Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israel has denied a report that it test-fired cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads from two submarines in the Indian Ocean last month.
The London Sunday Times cited Israeli defense sources in a report saying Israeli-built missiles equipped with conventional warheads were fired from two German-built Dolphin-class submarines off the coast of Sri Lanka, and hit targets approximately 930 miles away.
The paper said the move made Israel only the third country in the world, after the U.S. and Russia, with the capacity to fire nuclear cruise missiles from submarines.
It said the launches were "designed to simulate swift retaliation against a pre-emptive nuclear attack from Iran."
The Israeli army denied the veracity of the report and dismissed it as baseless. However, a spokesman did confirm that the Israeli navy has three Dolphin-class submarines, but declined to "detail their abilities."
Paul Beaver, spokesman for Jane's Defense Weekly, said Thursday Israel's three Dolphin-class submarines are equipped with an American-made sub-harpoon missile system that is in the cruise missile range.
The 227 kilogram (500 pound) warheads could be equipped with nuclear tips, he said.
Beaver said while the alleged test-firing would create "some concern" and "act as a deterrent" in the region, the question remained whether Israel had the real capability to fire a nuclear missile.
"You can put a nuclear warhead on almost anything," Beaver said. "The big question is if they [Israel] have the weaponization technology to make it work."
Israel has never admitted that it has nuclear weapons, although military analysts have estimated that Israel has between 100 and 200 nuclear weapons.
Israel has maintained a policy of ambiguity regarding its nuclear capabilities, saying only that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the region.
The Sunday Times quoted the unnamed Israeli sources as saying that the three Dolphin-class submarines will give Israel a "crucial third pillar of nuclear defense," which would complement its land and air capabilities.
The report said that while experts had predicted that Israel would use the German submarines as "roving nuclear launch platforms" it happened much sooner than expected.
Israel accelerated its "submarine-launched nuclear deterrent" program due to 1990 reports from its intelligence service, the Mossad, that Iran would be capable of launching nuclear missiles against Israel by 2000.
That assessment has now been pushed back by two years. (In 1999, the CIA estimated that Iran would probably be able to launch intercontinental missiles capable of reaching the U.S. within the next 15 years.)
Israel took action against the development of one emerging nuclear threat in the region in 1981, when then Prime Minister Menachem Begin sent F-16 fighters to bomb a nuclear reactor in Iraq. At the time the move was condemned worldwide as reckless.
However, nine years later when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and a U.S.-led international coalition went to war against him, Begin was praised as having had great foresight.
Washington has repeatedly used the examples of Iran and Iraq's drive to achieve nuclear capabilities as justification for its proposed national missile defense system. But the report says that the U.S. administration will not likely appreciate the development of this new military ability at this sensitive time in the peace process.
"This is certain to irritate the Clinton administration," a Washington-based defense analyst was quoted as saying. "It makes it that much harder to get non-proliferation to stick in the Middle East."
Israel is one of three nations that has refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, saying that its deterrent power lies in its ambiguity.
Beaver dismissed the idea that America would have been caught off guard by the missile test. Since the missile system is American and the main contractor for assembling the submarines was an American firm, he said, the U.S. would have been "informed."
"No doubt they would have been kept involved in this," Beaver said.
The reported test comes at a time when Israel and the U.S. are trying to develop closer defense ties but have been suffering from disputes. Israel's planned sale of an advanced airborne radar system to China angered congressmen, who threatened to slap sanctions on Israel if the sale goes through.
Last month, the U.S. navy criticized Israel for test launching a Jericho ballistic missile off its own coast without warning. The missile landed about 40 miles from a U.S. warship in the Mediterranean, whose crew thought it was under attack.
The Sunday Times report said Israel plans to rotate the vessels, with one in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, a second in the Mediterranean, and the third on standby.
An elite crew of 35 officers and men would be placed aboard each vessel, with another five specially chosen officers responsible for the warheads to be added later.
The teams have been nicknamed "force 700" because their members scored an average of 700 points in psychological tests, equivalent to an IQ of 130-140.