Israel’s German-built submarines are equipped with nuclear weapons, Der Spiegel reports

Germany, which partly funds the vessels, knows of their nuclear capability but has kept quiet about it, magazine claims

An Israel Navy Dolphin-class submarine in the sea off the coast of Haifa, 2009 (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
An Israel Navy Dolphin-class submarine in the sea off the coast of Haifa, 2009 (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Israel’s German-supplied and partly German-financed fleet of nuclear submarines is equipped with nuclear missiles. And Germany has long known this is the case, but has chosen not to publicize the fact, the German magazine, Der Spiegel, claimed Sunday.

Cover of Der Spiegel Magazine
Cover of Der Spiegel Magazine

The missiles can be launched by a hitherto secret hydraulic launch system, the magazine claims. The magazine is publishing a 12-page expose on the issue, headlined “Secret Operation Samson: How Germany arms nuclear Israel,” on Monday, and began releasing its content on Sunday.

According to a Der Spiegel extract in the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahrononth on Sunday, “Research in Germany, Israel and the US leaves no room for doubt. Using German marine technology, Israel has created a floating nuclear arsenal in the Middle East.”

Israel has three Dolphin-class submarines, acquired from Germany, currently in use. A fourth was handed over last month, and is undergoing a testing period before it will be added to active duty. A fifth submarine is due to be delivered in 2018, and the contract for a sixth was recently signed. All have been fully or partially funded by the German government.

The submarines, according to Der Spiegel, are equipped with Israeli-designed Popeye missiles, which can carry a warhead of up to 200 kilograms. The nuclear warheads are produced at Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor, Der Spiegel claims.

Yedioth said Sunday that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has denied that the submarines have the capability to carry nuclear warheads. In truth, according to the Der Spiegel report, the German government has long been aware of the nuclear capability of the submarines, but out of understanding for Israel’s security needs has always agreed to “look the other way.” Its information on the subs’ nuclear capacity dates back to 1961, the magazine says.

Der Spiegel says Merkel has tried to impose conditions on the delivery of the sixth submarine, including a halt to the “expansion” of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and allowing greater Palestinian building capacity in Gaza. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to fulfil any such demands.

Ronen Bergman, a military correspondent for Yedioth, noted in an interview Sunday that nuclear submarines give Israel a “second strike” capability, since they would survive any attack on Israel, including on any nuclear bases that Israel might have, and enable Israel to strike back at such an attacker.

Israel has never formally confirmed having a nuclear weapons capability, maintaining a policy of nuclear ambiguity, but is widely reported to have had an extensive nuclear weapons arsenal for decades.

The “second strike” capability is a significant deterrent, Bergman noted. “This tells (an enemy): Whatever harm you can do to us, we can strike you back.”

Israel’s design specifications for the submarines, the German magazine claims, leave no doubt whatsoever that they are intended to carry nuclear weapons. The fourth, fifth and sixth submarines, it adds, are capable of staying submerged for up to 18 days at a stretch.

Israel’s military censor routinely bars publication in Israeli media of original material relating to Israel’s alleged nuclear capability. Stories that first appear in overseas media, however, are often beyond the scope of the military censor.

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