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A nuclear submarine war?

A news story that hit the wires this weekend with little notice may in fact signal an uptick in the strategic chess game that is the Middle East.

Iran announced that it had fired an "anti-ship missile" from one of its Kilo-class submarines during a military exercise in the northern Arabian Sea not far from the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Persian Gulf. 

The missile, known as a Thaqeb -- Farsi for Saturn -- flew less than a mile and most news reports suggested that it would raise the stakes in the Gulf because it gave Iran another weapon against ships transiting the area. 

But U.S. intelligence has quietly told senior officials there is more to be concerned about with this test. The Thaqeb, it noted in a briefing, is "a long-range missile" and thus raised the possibility of Iran being capable of equipping its three Russian-supplied Kilos with cruise missiles. Cruise missiles can be fired, with few modifications, from submarine torpedo tubes.

The test comes a few days after the Israelis announced the order of two more Dolphin-class submarines from Germany, which would give it a fleet of five. The first two, according to U.S. intelligence, are cruise-missile capable.  According to others in the military sphere, those cruise missiles are either nuclear capable or could be. 

Some reports indicate that as early as 2000, the Israelis test-fired long-range cruise missiles in the Indian Ocean, the same general area that Iran tested its missile this weekend. 

All of this raises yet a new fear: a submarine war between the two countries -- one that ultimately could involve a nuclear standoff.

In the world of nuclear strategy, the superpower model has always been the triad —- the three-sided nuclear deterrent force, a hydra-headed monster capable of a lethal strike even when two of the three heads have been lopped off -- a true doomsday machine. 

The idea, embraced by the first five members of the nuclear club, calls for a nation to have nuclear-armed bombers, missiles and, most importantly for the survival of the deterrent, submarines. Taking out a nation's bomber force on the ground or pulverizing a nation's missile field is simple compared to finding and then destroying stealthy submarines, each of which could obliterate the attacking countries' cities within minutes.

It was the strategy that drove the U.S. to build Tridents, the Soviet Union to build Deltas and Typhoons. But until now, no third-world nation has succeeded in matching that grand strategy. India and Pakistan have always claimed to have plans.  North Korea may not need much of a deterrent at all since a nuclear attack on the small country would wreak havoc on its neighbors, who are at most a few hundred miles away.

The mission of the submarines has been long rumored in military journals and even the Israeli press. Israel even refers to them as "national deterrent" assets, a clear indication of their nuclear role. 

In spite of the open-secret nature of the program, Israel has received other help that has moved its submarine deterrent forward. Israeli scientists studying at U.S. weapons labs even worked out command and control issues.

As far back as 1987, U.S. officials were aware that Israel was playing with blue-green lasers, critical to communicating with submarines in time of war. A team of U.S. defense analysts found the research underway at Soreq, Israel's equivalent of Los Alamos National Laboratory, that year. Two years later, a Congressional report found that one of the scientists working on the lasers had done extensive research on them while studying at the real Los Alamos, part of a group of Israeli scientists involved in cooperative military research. 

The defense analysts and congressional researchers knew the value of the blue-green lasers was limited to submarine communications. In situations in which war was imminent or had actually begun, aircraft or deployable rockets carrying the lasers would be fired to bring the submarines to periscope depth for further orders from satellites, which Israel also has.   

Blue-green lasers, unlike their better-known red cousins, can penetrate to depths of 3,000 feet over a range of 6,200-square-miles. As long as Israel knows roughly where the submarines are located, and where to deploy the lasers, word would get through.

The question is where would Israel -- or Iran -— deploy those submarines, and how. Israel could send its subs into the Gulf where, with long range missiles, it could hit most Iranian targets. Iran, on the other hand, could move their subs into the Red Sea or even the Mediterranean Sea, giving it a clear shot at any Israeli target. Israel might have a harder time of it. It would have to either transit the Suez Canal on the surface, or send the subs on an arduous trip around the Cape of Good Hope and back up to the Gulf.   

Military analysts note that the Israeli Dolphins and the Iranian Kilos are diesel subs and would require multiple trips to the surface during any significant transit, thus opening them to attack en route.

Still, the week's events are troubling to U.S. officials. The intelligence about both the Iranian missile and the Israeli sub purchases were widely distributed not just in intelligence circles, but throughout the national security arena. It's unlikely that we have heard the last about either.