TEL AVIV — The Israeli Navy is taking to heart that familiar saying: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

Following Hezbollah's surprise C-802 shore-to-ship missile attack in the 2006 Lebanon War and Israel's failure to intercept Hamas frogmen before they reached the country's southern shore during the 2014 Gaza war, the service is taking no chances. Next time, Israeli officers say, the Navy will be ready for the next big challenge: small, stealthy narco-submarines.

"In the maritime world, subsurface threats are multiplying. Many are garage technology submarines that drug lords have built in their backyards. Others are much more sophisticated," said Rear Adm. Yossi Ashkenazi, head of the Israeli Navy's Materiel Command. "If criminals can deliver 10 tons of drugs over long distances undetected, terrorists can do the same with weaponry."

US Adm. James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander at NATO, agreed. In a study last year by the US Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he warned that nations must develop cooperative strategies for countering vessels that "to transport more than just narcotics, [but] the movement of cash, weapons, violent extremists or, at the darkest of the spectrum, weapons of mass destruction."

The study divided narco-subs into three distinct categories:

  • The first — semi-submersibles — are capable of ballasting down to lower their surface profile and control their running depth. Typically, they can carry a 2-ton payload and cost about $1 million. Dozens of such craft have been seized by law enforcement authorities in recent years, while a similar number are thought to have sunk before reaching their destination.
  • The second category — submersibles — are the most sophisticated and survivable, with self-propulsion, advanced radar and GPS navigation technology that enables them to sail some 30 feet under the surface at ranges of up to 2,000 miles. According to the study, such underwater craft can carry a 10-ton payload and are practically undetectable by radar or infrared sensors. They are estimated to cost between $2 million to $4 million.
  • The third category — low profile vessels (LPV) — are designed so that much of the fast-boat platform sails just below the surface. They come equipped with navigation, communications and anti-radar systems, and mask their acoustic signature with water-cooled mufflers. Such LPVs are built mostly from fiberglass to further evade detection by radar, yet they can be spotted from the air. Estimated at up to $1 million, they carry a 10-ton payload.

In a recent interview, Ashkenazi said there is no firm indication yet that Hezbollah or Hamas are operating such narco-subs. Nevertheless, given close links between the narcotics trade and terror, Ashkenazi said the Navy is preparing a range of manned and unmanned countermeasures.

"We're very carefully watching this. The possibility of these unmanned subs getting leaked to other organizations puts us in a place where we have elevated our awareness of how to deal with subsurface threats," he said.

The officer declined to provide details for obvious security reasons, but said the service is improving technologies, tactics and procedures to address the emerging threat.

He said the Navy is working with state-owned Rafael on a second-generation prototype of its Protector unmanned surface vessel (USV) and is also considering exploring the multimission sonar and torpedo capabilities featured in Elbit's unmanned Seagull prototype.

"Regarding USVs, we are deep inside the technology. We have a new generation prototype of Rafael's that we're working with … and the Elbit system is unique in that it is totally modular. We can install or remove unmanned capabilities for ultimate flexibility in multiple missions," Ashkenazi said.

Ofer Ben-Dov, vice president for Naval Systems in Elbit's ISTAR Division, said the Seagull's multimission unmanned system is designed to detect submarines "including small size and midget submarines, at long ranges."

For anti-submarine warfare missions, he said the system uses a high-performance dipping sonar for detection, as well as anti-submarine torpedoes, "which can be replaced by less lethal means for use against narco-subs."

As for the Protector's anti-submarine capabilities, Rafael said the system's modular design allows operators to select subsystems that best meet specific operational requirements, including missions in "the underwater battle space."

Twitter: @opallrome

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

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