When fighting broke out in Gaza last month and rockets rained down on Israel, the men operating its naval boat Leviathan knew almost nothing.
Immersed in an exercise, they were only passed on short bulletins so as not to be distracted from their mission.
Speculation surrounds the role of the fleet of five Dolphin-class submarines, each costing about $ 500 million. A sixth is on order from the German manufacturer. Some analysts suggest that these boats are capable of launching nuclear missiles.
About a third of the size of the nuclear-powered giants in the United States or Russia and with diesel-electric engines limiting the underwater duration to two or three weeks, the dolphins are mainly designed to patrol the Mediterranean coast.
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In January, a dolphin paid a rare visit to the Red Sea, where several Iranian-linked ships have been sabotaged.
Leviathan’s weapons section under deck was without limits for Reuters. The same was the discussion about the actual operations.
Swinging the periscope to look at cargo ships above, the captain ordered a deeper dive and a simulated attack. A control room display showed Leviathan’s torpedo tubes as “flooded” or ready for launch.
The floor tilted, the control room crew leaned against the slope. A few dozen meters down, Leviathan switched from diesel to electric power. To keep the ensuing quietly passed crew members purposefully and fired orders into the murmur, reinforced by finger cocks on the comrades’ backs.
A speaker aired the torpedo’s sonar signal: Like the song of a cricket rising in a state of urgency and then becoming silent as the target was “sunk”.
A Dolphin’s core board crew size is 45 with an average age of 22, the senior officer said. Ten or more people can squeeze on board for training or deployment as frogmen.
In their home port of Haifa, a fortified hangar protects dolphins from rocket attacks or hostile eyes. The crews are expected to launch at extremely short notice, the officer said.
Leviathan is named after the biblical whale. Eating, as elsewhere in the Israeli military, is kosher. This means separate kitchen utensils for meat and dairy products, which at Leviathan resulted in cutlery for overflow being stored in the corridor.
Beans prior to Sabbath meals with blessings over grape juice instead of wine. Purified seawater allows for regular showers and hand washing. A static bike, board games and videos go down.
Narrow quarters mean junior submarines rotate three-to-one bed. On longer trips, some wear casual wear, and everyone goes by first names except the captain and mate.
The dolphins are among a handful of Israeli military units whose personnel must lose any other citizenship they have, a caution against pressure to spy on foreign powers.
There is almost no “room division” during missions. The crew is kept informed of secret plans to create a sense of common cause, the senior officer said.
Some analysts speculate that the submarines may act as so-called “second strike” platforms capable of launching nuclear missiles autonomously, which is a deterrent to a surprise attack.
“It would be far harder to be sure of destroying submarines,” said Norman Friedman, a scholar at the U.S. Naval Institute. “If Israel were to deploy a submarine-launched missile, I would put my money on a cruise missile.”
Israel, which does not confirm or deny having nuclear weapons, aims to prevent Iran from obtaining such weapons. Iran says its nuclear design is peaceful. It also demands the death of Israel.
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