TEL AVIV, Israel — The Israel Navy is finalizing plans to integrate a fifth Dolphin-class submarine and a new fleet of unmanned surface vessels (USVs) into its operational force structure in the first few months of the coming year.
By mid-2015, the service expects to receive INS Rahav, the fifth of six nuclear-capable submarines built by Germany's Thyssen-Krupp Marine Systems (TKMS) shipyard and partially funded by Berlin.
A top procurement officer said INS Rahav should arrive here "in a few more months" after nearly seven years of engineering, construction, systems integration and testing in Kiel, Germany.
By that time, he said the Navy will have readied the personnel and infrastructure needed "to protect, preserve and maintain" the newest addition to its undersea force.
Also by mid-2015, the Navy hopes to conclude operational certification of three locally built Protector USVs that form the backbone of Israel's new unmanned surface fleet.
Built by state-owned Rafael Ltd., the twin-engine Protectors feature a remote weapon station and intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities integrated into the Navy's C4I network.
Two Protectors are now operational and the third is undergoing "its last months of sea trials," said Rear Adm. Dror Friedman, vice chief naval officer.
In a recent interview, Friedman said the service aims to deploy the unmanned vessels as an integral part of its surface force.
"In the end, we'll see them incorporated into our force for coastal defense and also for the subject of offshore energy sites.
"Their added value is the ability to remain at sea for prolonged periods and to go to places that are particularly dangerous," he said.
Operational certification of the new unmanned fleet follows years of cooperation with Rafael to demonstrate capabilities and tailor the USVs to Navy needs. In parallel, the Navy has spent the last year or more on sea trials aimed at optimizing operational concepts.
"It took some time to know how to integrate unmanned and manned capabilities and how to command them from the shore. But we believe we now understand how to use them in ways that are most valuable," Friedman said.
Meanwhile, officers here are awaiting an Israeli government decision on prospective procurement of four Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) in defense of offshore energy sites from TKMS, the same German consortium building Israel's Dolphin submarines.
The Navy submitted a detailed plan to the Israeli cabinet more than two years ago for capabilities needed to defend strategic assets in the nation's economic waters. In November 2013, the Cabinet endorsed the new Navy mission and ostensibly approved a 2.3 billion shekel procurement program for the ships, their radar and combat suites.
Since then, however, Israeli Defense Ministry-led talks with German government and shipbuilding officials have been characterized by fits and starts, with Berlin reluctant to share some of the costs for the four-ship buy.
In recent interviews, Navy officers said they still hoped for an Israeli government decision early next year, but conceded that myriad political and funding issues could drive even further delays.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.