IPD Forum: Is it necessary to order three new submarines for the Israel Navy now?
Ami Ayalon: Yes. If we require a submarine to be operational at sea in 10 to 12 years, we need to sign the contracts today. If we are talking about three subs, the first one will go into service beginning in 2027. At that stage our present submarine fleet will be more than 30 years old. The issue is not about increasing our submarine fleet, but rather that the subs need to be cutting edge and capable of meeting future technological challenges and threats that we believe we will be facing in 10 to 40 years' time.
IPDF: What is your response to former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon's contention that he had opposed increasing the Navy's submarine fleet?
AA: I've heard the reports, but I did not hear "Bogie" [Ya'alon] say it himself. First of all, to the best of my knowledge we are not expanding the submarine fleet, we are simply enabling it to overcome future threats over the next 40 years. If I understand correctly, and I stress that I do not know what the former defense minister actually said, but I assume that he was not familiar with all aspects of the deal. It is possible that he did oppose it.
The question is, how can it be that the defense minister opposes and the government of Israel purchases? First of all, submarines have since the 'eighties been imposed on the IDF by various prime ministers, who on occasion were also the defense minister. When I was Commander of the Navy I found myself in conflict with Chief of Staff Ehud Barak and the other members of the General Staff who were opposed to the acquisition of modern submarines. In the end, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin decided in favor of the subs. The same thing occurred with Prime Minister Arik Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin "Fuad" Ben-Eliezer – Sharon made the decision. This was also the case with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Defense Ministers Amir Peretz and Ehud Barak. It is the prerogative of the prime minister in the State of Israel to make these decisions.
At the time, I was either Commander of the Navy, head of the Israel Security Service or a member of the Security Cabinet. I assume the same thing is happening with Prime Minister Netanyahu. It is possible that the defense minister might say, "I don't like the idea, I oppose it." The prime minister might say, "Okay, I'm responsible for the security of Israel, and head of the Cabinet, and I make these decisions." In fact, decisions about weapons of this magnitude, such as a squadron of F-35 warplanes – which by the way are even more costly than the subs – are not made by the chief of staff or the defense minister. These decisions are made by the prime minister and the cabinet, of course with the full involvement of the defense minister.
The Israel Navy submarine "Dolphin" arrives in Haifa, July, 1999. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO.
IPDF: How significant a deterrence are the subs against an enemy such as Iran?
AA: The major strategic advantage of the submarine is its capability of evading detection and an enemy has to bear in mind that there might be a major offensive weapons platform out there.
IPDF: How important is the alleged conflict of interest regarding the sub deal involving a German company represented in Israel by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's personal lawyer?
AA: This issue is of lesser importance than the actual acquisition of these strategically important weapons systems. However, of there has been a conflict of interest concerning the purchase, this needs to be investigated.
Ami Ayalon is a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute; he was previously Commander of the Israel Navy, Director of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and was a Minster and a Cabinet Member in the government 2007-8.