Col. (res.) Michael Kesari, who headed the Israeli Navy’s Dolphin submarine project with Germany, offers an in depth look into how “the best conventional submarine in the world” was developed & built.
By Aharon Lapidot
A submarine is a an expensive tool of war, and if anyone thinks the public discussion over purchasing submarines for the Israeli Navy began only a few days ago, they need to think again.
The idea to buy submarines from Germany was first raised in the 1980s, after the Lebanon War. The idea was accompanied by heated debate between the Navy and the IDF and the Defense Ministry over what the national priorities should be. Ultimately, in 1989, then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed a complex contract with two German shipyards to build the Navy new submarines.
Just a little over a year later, however, in November 1990, the new defense minister, Moshe Arens, nullified the contract with the support of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir due to heavy pressure from the IDF and budgetary troubles. Then, a year later in 1991, the Gulf War erupted and for the first time the Israeli homefront came under Scud missile attack from Iraq.
At the war’s conclusion and as a result, the German government offered Israel humanitarian and military aid. On Jan. 30, 1991, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl approved an aid package that included two Dolphin-class submarines, funded by the German government. Later, this time as prime minister, Rabin heavily backed then-Navy commander Ami Ayalon’s request to add a third submarine, and the contract for purchasing it was signed in 1994 with partial German funding.
And so it was that Col. (res.) Michael Kesari — who commanded the submarine squadron, Flotilla 7, for four years from 1983 to 1987 (“the longest anyone has served in that post”) — was summoned in early 1992 to head the Dolphin project in Germany, which he did until April 15, 1996, when the first submarine was released.
“I arrived when the first iron was cut and finished with the Dolphin launch,” Kesari tells Israel Hayom.
Kesari has had a long romance with submarines, and he spent most of his long and illustrious military career inside them.
“When I finished the naval officers course in the 1970s, it was customary for the cadet who finished top of his class to choose the unit he would serve in. The Cherbourg ships at the time were the cream of the Navy’s crop and everyone expected me to choose the missile boats; I chose the submarines instead. I don’t have a clear answer why, but there was something special about the submarines that enchanted me, and I loved the fact that all of its systems are integrated together,” he says.
Kesari’s career in the defense establishment also included three years in Israel Aerospace Industries, where he worked to help develop the Arrow missile defense system.
“Although the Arrow didn’t go into the submarine, the development process required going out to sea, and that’s where I had an advantage,” he says with a smile. After his time in Germany, he chose education, managing the school for engineers near Tel Aviv University and the Society for Excellence through Education. Today he heads the space program at the Atid High School for Sciences in Herzliya. The project currently occupying the majority of his time is Launch 70, which will involve 70 nanosatellites being launched from 70 schools in 2018, the 70th year of Israel’s independence.
‘Dakar tragedy was a turning point’
When Kesari was assigned to command the Navy’s submarine flotilla, he had three Gal-class submarines under his command: Gal (“Wave”); Rahav (“Neptune”); and Tanin (“Crocodile”).
“A fleet of three submarines provides an average of 1.3 operational submarines,” he says. “The other submarines are getting repairs, are in routine maintenance or are being renovated. This is the ratio in the world, not specifically for us. This means that you can’t make do with less than three submarines if you want your fleet to have any type of significance, and the truth is that three submarines is also not a large enough force. In order to secure Israel’s naval arena, six submarines are needed, which provide, on average, four operational submarines at all times. Put one Dolphin submarine near an unfriendly port, and every vessel that tries leaving it can be sunk. In other words, one submarine is enough to shut down an entire enemy port. Considering the fact that in Syria, for example, there are two primary ports, Latakia and Tartus, the importance of these submarines is very clear. A submarine can wait patiently, for a long period of time, invisible. That is where its strength lies.”
The very fact that you have submarines, Kesari says, obligates your enemy to invest a fortune in countermeasures: detection systems, frigates, mines, helicopters, anti-submarine warfare and more.
Up until the Lebanon War in 1982, the submarines in the Israeli Navy were a marginal force. The entire Navy altogether was little more than a coast guard. The first two submarines, S-class, were purchased in 1958 from Great Britain, which had a surplus from World War II. Their names, Rahav and Tanin, were given to them by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion (“Without Ben-Gurion we wouldn’t have had any submarines at all,” says Kesari). The next cycle of submarines, T-class, was bought from Great Britain a decade later, also from its World War II surplus. This cycle comprised three submarines: Leviathan (“Whale”), Dolphin, and Dakar, the last of which disappeared, as we know, on its way to the Haifa port from the shipyard in Portsmouth.
“The T-class included certain improvements, but it was still what you’d call junk,” Kesari says. “The importance of these submarines was that we learned everything, really everything, from the British Royal Navy. It allowed us to learn from the experience of others. We were tied by our umbilical cord to the Royal Navy. The submarine commanders course was in England until 1977, when the British Foreign Ministry began objecting to our warm relations with their navy. Even Margaret Thatcher [then U.K. prime minister] couldn’t get rid of those objections.”
The Dakar tragedy was a turning point for the Navy. After it happened, the decision was made to buy submarines only of a proven operational class, but newly constructed. Indeed, a new cycle of Gal-class submarines was ordered in the mid-1970s, again from the U.K. The British agreed to build three new submarines at the Vickers shipyards, based on the German 206-class submarine.
“Three Gal submarines — Gal, Tanin and Rahav — this was how we came into maturity; in the operational sense, in how we used them, and also in disconnecting ourselves from the British udder. This was pure Israeli submarining,” Kesari declares.
“At this time we had already begun working in conjunction with IDF land forces, and in the Lebanon War we provided operational flexibility to the extent that the IDF adopted us with a warm embrace,” he says.
A terrifying tool of war
The Dolphin submarines, which were built in Germany, were the first to allow Israel the opportunity to determine its features and characteristics. One of the first conclusions was that Israel did not need nuclear-powered submarines. It needed submarines compatible to the Mediterranean Sea, which could operate in relatively shallow waters. On the other hand, the Dolphins were built with a look very far into the future. The construction was not cheap to say the least, but it made the Dolphin into a flexible and versatile tool capable of coping with extremely consequential future scenarios. The result? Kesari has zero doubts: “The Dolphin is the best conventional submarine in the world. It is a winning combination of original Israeli thinking and German technological conservatism, which assures that all the systems work.”
The Dolphin is two and a half times larger than the Gal — over 56 meters (184 feet) in length and more than 1,550 tons — and it is smaller than the American attack submarines from the same class but is more heavily armed. The torpedo is German-made, but many of the weapons systems are developed in Israel, mainly by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and are exceptionally integrative with the submarine. In addition to the dozens of torpedo bays, according to foreign reports, the Dolphin is also armed with missiles, naval mines and deception systems. Its sonar system (LOFAR and PRS) is the most advanced of its kind. The Dolphin is also fitted with other sophisticated detection and electronic intelligence gathering systems. Its level of automation is extremely high. The Dolphin can remain submerged for days, and can be at sea for over a month. The sum of its components makes it a terrifying and dreaded tool of war.
Kesari recalls his first experience as head of the Dolphin development project: “When I came to the first meeting with the Germans, I told them: ‘I have never built a submarine, and you have already been doing it for 150 years; on the other hand you have never sailed operationally in a submarine, and I have already been doing that for 20 years. Therefore, I won’t tell you how to build, and you won’t tell me what’s important.’ This formula worked wonderfully, and when we diverged from it, there were problems.”
To be sure, the Germans have always been pioneers in the field. To our regret, they have not always been on the right side of history, but there is no denying their technological skill. As early as 1914, at the onset of World War I, the German U-21 submarine sank the British HMS Pathfinder scout cruiser. A year later another German submarine, U-20, sank the passenger ship Lusitania, killing over 1,100 people on board and strongly influencing public opinion among the allies.
During World War II, the Germans boasted the largest submarine fleet in the world, which ravaged supply convoys traversing the Atlantic Ocean from America to Great Britain. The German submarines were seen as workhorses, immensely reliable, the terror of anything sailing on the ocean surface and wildly successful against the allied navies. So much so that British then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill confessed: “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”
One submarine is enough to shut down an entire enemy port.
Col. (res.) Michael Kesari, who headed Israel’s Dolphin project in Germany.
The shipyards that built those submarines are the same shipyards building Israeli submarines today. Their history of their role during World War II can never be forgotten. However, “you can count the number of countries capable of building advanced submarines, such as the Dolphin, on one hand, and they aren’t standing in line to build them for us. The Germans were very friendly toward us. In Israel people don’t even know how much,” says Kesari. To illustrate the point, Kesari says the Italians were supposed to build the snorkel mast, but at a certain stage the Italian Foreign Ministry announced it was not willing to because “Israel does not protect human rights.”
The German government had an interest in bringing both shipyards together: HDW in Kiel, and ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems in Emden. The shipyards were sworn rivals, and the German government pressured them to establish a consortium, or a type of partnership, to build the submarines for Israel.
“In the beginning they intended for each shipyard to build one submarine,” Kesari recounts. “We objected. We wanted the submarines to be identical. Therefore, we divided the tasks between the shipyards: The work would begin in Kiel and end in Emden, but each submarine would go through the same exact process.”
‘Not everything is measured in money’
The work relationship with the Germans was of the utmost importance.
“I had a large team under me, 25 engineers, and the main pitfall was the mentality of ‘we, the Israelis know everything best.’ Instead, we had to adopt an approach that they are our partners, not our enemies. Here is one anecdote as an example: At one point they came to us with a piece of paper — I was familiar with the signatures on it — and they said, ‘This is the pre-contract, which states that you, the Israelis, commit to providing the smoke masks for the submarine. Unfortunately, we forgot to include it in the contract itself. What do you want to do?’ I consulted with a witty local attorney, and he told me: ‘There is no court in Germany that will obligate you if it’s not written in the contract. But what you do with the problem, that’s your business.’ I advised the Navy to agree to the Germans’ request, and I was glad when they took the advice. And that was just one station along the way, thanks to which the relations with them were excellent. They were flexible more than once to meet our demands. The shipyard wanted to succeed just as much as we did. They have a very high level of professional integrity. The trust we built paid off. Not everything is measured in money.”
When the project ended, Kesari, champagne and pastries in hand, went to ThyssenKrupp’s headquarters to thank them for finishing the job.
“They couldn’t believe their eyes: ‘No client has ever come to thank us,’ they told me.”
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