Earlier this month, Israel destroyed a shipment of advanced anti-ship missiles in the Syrian port of Latakia. The missiles, which had just been received from Russia, posed a serious threat to naval units operating in the eastern Mediterranean, so a strike was ordered by Israeli leaders.
In the past, such operations have been assigned to the IAF. With scores of F-15s and F-16s in its arsenal, the Israeli Air Force has more than enough assets to secure the airspace, suppress Syrian air defenses and take out the anti-ship missiles in their storage facility. Indeed, some early reports suggested that an air strike was used to eliminate the latest missile threat.
But more recent accounts suggest that Israel used a much different military option. The London Sunday Times (and other sources) now suggest that the Yakhont P-800 missiles were destroyed by cruise missiles launched by an Israeli submarine, stationed off the Syrian coast (emphasis ours).
If that information proves accurate, it represents a new chapter in the Arab-Israeli conflict. While various nations in the region operate submarines, none had previously demonstrated the ability to fire extended range cruise missiles while submerged. There had long been speculation that Israel gained that ability when it began acquiring its advanced, Dolphin-class diesel-electric boats from Germany; so far, a total of four boats have been delivered and two more are on the way.
While the exact capabilities of Israel's newest subs have not been disclosed, intelligence reporting indicates the boats have at least one firing tubes that are far larger than required for employing torpedoes. That fueled speculation that the new subs would also serve as cruise missile platforms, and that capability may have been confirmed by the Latakia strike. Intelligence and press reporting indicate that Israel may have tested a submarine version of its Popeye stand-off missile more than a decade ago; that variant reportedly has a range of up to 1,500 miles.
If Israel can now fire cruise missiles from a stealth platform, that represents a game-changer for the Middle East, and it may signal that a strike against Iran's nuclear program is approaching. While some arm-chair tacticians focus almost exclusively on the air element, many military analysts believe an actual Israeli strike would combine multiple assets, including tactical aircraft, special forces and cruise missiles.
Under that scenario, Dolphin submarines of the Israeli navy would deploy to the Persian Gulf and launch cruise missiles against key targets supporting nuclear facilities, including air defense nodes, logistical sites and command facilities. Many of the cruise missiles would be employed against softer, above-ground facilities (assuming they are not fitted with nuclear warheads); that would allow Israeli fighters to target below-ground nuclear complexes with bunker-busting bombs. Special forces would be used to attack nuclear sites that can't be easily targeted by aircraft or cruise missiles, and remove equipment and material from selected locations, proving Tehran's nuclear intentions once and for all.
Diesel-electric boats are well-suited for operations in the Persian Gulf, and there has been periodic speculation about Israeli obtaining basing rights in places like Azerbaijan, or the Kurdish Region of northern Iraq. That would greatly decrease the distance Israeli forces would have to travel and increase the amount of firepower available for the raid. However, maintaining tactical surprise would be much more difficult, given the number of intelligence assets on the ground in those locations.
Still, an Israeli cruise missile strike against Iran--as part of a larger operation against Tehran's nuclear program--cannot be dismissed. Iran has virtually no defense against a cruise missile attack, and utilizing those weapons in concert with other platforms would wreak havoc in the air defense system, improving Israeli prospects for success, and reducing the threat posed to tactical aircrews. Jerusalem understands the limitations of an "air-only" option; by some estimates, the IAF could dispatch only two dozen fighters for a long-distance raid against Iran (largely due to limited air refueling assets). That automatically limits the number of targets that could be struck, and almost ensures that some elements of the nuclear program will survive. By launching cruise missiles from submarines, Israel can attack a larger target set--or, at a minimum--accomplish tasks that would otherwise be assigned to fighter aircraft or special forces personnel, freeing them for other assignments.
Some experts still believe that an Israeli strike on Iran is not in the offing, for a variety of reasons. We're not so sure; just this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Tehran is getting dangerously close to having enough uranium for its first nuclear weapon, and said Israel will act to prevent that from happening, even if it means going it alone.