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The Gathering Storm: Shades of 1914 as War Threatens in the Middle East

Israeli Navy Dolphin Class Submarine

“The world tells Israel ‘Wait, there’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’” Benjamin Netanyahu 

The question is not if but when. The tensions between Iran and Israel continue to boil over even as the rest of the Middle East begins to melt down.

Last week on the 11th anniversary of the September 11th attacks Al Qaeda backed forces attack the US Consulate in Benghazi Libya killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others. Militants in Egypt laid siege to the US Embassy while newly elected Egyptian President and Moslem Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi dithered torn between his party ideology and the pragmatic reality of the dependency of Egypt on the United States for military and economic assistance. Throughout the region from Tunisia to Indonesia protests, some marked by violence broke out at United States and other Western nations diplomatic outposts.

Shahab III Missile Ranges

The Iranians and their Hezbollah allies have repeatedly threatened Israel with destruction and have improved their missile forces significantly ever the past number of years even without nuclear weapons. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding the United States and the west set “Red Lines” regarding the Iranian nuclear program that would trigger an automatic attack on Iran by the United States.

Like the First World War the tensions, provocations and rhetoric increase even as military forces mobilize and gather in the region. Iran is preparing for massive military exercises involving land, air defense and ballistic missile units from the Iranian military and Revolutionary Guards to begin in October.  Iran admitted this weekend that forces from their Revolutionary Guards are currently operating in Syria placing them in position to directly engage Israeli forces in the event of conflict.

By October the United States will have three Carrier Strike Groups, the USS Enterprise, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and USS John C Stennis and an Expeditionary Strike Group with an embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit in the region. Additionally warships from more than 25 countries are gathering for exercises designed to counter any blockade of the strategic Straits of Hormuz by Iran. Other ships, including the French Aircraft Carrier Charles DeGaulle battle group and the British HMS Illustrious  “Response Task Forces Group” are in the Eastern Mediterranean and could be in the region within a week. US Navy submarines, both attack and ballistic missile are never far from a threatened area. US Air Force  Fighter Squadrons have been reinforced and it is certain that strategic air force units of B-2, B-52 and B-1 bombers are certainly deployed where they can respond as needed. The build up by all sides is unprecedented.

The countries of the region are on hair trigger alert. Any act, intentional or unintentional by any party could trigger a war that would most certainly bring great destruction to the region but would likely sink the global economy and spread around the world through acts of terror and revolutionary violence.

Numerous reports and Israel government official statements indicate that Israel is ready, to strike Iran, if need be alone to prevent what they believe is an existential threat to Israel. While some believe that any Israeli attack on Iran would be precision strikes aimed at Iran’s nuclear program and ballistic missiles sites. However, most experts believe that an Israeli strike would at best set back the Iranian nuclear weapons program a couple of years and trigger a regional war with very unpredictable outcomes. If the Israeli strike is conventional in nature the Iranians will strike back against Israel, as well as US targets in the region. The US would certainly respond but any war would affect the region and the world economy as oil prices would rise exponentially.

With that in mind it is possible that the Israelis fearing the existential threat of Iranian nukes might use their nuclear forces in a first strike role.

Most experts believe that the Israelis would only use nuclear weapons in a retaliatory “second strike” capacity. The reasoning is that the first use of nuclear weapons by Israel would be against their national interests. That is logical but history is replete with times that nations have acted in ways contrary to logic because the action is deemed “necessary.” It is the same logic that said that the Germans would not violate Belgian neutrality in 1914 knowing that such an action would trigger British intervention on the side of France and Russia. It was believed by most that “the Germans are dangerous but they are not maniacs….” The Germans faced war on more than one front and felt that they had to deliver a swift blow to knock France out of the war in order to defeat Russia. It was a risk that they were willing to take and one which helped lose them the war and set about a series of events that made the 20th Century the bloodiest in human history.

In the current situation many in Israeli leadership may view the use of nuclear weapons to stop an existential threat as a legitimate use of the weapons. Israel does face real threats and those threats are increasing as Iran increases in strength and no longer has traditional rival Iraq to worry about. Likewise the instability of Egypt and the anti-Israeli animus of the Moslem Brotherhood which now leads Egypt has increased the real and perceived threat from that country. An Egypt openly hostile to Israel armed to the teeth with advanced American weapons is a dagger pointed at the heart of Israel. Israel’s leaders may be willing to suffer international condemnation in order eliminate what they consider an existential Iranian threat to ensure their survival and ability to defend against Egypt as well as conventional and unconventional Hizbollah forces operating out of Lebanon and those of Hamas in Gaza.

If they were to use nuclear weapons the primary delivery system in such a strike would most likely be Dolphin Class submarines armed with nuclear capable Popeye cruise missiles. These missiles have a 1500 km range and while the missiles could be used in a conventional strike their utility would be limited to precision strikes against unfortified headquarters buildings housing Iranian leadership, or command and control facilities. The numbers of Popeye missiles the Dolphins carry is limited since the majority of Iranian nuclear sites are hardened facilities or deep underground their use against them in a conventional manner would be a waste.

The threat to United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan is great if a broader war erupts. US and NATO forces, already fighting an increasing Taliban insurgency are for all practical purposes surrounded if a war spreads and Pakistan shuts down the southern supply route. Even this week Taliban insurgents scored a victory successfully attacking the strongly fortified joint US Marine and British base Camp Leatherneck-Camp Bastion destroying 6 AV-8B Harrier jets on the ground, damaging more aircraft, valuable hangers and support facilities while killing 2 Marines. A war with Iran would threaten to turn Afghanistan into a trap for nearly 100,000 US and NATO coalition troops.

It could as Barbara Tuchman said of the the Germans of 1914 that the Israelis have “staked everything on decisive battle in the image of Hannibal….” but that the ghost of Hannibal might have reminded the Germans and the Israelis that though Hannibal and “Carthage won at Cannae, Rome won the war.” In mid May and early June of 1914 even before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand Field Marshal Von Molkte and others felt that the scales were tipping against them. He told his Austrian counterpart Field Marshal Conrad Von Hotzendorf that “from now on ‘any adjournment will have the effect of diminishing our chances of success.’” On June 1st Von Molkte said to Baron Eckhardstein,“We are ready, and the sooner the better for us.”

The storm clouds of war are thickening and darkness hovers as the storm gathers. In 1914 the politicians, diplomats and soldiers that realized war would be disastrous were a minority in their respective governments and their warnings went unheeded. In 1914 “war pressed against every frontier. Suddenly dismayed, governments struggled and twisted to fend it off. It was no use….” As the sun set and the lamps of London were lit on August 4th 1914 Sir Edward Grey said to a friend “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” It is as if we are watching the same drama play out in the Middle East now.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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The Iranian Navy in the Mediterranean: Looking for War in all the Right Places

Iranian Frigate Alvand

For the first time since the Iranian Revolution Iranian warships have permission to transit the Suez Canal, an international waterway.  The Frigate Alvand and the supply ship Kharq passed inspection to ensure that no contraband or illegal weapons were aboard and should pass through the canal in the coming days. The Iranians clam that the ships will sail to Syria where they will operate from in the coming months.

Iranian Supply Ship Kharq

To me the move by Iran appears to be an attempt to provoke Israel into a war. Israel views the move with suspicion and calls it provocative. In that they are right. It is suspicious that the Iranians would send ships to the Mediterranean and one wonders what they are up to. Based in Syria the ships can support pro-Iranian Hezbollah forces in Lebanon and show the Iranian flag in countries that are slipping into the throws of revolution.  As such the two ships are a provocative presence that Israel has a right to be concerned about. At the same time the ships themselves pose no threat to Israel in any way shape or form.

The Frigate Alvand is a Vosper Mark V Frigate commissioned in 1971. It is small (1,540 tons full load) and fast but old and not heavily armed. Alvand and its two sister ships are armed with 4 C-802 Anti-Ship cruise missiles and a 4.5” gun was well as various light anti-aircraft weapons and anti-submarine torpedoes. The electronics suite on Alvand class is not state of the art by any sense and they are of limited combat value despite Iranian claims otherwise.

The 40 year old  Alvand is accompanied by the Supply Ship Kharq which is a 1960s British design which the Iranians commissioned in 1980. It has a light armament and is of negligible combat value. The two ships paid a recent port call at Jeddah Saudi Arabia while conducting operations in the Red Sea.

Israeli Navy Corvette Eilat a very modern and deadly SAAR V Class ship

Both the Alvand and the Kharq are totally outclassed by the Israeli Eilat Class (Saar V) Corvettes and have no defense to speak of against Israeli surface units, submarines or air forces.  They are of propaganda value only and if as some suggest they would attempt to escort convoys into Gaza they would probably be sunk by the Israelis before they could get off a shot. The danger of course is that the Iranians are purposely sending the ships to the Mediterranean to provoke an Israeli response and ignite a conflict between the two nations to further destabilize the region.

The Israeli Navy has a first strike capability against Iran itself in its three modern German built Dolphin Class submarines which are believed to be capable of launching nuclear capable cruise missiles and which have been deployed in waters near Iran.

Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in an e-mail statement: “Israel is closely following the movements of the Iranian ships and has updated friendly states on the issue. Israel will continue to follow the ships movements.”

While the movement of the two ships through the Suez which is an international waterway is provocative and comes at a time of increasing tensions they pose little threat to Israel. However as part of a broader view taking into account the activities of Hezbollah in Lebanon, instability in Israel’s Arab allies Egypt and Jordan and Iran’s military buildup and nuclear program it is obvious that Iran has a purpose in deploying the two ships to the Mediterranean and that the purpose includes upping the pressure on Israel and perhaps provoking a military response. Whatever the actual purpose we can be sure that Iran’s intentions are not peaceful and the only purpose for the ships to be in the Mediterranean is to provoke a clash with the Israelis or to offer direct support to the actions of Hezbollah and Hamas against the Israelis or in the case of Hezbollah to ensure the complete hegemony of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The USS Liberty AGTR-5 after being attacked by Israeli Air and Naval Units on 8 June 1967

Israel’s Navy while the smallest of the Israeli armed forces is quite capable and combat proven over the years. It has shown that it is not afraid to engage in combat with what Israel perceives to be threats, even the United States Navy as it did in the 1967 Six Day War where it launched a devastating prolonged attack on the USS Liberty AGTR-5 killing 34 and wounding 171 of its crew. The Israelis have long contended that the attack was a case of mistaken identity but the preponderance of evidence makes it look like the attack was deliberate.

Israeli Sailors during the Battle of Latakia

Egyptian Osa Class Missile Boat during 1973 War. The Israeli Navy sank 8 Egyptian and Syrian ships at the Battle of Latakia and Battle of Baltim with no losses to themselves in the first battles between guided missile ships

During the Yom Kippur War of 1973 the Israeli Navy destroyed 5 out of 5 Syrian Komar and Osa Class Missile Boats at the Battle of Latakia and 3 of 4 Egyptian Osa Class Missile Boats at the Battle of Baltim. Should the Iranian ships even look like they are threatening Israel the Israelis will have little patience and the ships will have an incredibly short combat life.  If that happens then expect a regional war to follow as Hezbollah, Iran and possibly Syria respond.

The clip below is from Iran’s English Language Press TV and is an Iranian assessment of their naval capabilities.

http://www.youtube.com/user/PressTVGlobalNews#p/u/13/doiWKWz4ZN8

Peace

Padre Steve+

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