Dolphins in Trouble

by Stuart Slade, Senior Naval Systems Analyst, Forecast International.

Dolphin-Class Submarine. Source: IDF Navy

With the original group of Dolphin-class submarines designed to have a hull life of 30 years and a design initiation-to-commissioning cycle of at least 10-15 years, attention turned to designing replacements for the first three submarines in 2015.  At first, Israeli ambitions seemed somewhat excessive, with references to “an entirely different submarine from the Dolphin or the Dolphin AIP.” Reality appears to have set in, however, with attention now focused on an upgraded version of the Flight II Dolphin class that includes “some room for growth, with new materials, better sonar … but pretty much the same design.”

At the end of June 2017, a $1.3 billion Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Israeli government and Germany for the construction of three Flight III Dolphin-class submarines.  Reflecting concern in Israel that the sudden acceleration of the submarine construction efforts might reflect potentially questionable behavior in government circles, an ongoing Israeli police investigation began looking into allegations of graft.  As result, the German government inserted a clause in the MoU that stated that the deal would be scrapped if the police investigation revealed any wrongdoing.

By July 18, 2017, several senior Israeli officials and key suspects in the case were detained and placed under house arrest by the police’s Lahav 443 special investigative unit.  As a direct result of this development, the MoU on the sale of the three submarines, which was to be signed by Ambassador to Germany Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, has been postponed.

The more fundamental question of whether there is an operational requirement for the boats remains.

The key here might well be the condition of the first three submarines.  They were stated to have a hull life of 30 years, but the catch is that, unlike surface ships, submarines do not measure their hull life in the same way.  Submarines have more in common with aircraft in that their lifespan is determined by the number and severity of pressurization/depressurization cycles. An operational profile that requires multiple changes of depth and demands that those depth changes be carried out rapidly can deplete hull life much more rapidly than the calendar might suggest.   The first three Dolphins might actually be much closer to the end of their hull life than the Israeli Navy is willing to admit.

Contributing to this may be the fact that the three submarines are not equipped with air-independent propulsion (AIP) and therefore must come to periscope depth at regular intervals.  The AIP boats must come to this depth less frequently and thus have fewer pressurization/depressurization cycles, which expends their hull life less rapidly.  This may be an operationally significant but often overlooked advantage of AIP boats.

While the current postponement is not an outright cancellation of the deal, it does represent a dramatic development in the submarine procurement process.  At time of writing, this deal remains frozen while the German government awaits further developments.

Please feel free to use this content with Forecast International and analyst attributions, along with a link to the article. Contact Ray Peterson at +1 (203) 426-0800 or via email at ray.peterson@forecast1.com for additional analysis.


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