Arguably Israel’s most critical military capability is their small but very deadly submarine fleet. Beyond being able to stealthily spy on enemies, insert operatives onto foreign shores and wreak havoc on enemy ships on a whim, they represent Israel’s “second strike” nuclear deterrent. Now Israel has received its fifth such vessel, the Rahav.

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The importance of the INS Rahav, and Israel’s small but elite submarine force was underscored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the new submarine’s arrival ceremony:

“Our submarine fleet serves as a deterrent to our enemies who seek our destruction.” He continued, “they need to know that Israel is capable of hitting with very great force anyone who tries to harm us. And Israel’s citizens need to know that Israel is a very strong country that is doing everything to defend them, everywhere and on every front.”

Rahav is the Hebrew name for Neptune, the god of the seas, and in the Middle East, the INS Rahav will be just that. Built in Germany, she is a variant of the highly capable Dolphin 2 class of diesel-electric submarines. She joins four other boats in Israel’s fleet, the Dolphin, Tekuma, Leviathan and Tanin . The first three of which are Dolphin 1 class, with the Tanin being the first of the improved Dolphin 2 class.

The Dolphin class in general is based on Germany’s highly successful line of submarines starting with the Type 209, but is most similar to the Type 212, although the Dolphin class is larger. The Dolphin 2 class is even larger than the Dolphin 1 class.

The INS Rehav is 220 feet long, displaces 2,400 tons submerged and is crewed by 35 sailors, but it can hold an additional 10 people for special operations. She is capable of reaching a top speed of 25 knots underwater and can operate without resupply for up to 30 days under normal operating conditions.

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You can see rare photos of one of these submarines out of the water by clicking here.

What makes the Rehav and its predecessor the Tanin so capable and dangerous to its foes is that it uses Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) to stay submerged for weeks at a time. This opens up an operations envelope that was long only accessible to much more complex and expensive nuclear-powered submarines. Not only that, but the Dolphin 2 class’s version of AIP propulsion uses fuel cell technology, which is extremely quiet even by AIP submarine standards.

Read all about AIP technology and why it is so feared in these two prior Foxtrot Alpha features:

The Dolphin boats are equipped with six 533mm standard torpedo tubes and four 650mm jumbo tubes and can carry 16 weapons. The smaller tubes can fire torpedoes and Harpoon anti-ship missiles as well as other conventional weaponry, but its larger tubes are what makes the Dolphin class so special.

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From them, frogmen, remotely operated vehicles and especially large cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear payloads can be deployed.

Here is a rare look inside Tanin, the Rahav’s Dolphin 2 class sistership:

Originally, Israel wanted to buy Tomahawk cruise missiles from the U.S. to outfit its pocket submarine fleet, but the request was denied by the Clinton Administration. Instead the Israelis developed their own long-range submarine launched cruise missile particularly suited to the Dolphin class’s larger diameter (the Tomahawk is not.)

This unique nuclear capable missile is called the Popeye Turbo, and little is truly known about it. It shares a similar name as Israel’s successful line of air-to-ground Popeye missiles (known as the AGM-142 Have Nap in the U.S.) and there is likely to be similarities between the latest air-launched version and the submarine launched version. Although the submarine launched version is likely extended in length and increased in diameter.

An Israeli test firing that was supposedly the sub-launched Popeye Turbo occurred in the Indian Ocean and the missile was reported to have flown 930 miles before reaching its target. As such, this is the approximate range some have attached to the missile, although it is likely farther. You can see what is supposedly a picture of mock-up of this weapon here. Although the primary version of the missile packs a nuclear warhead, it is thought that conventional warhead versions may also be fielded

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In fact, some say that an Israeli submarine attacked a shipment of Russian-made missiles that had been delivered to Syria. These claims remain uncorroborated by Israeli officials, although that is not surprising. If this is true, a conventional Popeye Turbo or some other indigenous sub-launched cruise missile that we do not know about would have been used.

The Rahav and its stablemates are not without controversy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular has garnered harsh criticism by some for subsidizing their cost of construction. The cost of a Dolphin 2 is said to be around $500 million, with Germany paying about a third of this cost. While others think Germany should not help Israel wield its undeclared nuclear weapons capability by selling them submarines that can be used as partial delivery systems.

There are also factions within the Israeli power apparatus that want to limit the submarine fleet size to five boats due to changing priorities, while others want to expand it. Currently, Israel has a sixth submarine on order from Germany. Israel’s submarines are most expensive military vehicles in their inventory, and operating them is not cheap.

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If the decision is made to limit the submarine force to five boats, than it is likely the first Dolphin class submarine delivered in 1998, the INS Dolphin, will be either mothballed or sold to a foreign navy.

Regardless of its fleet size, Israel’s nuclear weapon wielding sub force is a unique asymmetric capability for the region and is seen with great pride among many Israelis. It makes up the third leg of Israel’s Nuclear Triad, and its only second-strike capability.

By keeping at least one of these vessels at sea at all times means that if Israel is attacked and its air and land-based nuclear weapons capabilities are wiped out, whoever did so can expect to suffer great losses themselves. It is the same idea behind major nuclear powers’ intercontinental ballistic submarine forces but on a much smaller scale.

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Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon summed up the heavy weight placed on the Israeli submarine force’s mission at the INS Rahav’s reception:

“The submarines and the sailors who operate them will do so as they do today: In silence they will, with surprise and creativity, burst forward from the depth, and sometimes return to their bases without leaving a mark, placing another brick in Israel’s defensive wall.”

Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.

Photo credits: AP