Israel’s military looks to the sea

The photo caption with this story has been corrected. Please see the note below.

TEL AVIV — With the acquisition this month of a sixth German-made submarine, Israel is seeking to position itself as the region’s undisputed naval powerhouse.

From spying on enemies to intercepting illegal arms shipments to blockading the Gaza Strip, Israel’s naval capabilities are playing a more prominent role in the nation’s security. The latest advanced German sub, with a price tag of more than $500 million, is Israel’s most expensive piece of military equipment.

The subs — which are believed to be fitted with nuclear weapons — also provide Israel with a second-strike capability designed to discourage surprise enemy offensives. In the event Israel suffered a devastating land or air attack, its enemies would still be vulnerable to a counter-strike from its underwater fleet, which is hoped to eventually include 10 subs.

Israeli navy: A Section A photo caption May 12 accompanying an article about Israel’s navy incorrectly stated that the vessel was a battleship. It was an unidentified warship. —

Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently said the subs — which have occasionally traveled through the Suez Canal, demonstrating to Iran and others the potential reach of Israel’s missiles — could also play a role in attacking Iranian nuclear development facilities.

Capt. Sassi Hodeda, 47, the senior naval officer in charge of developing electronic combat systems, explained to The Times why Israel’s military is looking increasingly to the seas.

Israel is such a small country. Why does it need so many expensive submarines?

The submarine is a very important vessel, both in times of peace and of war. They have many uses. During peace they are used for intelligence gathering and during war they become attack vessels. They can be used offensively to attack someone who is thinking about doing something stupid.

Can they be used to attack Iran, not just to fire missiles, but in intelligence, signal-jamming or electronic warfare?

I’m not familiar with any operational plan. But subs are used for all of those things. And not just subs. You can also use surface vessels.

Is Israel putting more emphasis on the navy?

The sea is very important and we are doing as much as we need to keep the seas open. The government understands this, though it’s always very challenging to get money, especially during this time. I think we need more investment. There are a lot of capabilities I’d like to have: to improve our ability to use radar at sea, to learn more about and use USVs [unmanned surface vehicles].

Those are like aerial drones, but in the water, right? What are you using those for?

In the first stage, we are using them for routine activities like patrolling.... We can use them to identify merchant vessels, go up to them, see their name and flag, photograph them.

Are you using them in Gaza or other places where there might be a risk that a boat you are approaching is rigged with explosives?

Maybe in the future we can use them for that. They have weapons, so they have the ability to fight. But right now we are just testing what they can do. It’s a new generation of vessels.

In the region, who has a stronger naval power than Israel right now? Turkey? Egypt?

There are a lot of parameters to evaluate that, but here in the Middle East there are a few tough, strong navies, like Turkey. The Americans are supporting Egypt. I read recently that they want to buy a submarine from Germany. Maybe they want to make a deal like Israel. But technologically, of course Israel is the most sophisticated. And our advantage is with our soldiers and officers, the human beings behind those machines.

Do you see the sub as an important deterrent to nuclear strike against Israel? People call them a doomsday weapon.

In terms of the Israeli navy, I can’t answer. But all over the world, during the Cold War, submarines have been seen as vessels that [provide that capability]. Americans use subs as a second-strike capability. The idea is known and accepted.

Is the turmoil in Egypt threatening Israel’s access to the Suez Canal?

I believe the peace process will continue. It’s important for both sides. So far there have been no problems in using the canal. Every time one of our ships goes through it’s in the newspaper. It’s happened a few times in the past two years. I haven’t heard about any problems.

Iran sent a warship through the canal in February on the way to Syria. You didn’t see that very often under the old Egyptian regime. Does that worry you?

They came. Nothing happened. I can’t speak about the politics of it, but it’s an open sea if someone wants to pass. But I would prefer that the Mediterranean Sea be used for merchant ships and leisure ships, not for warships.

Israel’s natural gas fields in the sea are going to be a prime target for your enemies. How will you protect them?

It’s a big challenge. We don’t have a specific plan yet. We are thinking about USVs to patrol around and do the routine, dirty work to keep the seas clear. The physics is a problem. You need powerful radar to reach beyond the horizon. We need a special technology because the distance is so far. Usual radar won’t work. So we need to think about things differently.

Will the gas fields be equipped with missile-defense systems, like an ocean version of Iron Dome?

It could be a good idea. But on the other hand, even though the sites are stable, they are little and in the middle of the sea. The other side would need to do a lot of shooting before they could hit these. You can’t just hit them with a Kassem rocket. You need something bigger. But it’s a threat we are looking at.

For the record, 10:45 a.m. May 13: An earlier version of the photo caption with this story incorrectly identified the ship as a battleship.