Original Contribution
July 20, 2011

Germany Supports Israeli Dolphin Submarine Procurement

by Otfried Nassauer

The German government has taken budgetary precaution to again help Israel while procuring another sixth Dolphin class submarine. Thomas de Maiziére, the German defence minister, confirmed this decision during his first official visit to Israel earlier in July. The government’s draft for the German FY 2012 federal budget contains a total of €135 million of financial aid to subsidize Israel while procuring “defense goods” from German manufacturers over the next four years. The additional submarine is estimated to cost about €500 million. If the German Parliament approves the proposed budget line during its autumn budget deliberations the Israeli government and HDW, the German yard building the submarines, can sign a procurement and construction contract either later this or next year. Already in April the Israeli government decided to make the procurement of sixth Dolphin a priority. As late as early June the German government still answered parliamentary questions by stating, that “the Federal Government has not made any decisions on this issue”.

Military aid for Israel procuring German built submarines and paid for at least partially by German taxpayer’s money has somewhat become a tradition during the last two decades. Subsidies for the Israeli Dolphin-class submarine program will total more than €1bn once Germany’s share in the costs of the sixth boat is paid.

In the 1990ies the German government initially paid DM 880 millions to make two diesel-electric Dolphin-class submarines a gift to Tel Aviv. Later DM 220 millions were added as a 50% share in the costs of a third boat. The three initial submarines were delivered during 1999 and 2000. Since they are operated by the Israeli Navy.

Five years later the red-green government of Chancellor Schröder and Foreign Minister Fischer used its last day in office to authorize another submarine deal with Israel. On November 21, 2005 Deputy Ministers from Israel and Germany signed an agreement “on the aid by the government of the Federal Republic of Germany for the construction of two submarines for the Israeli Navy”. The new Dolphin 2 class submarines were larger, more capable and more modern boats. Their propulsion system was no longer solely diesel-electric, but included an air-independent fuel-cell system. It increases the range and the time the submarine can operate submerged. The price for these boats was much higher. It totalled €1bn for two boats. Israel couldn’t finance them without help. Therefore Germany promised to pay up to one third of the price tag directly from its own budget and to help Israel to earn valuta for another third by procuring defence goods from Israel. Thus Tel Aviv had to pay only the last third of the costs by spending exchangeable currencies. These two submarines are still under construction at HDW in Germany. Delivery is scheduled for 2012 and 2013 respectively. However it’s not clear whether this schedule can be met. The Government of Norway has informed HDW that for reasons of Norway’s restrictions on arms exports, it will not allow HDW to use Norwegian military infrastructure to test these boats in deep waters. Traditionally all submarines build at HDW undergo these tests in Norway.

Germany’s submarine exports to Israel have caused political disputes for a long time. Two major concerns exist: First, experts fear that Israel might use these boats as delivery systems for nuclear weapons and thus as a part of its undeclared nuclear arsenal. In this case Germany nolens volens would contribute to nuclear proliferation while providing the submarines. On the other hand more general concerns exist since the boats, especially the Dolphin-2 class ones are extremely capable and flexible and thus could have escalatory effects in the volatile Middle Eastern environment.

The Dolphin class boats have been designed according to Israeli requirements. The torpedo-section of these boats is extraordinary. It contains six standard torpedo tubes, having a diameter of 533mm. These are sufficient to launch all the weapons to be officially carried by the Dolphins: Torpedoes, Harpoon missiles and mines. However there are also four larger torpedo tubes in addition. They have a diameter of 650mm and don’t serve any obvious purpose. Experts assume that Israel included them into its wishlist of design features to retain the option for launch nuclear tipped longer range sea-launched cruise missiles from these tubes. Reports that Israel tested a 1.000-1.500 km range cruise missile of the coast of Sri Lanka contributed to these concerns during the year 2000.

More general concerns that the Dolphin boats might have an escalatory effect in the volatile Middle Eastern security environment are based on the larger and more flexible capabilities Israel will gain once the Dolphin-2-class boats enter into service. The fuel-cell propulsion system could allow to operate these boats from a Red Sea basis on a more permanent basis in the Persian Gulf, the Arabic Sea and the Indian Ocean and thus off the Iranian coasts. Collecting intelligence, surveying naval traffic or demonstrating the capability to conduct special forces operations in the region could provoke both Iranian and Arabic concerns as well as reactions.


is a freelance journalist and director of the Berlin Information Centre for Transatlantic Security / Berliner Informationszentrum for Transatlantische Sicherheit - BITS