The Truth Behind Israel and Egypt’s Submarine Affair

“The submarines question” is really three different questions: 1. Does Israel need a sixth submarine? 2. The matter of Israel’s agreement to sell a submarine to Egypt. 3. Who needs nine submarines?

I “encountered” the sixth submarine in April 2011 as the head of the National Security Council. Before my first or second trip to Germany, I was asked – I seem to remember – by then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak to get the Germans to agree to provide financing for a third of a submarine so that we could buy the sixth submarine. So when I was there I asked my German counterpart for funding for the submarine, and financing for the four missile corvettes to be used for defending Israel’s exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean Sea. Less than a year later he responded by telling me that Germany would fund a third of the submarine.

There is an argument within the defense establishment as to whether we need five or six submarines. The decision depends on operations research studies – which are supposed to define availability under different conditions and the approach in principle – that range between cautious optimism (which means five is enough) to pessimism that does not take chances (such that we need six). This is a legitimate argument in which serious, knowledgeable people can be found on both sides.

When I informed those involved about the funding for a third of the sixth submarine, I did not hear any reservations or expressions of regret. I do not remember hearing any negative response in the form of “it’s unnecessary.” And with that, my business with the sixth submarine ended.

During a visit to Germany with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while Mohammed Morsi was president of Egypt, Netanyahu raised the question of supplying submarines to Egypt. Chancellor Angela Merkel said that if Morsi remained president, she would think about it, because she was of the impression that this was a dangerous regime. I did not know at the time that Israel had agreed to Germany supplying those submarines. Much later I made a few inquiries to understand how the Israeli agreement developed, and realized that there were two such agreements: The first was with regard to supplying the submarine to Egypt, and the second was that the model sold to Egypt would be an enhanced version.

In my humble opinion, Netanyahu’s lack of objection in both cases was justified, given the circumstances. (Again, this is a retrospective explanation – I was not there when the events took place.) Because Egypt, as opposed to Israel, paid full price for the submarines, Germany not agreeing to the request would have led Egypt to a different country that would have supplied it with similar submarines – South Korea, France and maybe even Russia or China, who all produce such submarines. It seems the idea was that it was better for Egypt to buy the submarines in Germany – where we knew the subject quite well, and we could assess the threat with a high level of accuracy. Moreover, Israel had good access to the highest levels in Germany and if there was a need for further effort in the Egyptian context, for example receiving compensation in some area, it would be easier to carry it out there. The after-the-fact explanation satisfied me. It sounded correct given the situation that had come about; with regard to Merkel’s comment on the “Morsi regime,” the concern was proven to be right.

Years after I finished my term, Netanyahu asked my opinion concerning the size of the submarine fleet. (Prime ministers often consult with people outside the system, as Ehud Olmert did before the attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor, as he wrote in his book.) I told Netanyahu that the number of submarines in the fleet was not the important problem, because according to my reckoning he needed to act immediately to ensure the continued existence of the fleet itself.

This reckoning was simple: The first of the five submarines then in service would have ended its operational service in 2027, because a submarine cannot last for more than 30 years of service – and it had arrived in Israel in 1997. Soon after, so too would two others of its sister ships that had arrived almost one after another other, such that within a short time the submarine fleet would dwindle to something that was unacceptable – and in 2050, it would disappear. I added that since it would take at least 10 years from the moment he spoke with Merkel until a new operational submarine would be in our hands, he didn’t have any time and he could not postpone the request. Moreover, this is a decision that at the first stage is in the strategic and political arena, and it would be preferable to finalize it, with a chancellor who was committed in her heart to Israel’s security, on his next visit. I suggested that he ask Merkel for funding for two submarines, buy four more with Israeli funds, and also sign an option for three more subs – in total, nine submarines.

This is how the “myth of a nine-submarine fleet” was born, maybe because of a scribal error or maybe as a result of a misunderstanding. In any case, no one thought that a fleet of nine submarines was necessary. The idea was to create an option to replace the entire submarine fleet continuously through the 2090s, so there would be five or six operational subs at any time – whatever number was decided on.

The military objected to ordering so many submarines and viewed the commitment to six subs as too heavy a burden on its future budget. Netanyahu accepted the military’s view and decided that Israel would buy only three submarines, with an option for three more. No one opposed the purchase of three submarines – at least not in the meetings in which I participated.

People are allowed to think differently, and not every different thinking is considered “treason” or a “horrible act,” or even “something that must not be done.” It is permitted to think that it is possible to make do with only five submarines, and legitimate to think that six are essential. It is possible to think it is too early to make a decision on the next set of submarines 12 years before the end of the existing generation – but it is also legitimate to think that 12 years is not too long a time to properly prepare for the arrival of the new generation – and so on, and so on.

The explanation for the agreement to sell the submarines to Egypt sounds logical. But at the same time a real mistake was made if the Defense Ministry was not informed of Israel giving its agreement to sell the subs to Egypt. In my humble opinion, I feel that this was the result of a stupid mistake and not the result of a dark conspiracy, because it is something that is impossible to hide.

And the most important point: As far as I can testify, the processes to preserve the strength of the submarine fleet over a long period were proper from any professional perspective.

IDF MG (ret.) Yaakov Amidror is a Distinguished Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy. Amidror was formerly the National Security Advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as the head of Israel’s National Security Council from 2011-2013.

Originally published in Haaretz