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.
"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."
"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.
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.
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.