JERUSALEM/BERLIN (Reuters) - Israel has broached the idea of buying a sixth discounted submarine from Germany as part of a military buildup designed to signal strength in the face of Iranian nuclear ambitions, officials said on Thursday.
Israel has three of the Dolphin-class diesel submarines, with two more on order from Kiel shipyard Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) and due by 2012. The vessels are widely believed to have been deployed with nuclear cruise missiles.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who visits Berlin with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, will ask the Merkel government to underwrite another Dolphin sale, aides said.
Dolphins cost some $700 million but those in Israel’s fleet came at a deep discount from Germany, which is devoted to the security of a Jewish state founded in the wake of the Holocaust.
“We are in a dialogue about a sixth submarine, but no decision has been made yet. There are tough budgetary issues to deal with,” a senior Barak aide told Reuters.
The German Economy Ministry would not say whether a Dolphin sale would be under discussion during Monday’s discussions, and added that the question of state aid was not for it to decide.
A second Israeli source with knowledge of the talks said that Netanyahu, who has described the prospect of an Iranian bomb as a mortal danger, wanted to expand the submarine fleet.
The Israelis have hinted at pre-emptive strikes against Iran if diplomacy fails to curb its nuclear project, but many analysts believe the limitations of force would compel the Netanyahu government to adopt a more deterrent posture.
“Five submarines are sufficient, but of course we could use more. Our ideal number would be nine — enough to ensure we have the necessary assets at sea to cover all relevant threats and targets,” the Israeli source said.
Armed with just 10 torpedo tubes — which can also be used to launch cruise missiles — the Dolphins would be of meager use for any conventional Israeli assault on Iran.
Israel does not discuss its own nuclear capabilities. There is further speculation over whether Israeli cruise missiles would be able to reach Iranian facilities from the Mediterranean sea, where the Dolphins routinely patrol from their Haifa dock.
“I remain unconvinced — unless the Israelis have managed to replicate Tomahawk, which would be an extraordinary achievement,” said Stephen Saunders, editor of Jane’s Fighting Ships, referring to a U.S.-made, long-range and nuclear-capable cruise missile that Washington has refused to supply to Israel.
A bigger Dolphin fleet could allow Israel the option of basing some in its Red Sea port of Eilat, providing a short-cut to the Gulf. An Israeli submarine crossed the Suez Canal for an exercise off Eilat last July, the first such deployment.
Iran denies seeking the bomb but its leaders’ Holocaust denials and vituperation against Israel have stirred war fears. While condemning the rhetoric from Tehran, Germany maintains some $5.7 billion in annual exports to Iran — to many Israelis’ chagrin.
German opposition parties, including the Social Democrats (SPD), have voiced misgivings about weapons exports to crisis areas, but the last two Dolphin sales were approved while the SPD was part of a previous coalition government.
There is also domestic support for keeping production going at HDW, a branch of parent company ThyssenKrupp, given the lack of foreign clients for new diesel-powered submarines.
Editing by Ralph Boulton