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Has Israel Equipped Submarines with Nuclear Weapons?

Has Israel Equipped Submarines with Nuclear Weapons?

Source: Wikipedia.

Following up on the controversial Guenther Grass poem discussed in a previous post, Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine published last week a very long article addressing the question of whether the six sophisticated submarines Germany supplied Israel are being equipped with nuclear weapons. Co-reported and co-written by eight people, the very long article contains a lot of suggestive and provocative detail, especially concerning the terms and political circumstances of the submarine delivery contracts. Implicitly, the article argues rather persuasively that Germany’s equipping and subsidization of the Israeli submarine program may amount to a violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty, which bars provision of nuclear-weapons-related technology to non-nuclear-weapons states.

On the main point at issue, however, the article is curiously unconvincing. “Research Spiegel has conducted in Germany, Israel and the United States, among current and past government ministers, military officials, defense engineers and intelligence agents, no longer leaves any room for doubt.”  The article says in its lead section: “With the help of Germany maritime technology, Israel has managed to create for itself a floating nuclear weapon arsenal: submarines equipped with nuclear capability.” That statement leads the reader to expect the article to deliver statements from authoritative Israeli figures–whether on or off the record, attributed or unattributed–to the effect that Israel definitely has equipped its submarines with nuclear weapons. What the reader instead gets are a long series of statements by authoritative figures expressing the opinion that the submarines have been so equipped. But the article also contains statements by equally authoritative figures expressing the opposite opinion, and the authors of the article suggest themselves that Israel could conceivably be bluffing. That is, the Israeli leadership might like everybody to assume that their submarines have been outfitted with nuclear-armed cruise missiles, even though they actually have not been.

The overall effect of the article was to leave this reader, anyway, less convinced that Israel has a sea-based nuclear deterrent than he was previously. The article, let it be said, is rather weak on key technical details. Its descriptions of Israeli cruise missiles are confusing and incomplete. And in one critically important section, the article systematically jumbles ballistic missile and cruise missile technology, an absolutely fundamental distinction. It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence that eight co-authors, and a battery of Spiegel factcheckers and copyeditors, could have got something so basic wrong.

It would be nice if some independent observer could just determine, using some kind of remote radiation detector, whether in fact the Israeli subs are carrying nuclear weapons. In the waning years of the Cold War, the U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Soviet Academy of Sciences collaborated on an experiment to see whether sea-based nuclear weapons could in fact be detected remotely. Though the exercise was somewhat successful and may ultimately have contributed to the removal of nuclear weapons from U.S. and Russian surface ships, evidently the technology used would not settle the Israeli question. NRDC’s Tom Cochran, who led the U.S. team, says that submarine-based nuclear weapons could be registered only with a large neutron detector the Soviets deployed in the experiment—not a device one could plausibly get anywhere near an Israeli warship.



William Sweet

Bill Sweet has been writing about nuclear arms control and peace politics since interning at the IAEA in Vienna during summer 1974, right after India's test of a "peaceful nuclear device." As an editor and writer for Congressional Quarterly, Physics Today and IEEE Spectrum magazine he wrote about the freeze and European peace movements, space weaponry and Star Wars, Iraq, North Korea and Iran. His work has appeared in magazines like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and The New Republic, as well as in The New York Times, the LA Times, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun. The author of two books--The Nuclear Age: Energy, Proliferation and the Arms Race, and Kicking the Carbon Habit: The Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy--he recently published "Situating Putin," a group of essays about contemporary Russia, as an e-book. He teaches European history as an adjunct at CUNY's Borough of Manhattan Community College.