Israel: A Future Sub Builder?

by admin on August 20, 2014

SuperDolphinComparisonDiagramIn the race to keep up with neighboring navies, Israel has taken a prudent middle course, developing indigenous solutions for low-end craft, and reaching out to other nations to provide more complex ships and submarines.

Though Israel has done very, very well buying ships and subs overseas–Israel will, within the next few years, begin the process of developing it’s own indigenously-built submarine.

Even though Israel’s German-built submarine fleet is top-notch, the evolution towards an Israeli-built submarine is inevitable. It will happen despite the fact that the Israeli Defense Force sub fleet will soon be sporting the best undersea tech Germany can offer–According to the indefatigable Chris Cavas, two of three of Israel’s new Dolphin II subs are almost ready to enter the Israeli Navy, adding to Israel’s existing fleet of three Dolphin Class boats.

But don’t let Chris’s photo-driven story lull you into believing this mutually-beneficial Israel-Germany relationship will last forever. By all means, go and enjoy all the pretty pictures, but keep in mind that Chris’s real story is the documentation of just how important the German sub-production industrial base is in supporting Israel’s growing submarine fleet. For the Israeli Navy, it is a discomfiting reminder of the sub fleet’s dependence upon Germany as, essentially, Israel’s most important sub training and support base. Think about it. The first-in-class Dolphin II was accepted by Israel more than two years ago, and it is still fitting out and training up in Germany.

It’s also something of a cautionary story–the parallels to France’s burgeoning Mistral Class problem couldn’t be clearer. If international umbrage over the Ukraine can force France to even think about canceling the sale of three Mistrals to Russia, then, well, I can’t see Israel being too sanguine about their continued dependency on foreign sources for platforms that will have an increasingly obvious strategic–if not an outright nuclear-armed deterrence–role.

So….I’m going to make the call right now. I fully expect Israel to develop their own independent sub-building infrastructure, and that Israel’s course towards an indigenous sub will take shape over the next couple of years.

dol03bLook at maintenance trends:

A competent sub-building industrial base doesn’t just spring into being overnight. It’s all a product of a long, slow and costly set of investments–starting, of course, with the development of a maintenance cadre.

Israel is increasingly well-equipped to sustain the ever-growing maintenance demands of her sub fleet.

After sending the old Gal Class subs back to Germany for a final refit, the Israeli Navy successfully took on the refit job with their three “legacy” Dolphins, repairing and refitting a somewhat “scratched and dented” Dolphin in late 2011:

Israel recently revealed that one of its Dolphin class submarines (that entered service in 1998-2000) had secretly spent nearly two years in an Israeli shipyard. The sub was partially disassembled and its engine and plumbing was cleaned and upgraded. Hull cracks were repaired and various other items were fixed. The boat, which entered service in 1999, is now expected to remain in service until 2030.

The results were positive enough for Israel to refit another, finishing their second boat’s mid-life refit in 2014:

For more than two years, Israel’s Leviathan submarine, one of three in the Israel Navy, has undergone careful and continuous renovation. Dozens of naval technicians, electricians and engineers have invested a staggering 360,000 manpower hours in restoring the 15-year-old vessel to her original glory, taking her apart piece by piece and rebuilding her anew.

I presume the third Dolphin is getting her two-year refit now, which means, in two years, Israel will have a pretty competent set of sub-ready shipyard workers just…waiting for work.

That work is going to come. There are just too many boats–and too many sub-makers out there in the Mediterranean for Israel to sit back and rely on other countries. The Med has become a real epicenter of “conventional” Submarine proliferation, and I can’t see Israel’s Navy (undervalued as it is), being content with boats that are remotely similar to those Greece and Turkey are starting to produce. They’ll want–and likely need–something better.

High operational tempo (two operational subs completed 54 special operations in 2013 alone), suggests that Israel’s maintainers are doing a great job of leveraging Haifa’s growing yet still cramped and over-crowded naval base. But a proficient sub industrial base is only kept proficient if it has something to do. Once that final “legacy” Dolphin mid-life refit is complete, it’ll have little work…unless there’s a project or two to work on.

And there will be.

Trident IIThe road to indigenous production:

Look, the days of counting on Germany’s support for Israel’s sub fleet is drawing to a close. Israel is already demonstrating that it doesn’t really need much German help to maintain their current fleet, and as the next-generation Dolphin II subs are delivered, Israel is going to need the freedom to operate independently without risking an increasingly critical Israeli strategic platform.

Subs might be expensive, but they are just too valuable for Israel to rely on other countries to supply ‘em.

The trends are against continued Germany/Israel collaboration on subs. As Israel moves closer and closer to fielding an official “nuclear” deterrent, testing things like new solid-fuel ballistic missiles and mulling an openly nuclearized Middle East, Israel may be developing an apatite for submarine-launched ballistic missile platforms, and…maybe even acquiring a taste for a nuclear-powered submarine platform–two design spirals that Germany is both politically and technically unready to pursue.

And, though I hate to say it, there’s a market out there to fund such ventures–both nuclear power and sub-launched ballistic missile tech would be of real interest to nominally-aligned countries like Brazil, India…or some other countries in the Asia-Pacific. Israel may have a fighting chance to grab the high-yielding “higher-tech” strategic sub market. We’ll see.

But first, the IDF sub fleet needs to grow. We’re already seeing some rumblings about further growth of Israel’s sub fleet. The fleet is growing from three boat crews to ten (to…man six subs? Hmmm..), and then there’s this, from the August 17 issue of the Jerusalem Post:

Submarine deployments could be helpful or even indispensable to Israel’s nuclear deterrence posture. Submarines, after all, represent the ultimate stealth weapon, and an SLBM force could essentially guarantee the ability to unleash a catastrophic retaliatory strike. Naturally, these deployments would not replicate America’s nuclear response capability. Currently, 50-55% of this country’s nuclear response force is submarine-based in certain times of crisis.

Because of Israel’s irremediable lack of strategic depth, the small country’s submarine force represents an “ace in the hole” element of strategic deterrence. Now, Israel is upgrading its three Dolphin I submarines purchases from Germany with three additional Dolphin II submarines. These boats are diesel powered, and unlike the US nuclear submarine capability, are limited by the length of time they can remain submerged.

Israel’s submarines have been designed and built for specific Israeli requirements, and are larger than the German type 212 submarines. One must assume that the larger size is to accommodate nuclear tipped missiles. This capability is critical to maintain Israel’s deterrence from enemy attack. The country needs to continue with refinements of this sea-based retaliatory capability. Nuclear powered submarines would be preferable, in principle, but due to cost and construction requirements, they are not attainable, at least in the near term.

Emphasis mine. And even if the pursuit of nuclear-powered subs or ballistic-missile-ready vessels are just long-term, “aspirational” goals, there are plenty of smaller projects–swimmer vehicles and other undersea tinker-toy concepts–out there to nurture and grow Israel’s undersea warfare industrial base. If not, well, there’s always the challenge of reverse-engineering the new Dolphins or…offshore gas projects, I suppose…

Economic and political realities/difficulties aside, my inner naval architect would sure be interested in seeing just what Israel could actually produce–given the country’s set of top-notch engineers, it’s vast array of operational experience, and some neat whiz-bang tech, I’d bet Israel could, in rather short order, produce an advanced sub that could do quite well on the international market.

We shall see. But I’m betting that in about two years, Israel is going to have a path towards indigenous sub construction pretty much sketched out for us all to ponder

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bundabergA catastrophic shipyard fire that, by all accounts, destroyed Australia’s all-aluminum HMAS Bundaburg (ACPB-91), one of Australia’s 14 useful–yet oft-maligned–Armidale Class patrol boats, will reignite debate over the survivability of aluminum warships.

When the public finally sees the melted, burned-out remains of HMAS Bundaburg (photos that will likely be dramatic, given that the fire was not fought aboard ship and was largely just “contained” within the hull until the fire burned out.) many American wags are going to frame the event as an “I told you so” moment, rechristen the HMAS Bundaberg as Australia’s “USS Belknap (CG-26)“, and then use the event as evidence of the Australian Navy’s irrevocable abandonment of that “devil aluminum”.

In terms of wider impact, the fire was exquisitely timed to maximize anti-aluminum bias overseas. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was visiting Australia when the fire occurred, and the shockwaves from the conflagration likely fueled Hagel’s ongoing concerns about LCS–and aluminum ship–survivability.

But let’s get real. A shipyard fire has little to do with survivability.


Shipyard fires just…happen, and these fires, when they occur, can consume even the toughest, most durable of vessels.

Consider the environment–A ship at sea is usually far more ready to fight fire–and, as such, can take full advantage of passive fire-proofing, remote containment/fire-extinguishing schemes (halon and the like), and a ready crew.  A shipyard fire is entirely different. Modern (post Falkands) aluminum ships at sea have largely done well when confronted by fire. But…in a shipyard, the ship is dead. compartments are open. Active fire-fighting measures are turned off. Fire detection and alarms are “iffy” at best. Flammable tanks of gas and cable are strewn about the vessel.

It’s not a place where you want open flames.

Add in Australia’s stereotypical disregard for regulatory guidance (“What?  I don’t need to wait for a stinking fire-watch! I’m bloody welding on the hull right now!), and a shipyard worker’s likely preference to try to initially handle such events in-house, internally, rather than quickly summon help (and suffer additional scrutiny), small mistakes will happen and will explode into disasters pretty darn quick.

It’s all a fire-control and safety nightmare.

Those simple facts certainly won’t assuage the “Aluminum made it worse!!” crowd.  But shipyard fires happen. Even the decidedly steel-built sub USS Miami (SSN 755) succumbed to a mere shipyard yahoo, armed with little more than a vacuum cleaner, oily rags and a lighter. DOT&E won’t like to hear it, but a shipyard fire can kill a steel-built ship as quickly as an aluminum-built one.

In a shipyard fire, survivability has little to do with the outcome.

But that won’t stop the nay-sayers, so get ready…this fire is going to impact debates over the make-up of the Australian and American Fleets for years to come. And this ill-timed shipyard BBQ risks sinking aluminum as a viable component of warship design.


Oddly enough, the primary long-term beneficiary of this fiasco will probably be the Armidale Class maintainer, DMS Maritime. DMS Maritime is a feisty marine maintenance and services company that has–probably via some tough underbidding on fixed contact vehicles–done a lot to bolster the high-maintenance reputation of aluminum vessels.

Now, it’s no secret that DMS Maritime, a division of Serco Group, has been locked in a long battle with the Armidale Class manufacturer and the Australian Navy over Armidale Class reliability, availability and so forth (Read this icy statement by then Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Griggs, and you’ll get a glimpse at part of the problem).

This ugly three-way fight–which I personally believe could have been solved if some big, “classically-Australian” egos got out of the way–has done nothing but exacerbate the Armidale fleet’s problems. But some Australians just like a good fight–So, while the entire dispute may have been an emotionally satisfying release for Australia’s business set, overall, it has done nothing but hurt the global market for aluminum vessels.

Ironically enough, while busily sewing distrust of aluminum into the ranks, DMS Maritime has quietly played something of a double game, proffering the Australian Navy an aviation training vessel that stands to really hurt–if not kill off–DMS’s long-term maintenance partners, Australia’s native aluminum shipbuilding industry.

The Abbott Government has been pretty blunt about throwing their support behind Serco and DMS Maritime:

Just days after the federal government flagged it would consider buying foreign submarines, News Corp has learned a new Australian aviation training ship (ATS) will be made in Vietnam.

According to well-placed government sources Australian ship builders simply could not provide a “viable tender that would meet budget and time frame”.

And in a defiant shot across the bow, the Abbott government yesterday placed state governments and ship builders on notice that any future contracts would depend on their cooperation.

“The Abbott Government is seeking open cooperation with state governments,” Defence Minister David Johnston told an industry conference in Adelaide.

“Yes there will be those that cooperate and those that indulge in pressure politics.

“I urge all industry to take the cooperative path.”

For somebody raised in the relatively well-mannered world of DC contracting, that’s pretty strong stuff.

Anyway, back to the Aviation Support Vessel. Serco-owned DMS, via a Vietnamese manufacturer (a big strategic plus), has offered Australia a Damen OPV 2400–an admittedly excellent platform–that would, in fact, be a perfect contender for Australian Navy’s future small combatant program.

But, for DMS Maritime, it means that it now is in an enviable position of competing with a company whose platforms they’re maintaining.

It’s a fox-in-the-hen-house situation. What’s the incentive to do a good job?  Why help your future competitor’s products perform?

Some less scrupulous people might dismiss any penalties that might (might!) stem from poorly maintaining your likely competitor’s products as a mere cost of doing business.

After all, when a ship has a problem, the public almost always blames the builder. The maintainer gets a pass. And that….well, that might just be something for the U.S. Navy to think about. As the defense budget continues to shrink, the U.S. Navy must ensure that maintainers/builders are sufficiently incentivized to do their level best in keeping their competitor’s ships in the field and fully functional.

USS_Belknap_collision_damageALUMINUM SIDELINED:

It’s a shame aluminum ships are getting maligned in Australia–after all, they’re the ones who really went and advanced the technology in the first place.

Aluminum ships offer a great capability for many of the constabulary missions undertaken by the RAN. But the constant drip-drip-drip of Armidale Class problems–the battle over rotating crews, the hydrogen sulfide issue, the cracks, the cruise failures, crew suits, etc.–have cast aluminum vessels in a really ugly light.

This week’s fire will just add to the RAN’s long list of concerns. And that’s a shame.

Had the Armidales been better managed from the start, aluminum warships would have been far more popular worldwide. Why, if the hydrogen sulfide business had never happened, I’d have wagered that Australia, back in 2010, would have gone and quickly procured a few JHSV-like or Joint-Venture-like platforms back when Australia’s entire Amphibious force collapsed into a tired, rusted-out heap (I urged ‘em to, but it was a loosing battle).

A native-built aluminum amphib support ship would be paying RAN real dividends–in both prestige and raw capability–today. Had Australia gone and gotten a simple, basic “catamaran with a helo deck” Australia would, right now, be set to be a leader in amphibious warfare innovation, on the verge of testing neat, cutting-edge things like, oh, “Influence Squadrons“.

The US would be racing to catch up.

I’m serious. Over the next year, Australia’s “New” Bay Class LHDs will head out–all by themselves–to help Australia dip their toe back into modern amphibious operations. As things are today, the Australian Navy will just be joining China in the far less ambitious effort of tinkering with a few new LHDs (which, yes, is a big deal).

But….imagine if Australia’s Bay Class ships traveled out next year on their first real deployment with a JHSV-esque ship in tow? Australia would, again, be using world-leading Australian technology to teach the U.S. a thing or two–just as they did with Incat’s Jervis Bay. Instead, with this latest Armidale Class fiasco, the Australian Navy is helping to reinforce old-school conservatism that may reduce the future of aluminum naval shipbuilding to, well, little more than cinders.

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