Israel's elite navy commanders on their trials and tribulations

Commanders of Israel's elite submarine unit speak to the "Post" about the challenges they have faced in their training

 New submarine commander course graduates Y and S. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
New submarine commander course graduates Y and S.

In parallel to the navy holding its graduation ceremony for its commanders and submarine commanders course, The Jerusalem Post spoke to the submarine course commander and two graduates about the challenges they have had to confront.

Submarine Course Commander and IDF Maj. “P” said, “My career path has been that I completed the navy commanders course and have served as a commander for seven years since then.

“Most of my roles have been in Shayetet 7 [elite submarine unit] in diverse roles, including the INS Rahav, the navy’s newest submarine. I have also been a submarine commander and am now commander of the training course for navy commanders.”

Training for an elite naval unit

P. said that, “The course is the second most elite in the IDF and takes a full two years and four months, including special sailing and command training.”

 Israeli submarine at sea. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT) Israeli submarine at sea. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

Elaborating regarding the breakdown of what the cadets do during that time, he said, “For six months, cadets learn the concepts of sailing and are reviewed generally for the capability to become commanders. Next, they spend another six months learning more advanced skills, including concrete operational command skills for submarines and for more typical naval patrol vessels, including Devorot [fast patrol boats].”

After that period, he said, “they spend six more months in political science academic studies at the University of Haifa. Naval commanders need to be intelligent people who also know things beyond their profession. They need to understand dynamic issues crossing into the diplomatic and global arenas.”

Following that, “they spend another eight months working on more complex professional submarine skills” and serving as an officer in a variety of submarine and naval vessel duties. Part of this period is getting deeper into submarine technical issues in the classroom and training on submarine-dedicated simulators.

The last period of this training includes four months serving as a senior commander on a submarine at sea achieving certain mission goals, though P. or some other more experienced officer would still be present to supervise or intervene if needed.

“What’s the difference between all naval commanders, who are all battle commanders anyway, and submarine commanders? The submarine is the most powerful battle vessel that Israel has,” said P.

Only 50% of cadets finish the submarine commander course.

He added, “The cadets for the course are very smart. But it is also a challenge: how do you motivate them? The various regular rank-and-file and enlisted non-commissioned officers naval personnel sometimes know something better than me, but they also look to me to set an example.”

Describing challenges at sea, he said, “Our operations within the submarine are part of it being a vessel for combat, but it is also your home. You spend months at a time more on the submarine than with your family.”

Moreover, P. said, “There is nowhere to run. You have days of training on the submarine at sea, but it can extend to seven days or even multiple weeks.

“The closeness between the submariners is extremely significant. You need to be genuine and lower some of your guards with the rank-and-file submariners because you are too physically close to them to be standoffish. You need to tell everyone what they are doing is important and the vital role of the navy to national security,” he said.

In one instance, he recounted that, “We were at sea for an operation. In the middle of the operation, orders came down making the mission an extra day or two. Then it became seven days longer. You need to cope with the fact that you had made plans for when you returned to land and you cannot even cancel them,” because submarines operate in conditions of “radio silence” other than in very limited coded communications with naval headquarters.

“Fighters don’t know what to expect or what to do. I need to become their parent and be a listener for them. Also, we need to maintain the operational status even beyond the time period which was expected,” according to P.

To help cope, he said, “I speak to them about the importance of the critical missions. We are there. No one else can do this. This is the world of national security. We try very hard as a staff to establish and maintain a culture of a stable routine. We need to laugh about things. Everyone is working together. During the extended operational submarine service rotations, I do more checking on them. I help connect them to the mission.”

Also, after the extended mission is completed, he said that he and the navy directly assist his submariners with getting refunds for events where they lost money, such as flights overseas that they missed because the submarine mission was extended beyond its initial set schedule.

Next, P. said that, “During the extended mission, when you are off rotation duty, we advance the operational goals, you never stop learning. You can read books, increase your education and increase group unity and meshing together.”

But at the same time, he said, “you need to be able to jump from 0 to 100,” to deal with any sudden emergency or new operational situation. He said submariners did not get to watch movies as a group or on individual Kindles, though various movies about US submarines have shown the availability to watch movies.

Displaying his pride in his profession, “We travel very far from the State of Israel. We can travel to any body of water, and secretly. It doesn’t matter what the mission is. This is a big advantage in terms of being able to maneuver in secret. The ‘field’ in which we ‘play’ provides security to the country on a day-to-day basis.

“It is very inspiring. The 41 graduating officers represent a very large class. I want to congratulate them. They will defend Israel and they will also help educate the next generation of submariners,” he stated.

Next, he was asked about Israel’s deals to buy newer and more advanced submarines. More specifically, he was asked if, in light of the need to buy the newer submarines, his current submarines he served on, were lacking in any area.

P. said they were not missing anything needed to accomplish their current missions. He said that the existing submarines and their staff have the capabilities to be creative and to make conceptual and operational breakthroughs to get the job done.

“I won’t specifically address the deals with Germany, but we can carry out our duties, and we get responses to our needs so that we can do our best for the entire navy and the entire IDF,” he said.

The Post also interviewed “Y.” and “S.’, who just completed the submarine commanders course.

Diverse challenges, far from home

Asked what was the most difficult part of the course, Y. said, “Every level has its difficulties and there are diverse kinds of challenges. You are away from home, and work on weekends. You need to use your own personal strengths. It can be hard to get to know the submarines when things get very technical. This can be very hard because I did not have a background in technology.”

Y. said he was “not a super swimmer beforehand and did not have any special exposure to submarines or the navy, but now I have been exposed to a remarkable world that I had never paid attention to before.”

Pressed about how he overcame the hardest moment for him personally in the course, he responded, “Anyone who finishes the course knows how to push themselves, can pump himself up on his own. I also knew I had support from my family at home. I knew to trust myself in terms of my ability to adapt.”

Y. added that it was a unique experience “to become part of a very special group,” and also to live without cellphones, leading to having “very authentic and deep conversations.”

S. said that there was no one hardest moment, but that the course “requires lots of courage. You need to deal with the challenges the best way possible. You need to take care of yourself. You have to focus yourself mentally. For me personally, it was a very different world and the training was very long. But it is something for you for your entire lif

Similarly to Y., S. said he did not have any special prior exposure to submarines, but that this made his introduction to “the deep-water experience a wondrous experience.”