'Dive, dive, dive," yells Cmdr. M. into a loudspeaker that rattles throughout the navy's Dolphin submarine. A second later, the helmsman pushes hard on the vessel's steering system as the submarine dips into a 45-degree angle and descends to almost 300 meters below the choppy Mediterranean.
The submarine is on a routine training exercise a few dozen kilometers off Haifa and the 40-man crew is extinguishing fake fires that erupt in the engine room while searching for leaks among the thousands of pipes that crisscross the sub's ceiling.
In the meantime, after bringing the boat up to periscope depth, Cmdr. M., captain of the INS Dolphin, dashes from one side of the combat information center to the other while monitoring the almost-20 plasma screens that portray everything a submarine commander needs to know - from sonar readings and weapons systems status to fuel and fresh water quantities.
As he turns, a periscope swings up from a hole in the floor in the middle of the CIC. Peering through the binocular-like goggles to inspect the surface, M. ensures that the submarine is a safe distance from other ships loitering around the Haifa Port.
Israel keeps its submarines secret and refuses to divulge details regarding their capabilities or operations. Nevertheless, The Jerusalem Post and three other reporters were given the rare opportunity earlier this month to join the Dolphin crew on a routine training exercise. Just how rare is press access to a sub? Only two other journalists have been allowed on board in the past decade.
The Dolphin, Leviathan and Tekuma - the navy's three Dolphin class submarines - were built in Germany in the mid-1990s according to specifications which reportedly make them the most advanced diesel-electric submarines in the world. They replaced the 23-year-old Gal class submarines.
Often described as Israel's second-strike doomsday weapon due to their ability - according to foreign reports - to launch cruise missiles tipped with nuclear warheads, the submarines are shrouded in an aura of mystery.
But more importantly, naval officers stress, is the fact that no one really knows where the submarines are at any given time. "The fact that you don't know where it is and what it is doing without a doubt strengthens Israeli deterrence," explains Capt. O., commander of Flotilla 7, which operates the submarines.
Beyond their strategic significance, the submarines fit well into standard Israeli naval operations. With a border along the Mediterranean Sea, the role of the navy is to protect the coastline and territorial waters from foreign navies and terror groups. To this end, it carries out regular patrols both in territorial waters and also up to more than 100 kilometers from the shore.
But for a country which receives a significant percentage of its military supplies by sea, defending the sea routes is an existential strategic interest. The navy has invested heavily in its three multimission, ultrasophisticated Sa'ar 5 missile corvettes, but without its submarine fleet, it says, it can't adequately remove the threat of isolation during war.
NOT MUCH can be said about the submarines' participation in recent IDF operations - including the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.
"We do things that other platforms cannot do," Capt. O. says vaguely. "Intelligence can be collected either by a drone or a human agent, but a submarine can bring a pool of different sensors together and collect intelligence without anyone even knowing that we are out there."
To maintain this level of secrecy and to continue doing what the submarines have been doing, he says, it is better to avoid the specifics. "I call it covert power projection," says O., who last year was given command of the flotilla after spending a year at Harvard University.
It is exactly this level of secrecy and mystery which attracts youth to try out for the exclusive course. "The navy markets the course as something exclusive and mysterious," explains Lt. Amit, a deck officer responsible for navigation and communication systems. "It has without a doubt lived up to my expectations."
Israel received its first submarine in 1959. Called Tanin, the S-class submarine purchased from Great Britain participated in the Six Day War and launched naval commandos to attack the port of Alexandria. The submarine tried to torpedo an Egyptian ship but was severely damaged by a depth charge attack, resulting in the vessel's decommissioning following the war.
Recognizing the strategic significance of underwater vessels, Flotilla 7 continued to grow and in the 1970s three Gal-class submarines arrived. After 23 years of service, they were decommissioned in the late 1990s following the arrival of the three Dolphin-class subs from Germany.
While production of the Dolphin program was approved in 1989 by defense minister Yitzhak Rabin, it was terminated a year later by defense minister Moshe Arens due to heavy budgetary constraints.
Several months after Arens's decision, however, the First Gulf War broke out and Iraqi Scuds were launched into the country. Subsequent reports that Iraqi chemical warheads, which were never fired, were possibly developed with the help of German companies strained relations between Berlin and Jerusalem, leading the German government to offer humanitarian and military support in the form of two Dolphin-class submarines free of charge. The third submarine was ordered a year later, and the cost was split by Germany and Israel.
The three submarines will soon be joined by another two vessels that are currently under construction by Germany's Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft AG (HDW) at a shipyard in Kiel. The new vessels are scheduled to arrive by the middle of the next decade.
WEIGHING ABOUT 1,700 tons and under 60 meters in length, the short, stout shape makes the Dolphin highly maneuverable. Its unusual design provides for three decks. While it is eight meters longer than the old Gal-class subs, the Dolphin-class submarines pale in comparison to the US Trident-class nuclear-powered submarines, which boast a length of 166 meters. Nevertheless, the Dolphin-class vessels are totally automated and computer-integrated, with systems developed by several major Israeli defense companies, including Tadiran, Elbit, IAI and Rada.
They are equipped with both low frequency and passive sonar, and their integrated fire control system lets them track and evaluate a significantly large number of targets. The Dolphin's two periscopes - integrated with night-vision and thermal imaging - were specially designed for the navy and allow anything the captain sees to be relayed to a screen in the CIC.
According to Jane's Fighting Ships, the Dolphin class has the capability of launching swimmer delivery vehicles carrying eight frogmen through its torpedo tubes. The submarines have "considerable commando capability," since they allow swimmers to reach the shore undetected, the journal said.
Due to its small size, every inch of the submarine is used to the maximum. The sleeping quarters are small rooms where the walls are lined by beds maybe half a meter in height, prompting jokes from the crew about how sleeping in them is "good preparation for the grave." There are three bathrooms, which also function as showers and storage rooms. In between meals, the eating area takes turns functioning as a bedroom and a lounge.
Not much is known about the actual operations that the submarines participate in. During the Second Lebanon War, they played a role in imposing a sea blockade on Lebanon to prevent military supplies from reaching Hizbullah. In Cast Lead the submarines were also activated.
In June the submarines made international headlines after the Post was the first newspaper to reveal that one of them had traversed the Suez Canal for the first time. The decision to send the submarine - as well as a Sa'ar 5 corvette - through the canal was a change of policy within the service and a reversal of a 2005 decision by then OC Navy Adm. David Ben-Bashat to stop sending ships through the canal due to growing threats in the area.
The significance of the move was debatable, but it was immediately interpreted as a message to Iran and a demonstration of strengthening ties with Egypt.
In the event of a conflict with Iran, and if Israel decided to involve its three Dolphin-class submarines, the quickest route would be to send them through the Suez Canal. With their reported 4,500 nautical mile range, taking the long way, around Africa, would require the Dolphins to make at least two stops for refueling at a friendly port, or for fuel to be replenished at sea.
"The Red Sea is an area that has significance for us and could turn into an important front for Israel," a senior navy officer says to explain the decision to send the sub through the canal. It is important that we become familiar with it."
THE NAVY'S presence in the Red Sea could also be aimed at the smuggling industry that transports weaponry and explosives to the Gaza Strip.
While Egypt claims that most of the weaponry is smuggled into Gaza via the Mediterranean, Israeli defense officials claim that the weaponry and explosives are smuggled into Gaza via land routes through Africa and up to the Sinai until it reaches the Egyptian side of the Philadelphi corridor.
"A submarine can be in a place without anyone knowing and can collect intelligence without anyone knowing," the senior officer says.
But collecting intelligence is not the submarines' only role. Their missions are also to wreak havoc to the enemy's sea routes, blockade and mine enemy ports, deliver commandos and - according to foreign reports - provide a second-strike capability.
In June 2000, for example, the London Sunday Times reported that Israel had secretly test-fired cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons off the coast of Sri Lanka. Quoting Israeli defense sources, the paper reported that the tests were conducted by two Dolphin-class submarines and involved Israeli-made missiles equipped with conventional warheads hitting targets at sea at a range of about 1,500 kilometers. The sources were quoted as saying the launches were intended to simulate swift retaliation against a preemptive nuclear attack from Iran.
While the IDF dismissed the report, it is exactly this veil of secrecy that helps enhance deterrence.
Israel has never admitted that it has any cruise missiles; however, Jane's Defense Weekly has claimed that it modified the Popeye Turbo into an air-launched cruise missile with a range of more than 200 km. The Popeye was developed and built by Rafael, which has a sophisticated missile development division.
Under a system of rotation, the Times continued, two of the vessels will remain at sea - one in the Red Sea, the other in the Mediterranean, while the third will be kept on standby. The missiles, said the paper, will be fired only after approval by four people: the prime minister, defense minister, chief of General Staff, and navy commander.
For now, the Dolphin class's armament includes Sub Harpoon anti-ship missiles, mines, decoys and STN Atlas wire-guided torpedoes. It has four 650-mm. and six 533-mm. forward torpedo tubes that can be quickly reloaded by six reloads located just behind each tube.
The submarines use diesel engines to power up generators which allow them to remain submerged for several days. The new vessels being assembled in Germany will be fitted with a propulsion system combining a conventional system, consisting of a diesel generator with a lead acid battery, and an air-independent propulsion system used for silent slow cruising, with a fuel cell equipped with oxygen and hydrogen storage.
"With the new German technology," an official close to the deal says, "the new submarines will be able to remain submerged for much, much longer than the older Dolphin models."
Israel, though, is not the only Middle Eastern country bolstering its submarine array. Last year, Egypt began talks with Berlin regarding the potential procurement of similar submarines to the ones developed for Israel. Iran has also announced plans to launch an independent production line for submarines to join the three Kilo-class Russian-made subs it currently operates.
"Militaries are always trying to upgrade their technology," Capt. O. says. "There is a long way to go to catch up to us but we cannot be content and need to always ensure that we are a step ahead." â€¢