Submarine Sneaks into Beirut? Why That’s Bad
posted at 7:57 pm on May 6, 2010 by J.E. Dyer
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).
(For an extended analysis of why the submarine in Beirut was probably the first of Algeria’s new-order Kilos, see the companion post at my website here. Be sure not to miss the video clip of the new Algerian Kilo conducting sea trials in the Baltic Sea ice.)
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.
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