Submarine Sneaks into Beirut? Why That’s Bad

A “Russian submarine” in Beirut was probably one built for Algeria and exported this spring. That’s bad.

Retired Army Major General Paul Vallely spoke to Pajamas Media for a video posted today in which he says a Russian submarine offloaded hazardous cargo in Beirut a “couple of weeks ago.”  This is something I had heard from another source last week.  I imagine the ultimate source is Israeli intelligence.

According to MG Vallely, the Russian submarine flew the flag of Iran while it was in port Beirut.  He indicated the sub probably came from the Baltic, but offered no other details.

My assessment:  the report has a strong likelihood of being valid, but I doubt the submarine in question is a unit of the Russian Navy.  It was probably a Kilo-class diesel-powered attack submarine (SS) built in Russia for export.  A number of navies operate the Kilo SS.  Those navies include Iran, but I discount the possibility that this was actually one of Iran’s three Kilos.  An Iranian submarine could not transit the Suez Canal unreported, and could not circumnavigate Africa without refueling – an exposed and detectable event.  Moreover, it is very unlikely that Iran would commit one of only three submarines to such an extended deployment, when there are a number of alternatives that would not require putting one-third of her premier anti-shipping force out of position for contingencies in the Persian Gulf.

If we factor in Vallely’s reference to the Baltic, the most likely candidate becomes an export Kilo built in the yards near St. Petersburg for Algeria.  Algeria has two older Kilos from then-Soviet Russia, and in 2006 commissioned two new ones, of improved design (the Type 636 improvement on the old Type 877 Kilo).

The first of the two new Kilos was “delivered” in October 2009.  However, this doesn’t mean the Kilo actually arrived in Algeria then.  It means Algeria accepted the submarine as meeting the original specifications, agreed to complete payment on it, flagged it, and took over the costs of insuring and maintaining it.  Official delivery typically takes place months before a new ship actually leaves its point of origin.  The interim is filled with fitting internal systems (e.g., command and control electronics), conducting sea trials, and training crews.

(Such at-sea work is what the crew depicted in this video was taking the new Algerian Kilo out for in January 2010.  Scroll down the page to the clickable video screen showing the scene full of sea ice.  The guy you see the repeated shots of, on the conning tower in the black watch cap with the dolphin insignia, is a Russian submariner and appears to be the one referred to by the caption narrator as an “a**hole.”  The soundtrack appears to have been added by an enthusiastic Algerian.)

Neither Algeria nor Russia made any kind of announcement about the movements of this new Kilo SS after October 2009.  However, the Russian shipyard announced on 1 April 2010 that an export buyer had taken delivery of a new submarine – and that event was probably the delivery of Algeria’s second new Kilo, which had been scheduled for a 2010 delivery.  Information about the shipyard’s overall commitments indicates the second Algerian SS is, in fact, the one most likely to have reached the delivery stage in April of this year.

The reason this matters is that it’s one of the multiple pieces of information from which we can reconstruct the conclusion that the first new Algerian Kilo left the Baltic this spring.  I assess that it left in plenty of time to make a port visit in Beirut in mid-April.  It may or may not have stopped in Algeria before the trek to the other end of the Mediterranean.  (I would guess so, if only to refuel.)  But it would have left the Baltic between January, when the video of its underway operations was taken (as indicated in the Cyrillic captions), and the end of March, the last time at which it could have left to make it to Beirut as early as the 15th of April.

A French-language website that focuses on developments in the submarine world posted a series of amateur photos of the Algerian Kilos taken in the Baltic in the last several months.  The first is dated November 2009, and shows two Kilos moored together next to a pier.  The same website quoted a Spanish news outlet reporting that one of the old Algerian Kilos was headed to the Baltic for a refit, back in August 2009.  (The Kilo and its surface escort took shelter in a Spanish cove when bad weather hit during the transit.)  Considering these facts, and the fact that the two Kilos in the November photo are different hull types, it looks like the old Kilo and the new Kilo – the one “delivered” in October 2009 – are the submarines moored alongside.

The Portail des sous-marins (“submarine portal”) author speculated about the old Kilo’s transit north that its escort might wait in the Baltic to escort the new Kilo on the southerly transit to Algeria.  That’s a good possibility, and may well have been exactly what happened, although the new Kilo didn’t depart until at least after the January video.

The two subsequent photos at Portail des sous-marins are from April 2010.  The third clearly depicts a new, improved-class Kilo, with the distinctive “step” or bump visible just forward of the stern.  In the second photo the submarine is submerged too far for that distinguishing feature to be visible, but its fresh paint and overall cleanliness suggest it also is a new, just built Kilo.  The strongest likelihood is that what we see in the second and third photos is the second of Algeria’s new Kilos: the one “delivered” on 1 April.  Meanwhile, the old Kilo that went to the Baltic last fall has very likely gone into drydock by now.

By process of elimination, the first new Algerian Kilo is the best candidate for the visit to Beirut.  The Russian Navy’s own Kilos in the Baltic – there are only two, and they are the only submarines in the Baltic Fleet’s order of battle – are in a state of disrepair today.  One is reportedly being retrofitted, but neither has deployed outside the Baltic for years.  (Nor could one do so without making the European news.  Submarines can’t sneak through the Skagerrak and Kattegat.)  The only “Russian submarine” that would have left the Baltic recently is the Algerian Kilo.

Even if the submarine didn’t come from the Baltic, an Algerian Kilo is still the best candidate.  Given that the submarine was a Russian type, Algeria’s Kilos are the only ones operational in the Mediterranean that qualify.  With one of the old Kilos in the Baltic since last year, Algeria’s navy still has its other old Kilo at home.  Both of the old Kilos are kept in reasonably good repair, and are able to operate submerged.  None of Egypt, Syria, or Libya keeps their very old former-Soviet Foxtrot or Romeo-class submarines operational.

Of course, the possibility that Algeria is cooperating – with Russia and Iran – in the covert delivery of hazardous material to Lebanon is a very bad sign.  The delivery would have occurred in the same period at which reports of the Scud missile transfers to Hizballah were emerging.  The implication of Algeria in this delivery recalls the peculiar circumstances of the bizarre incident last August with the M/V Arctic Sea, the cargo ship that originated in St. Petersburg and disappeared for more than two weeks during its intended transit from Finland to Algeria.  There was much speculation at the time that Mossad had intervened to prevent a delivery of some kind that would have threatened Israel.  But the possibility that Algeria might have functioned as a waypoint on the way to Lebanon – as opposed to Iran – is much clearer in hindsight.

Since that incident, Algeria’s president-for-life Abdelaziz Bouteflika – a bosom-buddy of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, as well as Ahmadinejad – has inaugurated a purge of top officials, and has sought, by an Obama-like strategy of indictments and demonization, to gain complete control of Algeria’s natural gas giant, Sonatrach.  It is not reassuring that the timing of his moves (in January and February) was coincident with a somewhat similar push by Turkey’s Islamist government to rid itself of traditionally moderate secularists in the military and judiciary.

But the most alarming coincidence is probably the February meeting of Ahmadinejad and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, at which Ahmadinejad told the Arab press that he expected war to break out between spring and summer this year.  (Written about previously here.)  Dubai’s The National made no bones about the import of the meeting: “That Was a War Council in Damascus,” trumpeted its headline.

General Vallely is right.  The Middle East is not in a peaceful stasis right now, and the pace of events is quickening.  Something the US really needs to get ahead of is the energizing of Algeria.  With her long Mediterranean frontage and proximity to both the Strait of Gibraltar and the Strait of Sicily, Algeria could, if necessary, interfere with the shipping lanes on which the US relies to project power in the Mediterranean.  Our force level there has declined dramatically in the last 20 years; Algerian harassment would be a distraction we couldn’t just swat away in the event that we needed to come to Israel’s aid.  A commitment of forces and a turn of concentrated attention would be required, and infringe on responsiveness elsewhere.  How much NATO support we could count on is an open question:  Algeria is Europe’s biggest single supplier of natural gas, which of course is one of Bouteflika’s main reasons for wanting to consolidate his control of the national industry.

Drawing down our naval posture in the Mediterranean has brought with it a new situation: one in which allegiances ashore could have the situational momentum to affect our freedom of maritime operation. Moreover, an outcome in our favor would not be guaranteed, at least not by diplomatic channels, or without distracting us and slowing us down.  If Libya were to join Algeria in seeking to threaten high-value shipping or to make the Strait of Sicily impassable without escort, the result would be worse than a distraction.  Getting those countries to back off – something NATO Europe would want badly to do – might well entail commitments to not support any US military action on behalf of Israel.

It has been to no one’s advantage – ours, NATO’s, or Israel’s – for the Mediterranean to begin changing from a US-guaranteed maritime space into a swamp of differently-motivated coastal navies.  What we might once have prevented through posture and intimidation, we could now have to confront and fight off.  The cost of our recession from the high seas goes up by the day.

15 thoughts on “Submarine Sneaks into Beirut? Why That’s Bad”

  1. After reading …and see the video of your mag.gen…..I can say israel and usa are traying to plane the same what they did with WRONG news about biologic arms of irak!!!….In case.because they cant stop iran….in the futur….Algeria is not irak….Be care!!!…This comment is au very small prouve.

  2. This is bad, potentially very, very bad. Bad because it indicates a level of miscalculation and fanatical obsession that virtually guarantees nuclear war.

    There’s only one reason to deliver hazardous materials to Beirut…Hezbollah. Reportedly, Hezbollah now has scuds that can hit any part of Israel. That’s important tactically but I doubt that Iran is considering the psychological position it puts Israel in… of having their ‘backs to the wall’.

    Hazardous materials are either chemical, biological or nuclear…My guess is nuclear materials. So, a dirty bomb? On a scud missile targeting Tel Aviv?

    That’s playing right on the edge of madness. A scud delivered nuclear dirty bomb would provoke an Israeli nuclear response. Given that possibility, Iran appears to be calculating that only Iranian nuclear missiles could restrain Israel from contemplating that response.

    Which fosters the speculation that this is preparation for attacks shortly after Iran announces they have the bomb. Which in turn leads to the calculation that Ahmadinejad’s semi-cryptic remark “that he expected war to break out between spring and summer this year” is a probably unintended clue that Iran is but a few months away from the bomb.

    If all of this admitted speculation is correct, then the Iranian’s are planning on taking this to a new and very dangerous level.

    The mullah’s dual obsession with assuming the mantle of Islamic leadership (certain if they could carry this off) and the destruction of the ‘Jews’ and Israel could be leading them to the most dangerous of calculations, that they can with relative impunity use Hezbollah to attack Tel Aviv with a dirty bomb(s), kill tens of thousands and avoid nuclear war…which goes beyond delusional brinkmanship into suicidal insanity.

  3. A couple of other thoughts.

    If Hezbollah attacks Tel Aviv with a nuclear dirty bomb, obviously Israel will know that it is Iran acting through their proxy Hezbollah.

    Israel will then face some existential considerations; if they attack Hezbollah, Iran may respond with nukes allowing them the first strike. But even if Iran doesn’t respond to an Israeli retaliatory attack on Hezbollah, it will not end the threat as Iran will resupply Hezbollah and they will surely escalate their next attack. A second attack upon Tel Aviv would probably make it uninhabitable and it is doubtful that Israel could psychologically survive the loss of Tel Aviv.

    Which makes this a case of existential survival.

    Israel will have no choice but to strongly consider nuking Iran in retaliation for a Hezbollah attack as there best chance for survival.

    And nuclear war will have come to the M.E.

    Russia, China and the price of oil are other factors. I calculate that Russia will not risk involvement with the US over a war between Iran and Israel but they would welcome the sharp upward rise in world oil prices.

    Higher oil prices and the deeper recession they would create in the US is not however in China’s short-term economic interest. Ideological and geo-political considerations however, may lead them to conclude otherwise. Perhaps there’s some leverage in the economic disadvantages for China that we might exploit in getting cooperation to put pressure upon Iran to pull back but I don’t anticipate that the Obama administration will explore that possibility.

  4. Optimist, one of the watchmen on the wall is a female. Phyllis Chesler at Pajamas recently wrote about the loss of freedom for women in France, a country that went from Simone Signoret to the Burqa. Maybe that’s how Western Civ. will survive , the Islamists are continually throwing away half of their people’s brain power. Good to know that you’re one of the watchmen on duty on the Internet.

  5. Loved your participation on the LA panel. Just printed out Gateway Pundits picture of you speaking which I shall make a bookmark out of. Will place the bookmark in my used edition of von Mises’Human Action which I’m trying to make my way through. Your speaking voice reminds me of one of my great heroines cadences that of Julia Child. Wish you as much success in teaching Americans good strategic analytical skills as Julia had in showing us that any one could learn to be a quality home cook.

  6. I think this is exactly what the Obama Administration wants. They don’t want to help Israel, so any delay in “assisting” Israel is a perfect “cover”. The thinking is, Israel could be overwhelmed with the war, have to surrender and make all the concessions Obama wants it to make. This is not new. Henry Kissenger did the same thing to Israel. He held back much needed war supplies during the Yom Kippur war hoping Israel would “bleed just enough to soften it up for the post-war diplomacy he was planning”.

  7. Thanks, Orcas. It was a great time. Julia Child — what a comparison! She was definitely one of a kind.

    zbigniew, welcome. Any comments you want to make will post automatically from now on. (There’s a one-time “approval” delay.)

    I’m afraid you are probably right that the Obama administration favors outcomes detrimental to Israel. They are very shortsighted in not seeing how determintal it will be to US interests, for a powder keg to be lit in the Middle East. The frenzy among the players there to be “first to Jerusalem” will remake all the patterns of alliance, and could provoke internal regime changes and redraw borders.

    Russia is right there positioning herself to take advantage of such developments. Obama, on the other hand, like all shortsighted revolutionaries (and resentful 15-year-olds), thinks he can just tear down the security network built by his precedessors over the last 65 years, and yet his own position won’t be eroded. Even our least pro-Israel presidents have understood the dynamics Israel is at the center of, and how they affect US interests. Obama doesn’t seem to have any understanding that a secure stasis requires maintenance. You can’t just take whack after whack at it and expect it to still be there.

  8. GB — you always make me want to type all day, and I never can. One thing I would add is that I don’t think Iran plans to attack in the near future; rather, Iran expects to BE attacked by Israel.

    It’s too early yet for A’jad & Co to be planning their final assault on Israel. The conditions aren’t favorable enough for them today. In the memorable Kissingerian formulation cited by zbigniew, Israel hasn’t been “softened up” enough yet. Equally important is the fact that although Obama is clearly anti-Israel, the US presence in the Middle East hasn’t been reduced to the level at which we would be powerless to interdict Iran’s last push.

    Iran expects to be attacked by Israel, in my assessment, because A’jad anticipates a watershed event in his nuclear program, apparently sometime in the next couple of months. The most egregious thing that could be is an above-ground nuclear detonation.

    Yes, I think Iran is capable of that. The detonation itself isn’t the hardest part. Weaponizing a nuke to a reliably functional level — in operational weapon form — is the hard part. It’s the latter effort I think Iran hasn’t fully perfected. But the Iranians could well perfect it long before “2015,” the latest date guess to come out of US officialdom.

    A’jad wants to come through the difficult transition to being a nuclear-armed power without his program being violently set back, at least not too much. So he’s arranging to be able to hold Israel at significant risk. The Iranians are also working hard, as demonstrated in their big military exercise last month, to be able to threaten shipping in the Persian Gulf and confound US operations there. They want to give us as much trouble as possible right away, to keep us off balance if Israel attacks Iran, and Iran counterattacks through Hezbollah (and probably Syria).

    1. Welcome back J.E.,

      I don’t expect Iran to attack Israel in a first strike. But Iran providing Hezbollah with hazardous materials has but one use. Whether used in a first strike or in retaliation, Israel’s response to a dirty bomb attack would be limited to the options I described above.

      Iran transferring to Hezbollah the elements to what is most likely a nuclear dirty bomb strongly indicates that Iran has accepted the strategic implications of that move. Hazardous materials, in the hands of terrorists, ‘ups the ante’ considerably and brings both parties much closer to nuclear confrontation.

      Prior to the transfer of these hazardous materials, a case could be made that Iran transferring thousands of missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon served a dual purpose but conventional in nature; preparation for the next round of attacks upon Israel and an attempt at future deterrence, a credible threat meant to dissuade Israel from a pre-emptive attack upon Iranian nuclear facilities.

      If Israel doesn’t pre-emptively attack the Iranian facilities, which I believe to be likely, then when Iran gives the order to Hezbollah to start using the scuds (sans nuclear materials) is an unknown. But at some point, Hezbollah will surely use those missiles.

      The problem for Israel is that Hezbollah having a nuclear dirty bomb ‘in their back pocket’ is an ongoing existential nuclear threat by a terrorist group. It strains credulity far past the breaking point to presuppose that at some point Hezbollah will not yield to temptation and use the bomb, regardless of what the Iranian mullahs may wish.

      So, now Israel has to weigh wishful thinking (they won’t be attacked with nukes, ‘dirty or clean’) against the high probability that at some point Iran will attack Israel through its proxy Hezbollah with a nuclear dirty bomb.

  9. Thanks for the welcome. I was at the Skirball event last night and that’s how I came to your site. I love it.

  10. Another Hoax as we know them from war-obssessed sick conservatives…
    Israel is endangered by its own corrupted government.
    There’s no other threat to that rogue state armed to the teeth and that no power on this planet could deter

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