israelis, who have ignored the rules of international law for decades, seem to be preparing to act as a law unto themselves. In this regard, there have been reports from Washington that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has created a highly secret paramilitary unit to eliminate known terrorists and their leaders, in effect an elite assassination unit. There are alarming parallels with Israeli operational doctrine here as well which could conceivably entail US and Israeli special forces working together in the covert programme to topple Saddam Hussein in which US forces have been authorised to use lethal force "in self-defence". These developments, taken as a whole, could have disastrous consequences in the Middle East.

For now, let us look at Israel's small fleet of submarines and what it would mean for it to become the first such force in the region to be armed with nuclear-tipped missiles that give it a second-strike capability. That means that if its nuclear arsenal, which is primarily land-based, were destroyed in a missile attack it would still be able to retaliate against any aggressor with devastating power from the sea. That should give any potential adversary pause before embarking on such an adventure. But it also gives Israel the ability to launch pre-emptive strikes, nuclear or conventional, far from its own shores. With Israel's nuclear forces now well established within the country's military force structure and operational doctrine, its adversaries--and even those Arab states with whom it has made peace--fear Israel's deterrent power provides it with a shield behind which it could, in theory, launch conventional or even nuclear attacks while remaining relatively immune from counterattack. Israel has three of the Dolphin Type 800 submarines, delivered between July 1999 and October 2000. They are considered to be the most advanced conventional submarines in the world and, even without nuclear missiles, pretty much guarantee the Israeli navy the edge in underwater warfare in the region for years to come.

The Israelis would like to buy more of these 1,550-ton diesel-electric boats which have a cruising range of 4,500 nautical miles, which means they could greatly extend Israel's retaliatory--or pre-emptive reach. The Washington Post reported recently that possible moves to arm the Dolphins with nuclear weapons suggested that the Israeli government was increasingly concerned about Iranian and Iraqi efforts to develop more accurate long-range missiles capable of knocking out Israel's nuclear arsenal in a surprise attack. …