Index

London Sunday Times
June 18, 2000

Israel Makes Nuclear Waves With Submarine Missile Test

By Uzi Mahnaimi and Matthew Campbell

Just as President Bill Clinton is engaged in a bitter public debate about how best to defend America from missile attacks launched by "rogue" countries such as Iran, Israel's intensely secretive military preparations against the same threat have gone a stage further.

Israeli defence sources claim the country has secretly carried out its first test launches from submarines of cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The launches last month from German-built vessels in the Indian Ocean were designed to simulate swift retaliation against a pre-emptive nuclear attack from Iran.

While Israel's generals may be jubilant at the breakthrough - the missile is said to have hit a target more than 900 miles away - the development raises the worrying prospect of an escalation in the Middle East's nuclear arms race just as peace talks have been thrown into uncertainty after the death of President Hafez al-Assad of Syria.

According to Israeli sources, the three Dolphin-class submarines will give Israel a crucial third pillar of nuclear defence to complement the country's already much-vaunted land and air ramparts. While the Israelis' intention of using the German submarines as roving nuclear launch platforms had long been suspected, few experts had expected them to develop the capability to fire submarine-based cruise missiles so soon.

Planning for a submarine-launched nuclear deterrent was accelerated after reports in the early 1990s by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, that Iran would be capable of staging a nuclear missile attack against Israel by 2000.

The latest Israeli estimate has put that threat back by two years. But uncertainty over Iran's level of nuclear capability has not slowed Israel's drive to bolster its defences.

The Dolphin-class vessels are among the most technically advanced of their kind in the world. They are twice as big as the 23-year-old Gal-class submarines that the Israeli navy has relied on to date.

Israel ordered the submarines from Germany when it could not find an American shipyard to produce the diesel and electric-powered vessels it needed, according to Israeli sources.

In a sign of the sensitivity of the project, elite crews have been assembled to man them: the 35 officers and men aboard each vessel have been nicknamed "force 700" because of the average 700 points they scored in psychological tests devised by the Israelis. The scores are equivalent to an IQ of 130-140. Another five specially selected officers solely responsible for the warheads will be added to each vessel once the missiles are operational.

America's supply of military technology to Israel is a sensitive political issue. Last week there were calls in Washington for a cut in aid to Israel unless it cancelled the sale to China of a spy plane built with American-supplied technology. The Pentagon fears it could be used against American pilots.

Since achieving nuclear capability in 1966, Israel has kept a hawkish eye on its neighbours' fumbling steps towards acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

Its fears were dramatically illustrated in 1981 when Menachem Begin, then prime minister, sent eight F-16 jet fighters to destroy a nuclear reactor in Iraq in an episode condemned around the world as reckless military adventurism.

In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at the Dimona nuclear reactor who revealed secrets of Israel's programme to The Sunday Times, was kidnapped by Mossad and jailed. He remains incarcerated.

A decade later, Israeli fears appear to have proved well-founded. Washington routinely cites Iraqi and Iranian nuclear ambitions as justification for America's multi-billion-dollar missile defence system, whose deployment may be ordered by President Bill Clinton this year.

America will not look kindly on Israel's development of a remarkable new military capability at such a delicate stage in the peace process.

"This is certain to irritate the Clinton administration," said a defence analyst in Washington. "It makes it that much harder to get non-proliferation to stick in the Middle East."

Despite a good personal relationship between Clinton and Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, relations between the two countries have soured in recent weeks. On top of reports of the extraordinary extent of Israeli espionage in Washington, Israel's proposed sale of the spy plane to China has outraged American congressmen.

Under a contract with the Chinese, Israel Aircraft Industries has installed a Phalcon airborne early-warning system in a Russian-made Ilyushin. China has an option for three more such planes. American officials say they fear they will pose a threat to Taiwan - as much of an American ally as Israel - and upset the military balance. Relations have been strained further by other Israeli missile tests conducted without advance warning to the Pentagon. Last month the American navy criticised Israel for test-launching a Jericho ballistic missile off its coast in April when an American warship in the vicinity momentarily thought it was under attack.

Pentagon officials said the missile landed about 40 miles from the warship. "That's pretty close for a missile that's not the most accurate," said one official, adding that this was the third time in two years that Israel had conducted "nonotice" missile tests near an American warship.