Israel’s latest Dolphin Class submarine, INS Dragon (‘Drakon’ in Hebrew) which is under sea trials in Kiel, Germany, is extremely camera shy. It is possible that the submarine may have been increased in length compared to earlier boats of the same class. The same could be true for the follow-on 3 boats currently on order. This would match rumors that the new submarine has been fitted with a vertical launch system (VLS).
Israeli media reported on January 18 that the cost of Israel’s submarines has increased significantly. While reports cover the three follow-on boats, this resonates with the increased size and capability of the submarines from INS Dragon forward. It is the latest in a chain of very small hints about Israel’s newest submarines.
A VLS would imply a significant leap in capabilities. Israel’s Dolphin-I and Dolphin-II class submarines are already equipped with torpedoes and cruise missiles. But they are shot through the torpedo tubes. The inclusion of a VLS implies either more weapons, or our bet, new weapons.
If correct, the Israeli submarine is only the second modern AIP equipped submarine in the world designed with this capability. The first being the South Korean KSS-III class which has only recently entered service. The two classes can be seen as part of a wider trend to fit VLS on conventionally powered submarines.
Israeli Submarines, Evolving Roles
Initially in the 1960s Israel relied on ex-Royal Navy submarines. These included the highly modified ‘Super-Ts’ which added refined special forces capabilities. It was an early indication that Israel’s submarines would be shaped by their specific needs. This resulted in boats which are different from those operated by other countries.
In the 1970s the first purpose-designed submarines, the Type-540 Gal Class, started to be delivered. These were better suited to Israel’s needs, being much smaller to better operate in shallow waters. They were replaced from the late 1990s by the Dolphin-I Class.
This was a much larger and more sophisticated submarine, but still compact overall. And it added a whole new capability, nuclear deterrence.
Israel’s submarines are believed to carry the sea-based arm of the country’s nuclear deterrent. Israel is not a declared nuclear state, but has long since been regarded as such. As ArmsControl.Org puts it, “Israel …does not admit or deny having nuclear weapons”. However, “Israel is universally believed to possess nuclear arms”.
The latest class, the Dolphin-II, is essentially an enlarged Dolphin-I. These are lengthened to accommodate Fuel-Cell based AIP (air independent power). INS Dragon is the third and last of these, but as we have indicated, it is expected to be a different length again. And that may be the big deal.
What Is In The VLS?
It does not seem unlikely that the VLS can carry nuclear-armed missiles. But which missiles? Historically Israel is believed to deploy a variant of the Turbo Popeye cruise missile in the strategic land attack and/or nuclear strike role. The first four Dolphin-I/II class boats are equipped with four larger 650mm torpedo tubes in addition to the six regular 533mm (21”) tubes. These four extra tubes are believed to vary the Israeli-developed missiles.
To carry a VLS we estimate that the submarines will be extended by between 2.4 and 4 meters overall (8-13 feet). The increase is likely to be driven by the frame spacing of the hull (meaning the gap between the reinforcing rings). This would fit between four and six vertical launch tubes, depending on their diameter. 650mm would be a reasonable guess at this stage.
Stepping back, we can explore a few explanations. The first is that the current boats’ four missiles are not considered sufficient for future needs, and that the VLS represents additional slots. However it is unlikely that the current Turbo-Popeye type missile, designed to be ejected from a torpedo tube, can also simply be launched vertically.
And at any rate, that missile is relatively old. So it is possible that the VLS will bring with it a new missile. This may represent the future of Israel’s at-sea deterrent, a new weapon to be carried by Drakon and subsequent boats. This could be another cruise missile, or possibly a ballistic missile. We can speculate that it ties in with the trend in hypersonic weapons.
We should be careful placing too much weight on rumors. It is possible that any size increase relates to other technologies, such as propulsion. Or that rumors are getting mixed up between the last Dolphin-II class boat, Dragon, and the next batch. However, the VLS theory has been persistent and cannot be ignored. After all, where there is smoke, there is sometimes a Dragon.