- Just as President Bill Clinton is engaged in a bitter
public debate about how best to defend America from missile attacks launched
by "rogue" countries such as Iran, Israel's intensely secretive
military preparations against the same threat have gone a stage further.
- Israeli defence sources claim the country has secretly
carried out its first test launches from submarines of cruise missiles
capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The launches last month from German-built
vessels in the Indian Ocean were designed to simulate swift retaliation
against a pre-emptive nuclear attack from Iran.
- While Israel's generals may be jubilant at the breakthrough
- the missile is said to have hit a target more than 900 miles away - the
development raises the worrying prospect of an escalation in the Middle
East's nuclear arms race just as peace talks have been thrown into uncertainty
after the death of President Hafez al-Assad of Syria.
- According to Israeli sources, the three Dolphin-class
submarines will give Israel a crucial third pillar of nuclear defence to
complement the country's already much-vaunted land and air ramparts. While
the Israelis' intention of using the German submarines as roving nuclear
launch platforms had long been suspected, few experts had expected them
to develop the capability to fire submarine-based cruise missiles so soon.
- Planning for a submarine-launched nuclear deterrent was
accelerated after reports in the early 1990s by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence
service, that Iran would be capable of staging a nuclear missile attack
against Israel by 2000.
- The latest Israeli estimate has put that threat back
by two years. But uncertainty over Iran's level of nuclear capability has
not slowed Israel's drive to bolster its defences.
- The Dolphin-class vessels are among the most technically
advanced of their kind in the world. They are twice as big as the 23-year-old
Gal-class submarines that the Israeli navy has relied on to date.
- Israel ordered the submarines from Germany when it could
not find an American shipyard to produce the diesel and electric-powered
vessels it needed, according to Israeli sources.
- In a sign of the sensitivity of the project, elite crews
have been assembled to man them: the 35 officers and men aboard each vessel
have been nicknamed "force 700" because of the average 700 points
they scored in psychological tests devised by the Israelis. The scores
are equivalent to an IQ of 130-140. Another five specially selected officers
solely responsible for the warheads will be added to each vessel once the
missiles are operational.
- America's supply of military technology to Israel is
a sensitive political issue. Last week there were calls in Washington for
a cut in aid to Israel unless it cancelled the sale to China of a spy plane
built with American-supplied technology. The Pentagon fears it could be
used against American pilots.
- Since achieving nuclear capability in 1966, Israel has
kept a hawkish eye on its neighbours' fumbling steps towards acquiring
weapons of mass destruction.
- Its fears were dramatically illustrated in 1981 when
Menachem Begin, then prime minister, sent eight F-16 jet fighters to destroy
a nuclear reactor in Iraq in an episode condemned around the world as reckless
- In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at the
Dimona nuclear reactor who revealed secrets of Israel's programme to The
Sunday Times, was kidnapped by Mossad and jailed. He remains incarcerated.
- A decade later, Israeli fears appear to have proved well-founded.
Washington routinely cites Iraqi and Iranian nuclear ambitions as justification
for America's multi-billion-dollar missile defence system, whose deployment
may be ordered by President Bill Clinton this year.
- America will not look kindly on Israel's development
of a remarkable new military capability at such a delicate stage in the
- "This is certain to irritate the Clinton administration,"
said a defence analyst in Washington. "It makes it that much harder
to get non-proliferation to stick in the Middle East."
- Despite a good personal relationship between Clinton
and Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, relations between the two countries
have soured in recent weeks. On top of reports of the extraordinary extent
of Israeli espionage in Washington, Israel's proposed sale of the spy plane
to China has outraged American congressmen.
- Under a contract with the Chinese, Israel Aircraft Industries
has installed a Phalcon airborne early-warning system in a Russian-made
Ilyushin. China has an option for three more such planes. American officials
say they fear they will pose a threat to Taiwan - as much of an American
ally as Israel - and upset the military balance. Relations have been strained
further by other Israeli missile tests conducted without advance warning
to the Pentagon. Last month the American navy criticised Israel for test-launching
a Jericho ballistic missile off its coast in April when an American warship
in the vicinity momentarily thought it was under attack.
- Pentagon officials said the missile landed about 40 miles
from the warship. "That's pretty close for a missile that's not the
most accurate," said one official, adding that this was the third
time in two years that Israel had conducted "nonotice" missile
tests near an American warship.
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