Deepening long-held suspicions about a sensitive aspect of German-Israeli military cooperation, Der Spiegel magazine reported in its June 4 issue that Israel has deployed nuclear-armed cruise missiles aboard submarines built and subsidized by Germany.
Israel, which does not officially admit it has any nuclear weapons, is widely believed to have produced up to 200 warheads and bombs. Israel has operated a nuclear reactor and an underground plutonium-separation plant in Dimona since the 1960s. In 1991, as the Persian Gulf War was getting under way, Germany approved the subsidized sale of two Dolphin-class diesel-powered submarines to Israel; a total of six has been ordered so far, three of which have been delivered.
There has been speculation that Israel would put nuclear-armed missiles onto the German submarines but little firm evidence.
The magazine article, drawing on sources in Germany, Israel, and the United States, says the new evidence “no longer leaves any room for doubt” that Israel has a sea-based nuclear deterrent. “From the beginning, the boats were primarily used for the purposes of nuclear capability,” one German ministry official told the magazine. In addition to revealing that the submarines are nuclear armed, the article also states that senior German leaders knew that the boats, built at a shipyard in Kiel, would be used for this purpose.
Sources told Der Spiegel that the Israeli defense technology company Rafael built the sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) for the submarines, based on the Popeye cruise missile, which is estimated to have a range of around 1,500 kilometers with a warhead weighing up to 200 kilograms. The only public evidence of the nuclear version of the missile was a single test conducted off the coast of Sri Lanka, the article says. This missile test was first reported by London’s Sunday Times in June 2000.
According to the article, the newest Dolphin submarines are equipped with fuel cell propulsion, which allows for quieter operation and longer periods between refuelings. Earlier Dolphin submarines had to surface every few days to run the diesel engine to recharge its batteries. The new boats will be able to travel underwater at least 18 days at a time. The Persian Gulf coast of Iran is no longer out of the operating range of the Israeli fleet, the article says.
Israel is known to have nuclear-capable aircraft and land-based missiles. The addition of nuclear-armed submarines would mean that Israel now has a full triad of land-, air-, and sea-based nuclear delivery systems and that, for the first time, some of its nuclear forces would be invulnerable to a nuclear first strike by an adversary. No other state in the Middle East is known to have nuclear weapons, although Iran in particular is suspected of seeking them.
Iranian Sub Plans
Meanwhile, Iran said June 12 that it is planning to build a nuclear-powered submarine, which could theoretically give Tehran a non-weapons rationale to produce weapons-grade uranium. Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency quoted Rear Adm. Abbas Zamini, the deputy commander of the Iranian navy for technical affairs, as saying, “Right now, we are in the initial phases of manufacturing atomic submarines.”
Iran, which says it is not pursuing nuclear weapons, states that it is enriching uranium to a level of about 5 percent to produce nuclear power and to 20 percent to run a research reactor in Tehran to make medical isotopes. Uranium enriched to a level below 20 percent is known as low-enriched uranium (LEU). Nuclear weapons typically require uranium enriched to about 90 percent, known as weapons-grade. The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty bars enriching uranium for use in weapons, but it does not forbid enrichment for use in naval reactors.
According to Princeton University professor Frank von Hippel, U.S. and British naval reactors are currently fueled with 93 to 97 percent-enriched uranium, Russian naval reactors are fueled with 40 to 90 percent-enriched uranium, and French naval reactors are fueled with LEU. India’s prototype naval reactor is reportedly fueled with uranium enriched to the 40-percent range, Brazil’s prototype is to be fueled with LEU, and China’s naval reactor is reportedly fueled with LEU, von Hippel said.
Zamini did not indicate what level of enrichment Iran would use for its naval reactors.