Training with dolphins: The next generation of Israel's submarine fleet

The distance from Alexandria in Egypt to Bandar Abbas off the coast of Iran is 2,998 nautical miles, a six-day journey at 20 knots (37 kph). Translation: Not a problem for Israel’s submarine fleet.

The Dolphin-class submarine first entered service in 2000 (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
The Dolphin-class submarine first entered service in 2000
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
‘Push the wheel forward,” the trainer says. The helm of a submarine looks like the controls of a large commercial airliner. It tilts forward and backward depending on whether someone wants the submarine to dive or surface. On either side of the steering column are two panels with buttons indicating alarms and autopilot functions. In front is a screen that looks like something from an old science-fiction movie, nothing too snazzy and hi-tech here. Above the screen are more gauges that read “foreplane actual angle,” “equivalent radar angle,” and “aft plane angle.”
As I push the wheel forward, nothing seems to happen. “More,” says Sgt. Yali, an Israel Navy trainer. Then the room moves and begins to feel heavy, like when you are dizzy or seasick. Pens and pencils on the console slide back and fall on the floor. I’m slouching forward and have to brace with my feet. It’s disconcerting and disorienting.
We are sitting in one of Israel’s state-of-the-art submarine simulators at Bat Galim naval base in Haifa. From outside, the simulator consists of a metal room suspended in a larger room. It can move up and down and side to side to resemble the movements of a submarine. “The simulator can go up to 45 degrees,” says Yali. What’s disconcerting is being in this room the size of a cramped office with seven chairs, each facing its own console. “It operates 24 hours a day.”
Here is where Israel’s elite submariners practice to be members of a crew of the Dolphin-class submarine fleet. They sit for hours on end in comfortable black chairs that have grown worn from use, training for power outages, fires, and what happens when the sub’s systems stop responding. After less than 30 minutes at the controls, I’m ready to leave this mock-underwater elevator. Being in a metal box is a bit claustrophobic.
Being with a half dozen people in a tilting, rotating, metal box is worse.
The Dolphin-class submarine first entered service in 2000. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's UnitThe Dolphin-class submarine first entered service in 2000. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
SUBMARINES DID not come naturally to the State of Israel. Unlike storied infantry brigades, tanks or air-force fighters, the first submarine was not acquired until the late 1950s when the state took delivery of two British S-class submarines.
“In the history of the submarines we started with second-hand British submarines; we needed to learn how to operate them from the British and French,” relates Maj. Y., a commander at the training base at Haifa, who has served for two decades. “They were not built for us but for the Second World War; they didn’t fit the Mediterranean Sea, they were very big and noisy.”
PM Netanyahu at the INS Rahav submarine arrival ceremony
Israel upgraded its smaller S-class submarines named Rahav and Tanin to three T-class submarines, the Dolphin, Leviathan and Dakar. In 1968 the Dakar sank while on the way to Israel, killing all 69 aboard. When Israel did away with these British behemoths they were some of the last serving World War II-era submarines.
“In the late ’70s we received the Gal class, British built on German design and purpose-built for our needs,” says Major Y. With a displacement of 600 tons submerged, they were half the volume of the British T-class. Israel’s Gal-class subs served from 1976 to 2002 and kept the Book of Isaiahinspired names Tanin and Rahav, and added the name Gal to the threesome.
The British-built submarines served Israel well in its wars from 1967 to Lebanon in the 1980s. But by the 1990s it was clear a new and larger capability was needed.
“To keep up with the demands in our area we changed to the Dolphinclass for the last 20 years,” the major says. Based on a German model that is used by a dozen navies from Argentina to Greece, Israel initially ordered three submarines in the 1990s. The Dolphin, Leviathan and Tekuma, were delivered by 2000. Displacing 1,900 tons, they were far larger than their predecessors.
The deal was not without controversy and hiccups, with Germany providing hundreds of millions in financing.
In 2006 Israel purchased two more subs from the German company ThyssenKrupp (a purchase that is shrouded with serious corruption allegations that are still being examined in open investigations), modeled on the German type 212 submarine. Even bigger than the first three, according to foreign media reports the boats are 67 meters long, displacing 2,400 tons and crewed by more than 35 sailors. The Dolphins are capable of doing around 25 knots underwater (46.30 kph), and can stay submerged at a depth of more than 200 meters. By contrast the largest submarine in the US navy displaces 7,800 tons and has 130 crew members.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the submarine fleet “will act as a deterrent to our enemies,” and said in 2016 that the navy undertakes “daring operations far from its home port.”
When the submarines were ordered, according to foreign media, they were part of Israel’s strategic thinking regarding Iran and the need to prevent the Islamic Republic from obtaining a nuclear weapon. To give a rough idea, the distance from Alexandria in Egypt to Bandar Abbas off the coast of Iran is 2,998 nautical miles, a six-day journey at 20 knots (37 kph). Translation: Not a problem for Israel’s submarine fleet.
Trainees who are accepted to the arduous submarine course go through years of preparation. Although the buildings housing Israel’s submarine simulators are dilapidated like so many military bases in the country, the simulators present trainees with the same conditions they will face on board.
“We select people who can handle a situation of a small compartment for a long time with the same people and get along with the same people for a long time and if there is a dispute they can resolve it in a calm manner,” says Maj. Y. One thing they don’t ask is if the candidate is a smoker. “You can be a smoker and stop [while] in the submarine.” Currently all those serving in the submarines are men, although the training staff includes many women.
Sgt. Maya peers into a periscope simulator. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's UnitSgt. Maya peers into a periscope simulator. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
ONE SIMULATOR room has a periscope that rotates seamlessly. Encased in gray metal, it has two handles that snap down on both sides of the lens. Standing upright, the operator presses against the periscope and moves around in a circle to use it. The handles contain dials and buttons that control zoom and adjust the periscope up and down on the water.
The trainer, Sgt. Maya, loads a file into a computer and the image shows through the lens. It replicates the waves and boats on the ocean. Maya, who has been training personnel here for two years, describes this as the eyes of the sub. “An officer proficient in the periscope passes seven levels of training over half a year. We teach them to translate what they see, so that when they go into the water they will be familiar with the functions.”
Why can’t the periscope be replicated by a computer? It seems archaic to have a person peering through a handheld system that hasn’t changed greatly since World War II. “Human eyes can maximize more,” Maya says. “People have to be smarter than the machine, they have to know high-level math.
The brain can function faster than a machine and calculate seven things at the same time,” she asserts. However, the human still has sensors and the periscope has technical improvements since the vessels shown in films like Das Boot and The Hunt for Red October.
Peering through the lens, into the sloshing waves and zooming in on unsuspecting ships on the horizon is remarkable. At night the difficulty of the submariner is compounded even more and trainees must be able to identify targets through the lights they leave on.
Maya, like the other female trainers, has been on a submarine to see how best to train the crew. Like her colleagues she hopes women can serve as part of the crew one day.
Walking from the periscope room to see the elevator-like diving simulator, one passes a hallway with posters honoring the Dolphin class. Images of a sub conning tower peeking through the ocean surface and two real dolphins jumping from the water, remind us of where the class of boats got its name.
The name of the unit, Shayetet 7, is emblazoned on one poster, along with a thank-you note from American seamen.
Like the Dolphin class, some of these simulators date from almost 20 years ago.
One of the most intensive trainings those signing up for around seven years of service face is the need to be acquainted with sonar. Subs use “active” sonar where a sound pulse is emitted and the system listens for an echo. This is the “ping” many are familiar with from movies. Submariners have to be more versed in “passive” sonar, listening for sounds made by ships and targets. Sgt.
Orya sits at a desk facing a room full of computers that resembles a classroom.
“From day 1 [of training] sonar operators come here to listen to targets,” she says. While they listen via headphones to different sounds, the sounds are also visually represented on a green screen. A little ripple in the screen shows the frequency and bearing of the noise over time. With this simple signature an operator should be able to identify the source. But it can take two years to become an expert.
“It is among the longest training program in the army; their job is to hear if there is a target at a distance and direction.” For instance one can hear a propeller of a ship and know the specific type of target. “They need to know if it is an enemy or civilian ship. They need to know each target and if what they are hearing is the target.”
In this room the training never ends. Before a mission the submariners will file in and listen to the kinds of noises that are expected during the mission.
During a mission the submarine might not be able to transmit active sonar or surface so as to avoid detection. “We can listen though. That is why it is so important. Sonar is our eyes and ears. The main job is to hear ships, which they can do at a significant distance.”
Orya fits the headphones to my ears and plays a soft sound, a kind of clicking.
“What is that?” she asks. No idea. “It’s the sound of a fridge door opening on a submarine. Another clip includes a kind of chirping. “We can also hear dolphins singing. Dolphins like to swim next to submarines, but also interfere with us listening to targets due to their noise.”
In another sound clip we can hear crabs clicking their claws. It’s disconcerting to think of a person having to sort through all this sea life, and boats to find one needle in the haystack, and identify it as a threat.
The job of the operator is to take in all this information and also figure out not only what he is hearing but the position of the target and what direction it is going. On board a submarine there would be several operators expert in this. Orya says that our increasingly visual generation, growing up with smartphones from a young age, means submariners are better at reading sonar on screen than by listening.
“They have better visual abilities than in the past.” Their ability to hear differences is more limited. Perhaps that is also due to urban noise pollution.
The sonar operator has technical aids that can help, such as a computer that might determine the RPM of a motor.
“A computer hasn’t been developed to do this as well as a person can,” says Orya. As with the periscope, there may be technical progress, but we cannot rely on machines. Subs will not become drones just yet.
ISRAEL CONTINUES to seek upgrades to its fleet. Last year the government agreed to buy three more German-built submarines over the next 10 years. This was met by some controversy and allegations of corruption. There is discussion over whether the three new subs will replace Israel’s aging first Dolphin-class subs built 20 years ago, or bring the complement of boats to nine, making Israel one of the most powerful navies in the Mediterranean (slightly behind Turkey, Greece and Egypt). Maj. Y. says he can’t comment on the political issues involved, but says if only Israelis knew what the submarines do, they would understand.
For now the simulators are saving the navy operational time by training sailors on land. Maj. Y. considers them the most important component of the training. As the service expands with new submarines, there is a need to train more but keep the same level of competence. It remains a secretive service.
“Most people need to only imagine what we do,” says the major. “We must continue to do the best to bring the best people here.” For those who will never go down in a submarine, the major says the movies don’t always get it wrong. If you watch every depiction of submarines in film and put them together, it bears some resemblance. Start with Das Boot.