HAIFA NAVAL BASE, Israel — Behind the scenes of Israel's ballistic missile test program, some 100 meters deep underneath the sea, are divers from the Navy's Underwater Missions Unit (Yaltam) trained in rapid search and recovery of spent boosters and debris bearing often essential data for government and industry developers.
A little noticed link in Israel's missile development chain, the professional diving unit — less than the size of a battalion — is written into tests of missiles launched westward over the Mediterranean from the national launch site at Palmachim Air Base whose debris must be scoured by development officials back at Ministry of Defense headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Whether it’s the developmental exo-atmospheric Arrow-3 — which failed an intercept last September and was aborted in a follow-up test in December due to a glitch in its air-launched target — or periodic tests of Israel’s two-stage Jericho II long-range ballistic missile, Navy divers will be waiting in the wings ready to deliver precious cargo back to the MoD.
"We are part of the test scenario from the beginning," said Lt. Col. Ido Kaufman, the unit’s commander.
"Since we don't have a lot of unpopulated land, our industry experiments take place over the sea. And when something falls, one of our missions is to make sure its not explosive anymore. Then our experts will wrap it and lift it up because the development authorities will be waiting for the data."
Other times, saysid Uzi Rubin, a former director of MoD’s Israel Missile Development Office (IMDO), debris might not be needed for after-action analysis, but for security purposes to prevent it from falling into unauthorized hands.
"Usually we get all the data we need from telemetry. But when there's insufficient telemetry or when a failure may have come from something we didn't measure, then there is value in recovery," Rubin said.
And the mission is not trivial. Unlike desert-based trials of shorter-range systems where debris is relatively easily recovered by search teams on the ground, visibility under the sea is measured in a mere handful of meters.
The Underwater Missions Unitunit’s search-and-recover missions are phased and involve specialty sensors, robotics and multiple teams on and under the water. Technicians use ship-towed side scan sonar to mark locations. Once they "get a mark," the unit usually deploys robots to pinpoint location. Only then do the divers — deployed in pairs — descend for work that usually lasts no longer than 10 minutes.
"We don’t complete the mission with only one couple. The first pair will locate the target. The second will mark it, the third will inspect it, the fourth will connect it and so forth and so on," Kaufman said. "Each couple is deployed on a two-hour dive, but their particular part of the mission is only ten10 to 12 minutes."
Other missions assigned to the uUnit include explosive ordnance detection and retrieval; neutralization and recovery of IEDs and mines; submarine rescue; salvage operations; and the planting of sensors to detect enemy frogmen approaching the shores or attempting to rig offshore assets.
In parallel, the unit is the go-to address to recover the remains of citizens and even tourists who have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, the Dead Sea or the Sea of Galilee. And every month for the past 15 years, nearly the entire unit is devoted to scouring for the remains of an instructor pilot whose plane crashed into the Sea of Galilee back in 1962.
"If 10 years ago, we limited it to a four-kilometer radius and we knew where the tail was and where the wing was, now we're at his chair in the cockpit," Kaufman said. "We're now at the stage of vacuuming mud from the seabed."
The unit has not yet found the remains of the pilot, 1st Lt. Yakir Naveh, although they recovered a wristwatch that was positively identified by his widow.
"It’s something unique that we pride ourselves on in the IDF: We strive never to leave anyone behind," Kaufman said.
The unit trains annually with its counterpart in US European Command, the Rota, Spain-based Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit (EODMU) 8. Their most recent drill, dubbed Noble Melinda, took place in July.