TEL AVIV, Israel, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Israel is discussing the purchase of a sixth Dolphin submarine from Germany, fueling concerns that the Jewish state is gearing up for a protracted conflict with Iran, officials say.
The Israeli navy has three Dolphins operational, and all are purported to be capable of launching nuclear-armed Harpoon cruise missiles.
Two other Dolphins are being built for Israel at the Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft shipyard in Kiel and are due for delivery in 2012.
The new purchase is high on the agenda of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who arrived in Berlin Monday with a team of senior ministers for a historic joint cabinet meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is expected to ask the Germans to underwrite the $700 million cost of a new Dolphin, a proposal likely to meet considerable German resistance.
Berlin, which considers itself morally obliged to help Israel because of the Holocaust, gave the Israelis major discounts when they purchased the other Dolphins. But there's been a global economic meltdown since then.
"We attach great importance to our ties with Germany because of their economic and political impact and mainly because of Israel's security," Netanyahu said before leaving Tel Aviv.
In October Israel was reported to have asked the Germans to provide them, free of charge, two 2,200-ton stealth corvettes armed with anti-ship missiles and other systems capable of hitting land targets.
German daily Hannoverersche Allgemeine Zeitung reported at the time that no decision had been made by Berlin on the MEKO corvettes that are built at the Blohm und Voss shipyard in Hamburg.
Israeli military sources have indicated that the optimum number of Dolphins, the most expensive weapons systems in Israel's arsenal, is nine.
In any confrontation with Iran, that would allow the Israelis to maintain three or four of the submarines at any one time in the Arabian Sea off Iran's southern coast.
The three Dolphins now deployed have already transformed the Israeli navy from a coastal force operating in the Mediterranean and Red seas to a third strategic arm along with the Jewish state's air and ballistic missile forces.
But with only three submarines, the Israelis can only keep one boat on station in the Red Sea or Arabian Sea.
That could provide some support for any pre-emptive military strike Israel may launch with conventional weapons against Iran's nuclear infrastructure to prevent it acquiring nuclear weapons -- but not much.
The Dolphins are believed to carry only 10 Harpoon missiles. So unless all three subs were deployed in the Arabian Sea, the firepower of a single boat would be extremely limited unless its missiles were armed with nuclear warheads.
A larger Dolphin flotilla would allow the Israelis to base several Dolphins in Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel's only Red Sea port.
The Dolphins -- designated as Type-212 boats by the Germans -- carry a crew of 35 and have a stated range of 2,810 miles.
There have been reports, none independently confirmed, that the boats have been equipped with Israeli-built cruise missiles with a range of 930 miles and had their range extended by another 1,000 miles.
One of the Israeli submarines made a high-profile transit through the Suez Canal from the Dolphin base at Haifa in the Mediterranean to the Red Sea for the first time last summer.
That signaled Israel's expectations of deploying Dolphins in the Arabian Sea.
The boats were escorted by Egyptian naval vessels in a clear message from Cairo, which also fears a nuclear-armed Iran, that it would open the strategic waterway to Israeli warships in the event of a major crisis involving the Islamic Republic.
That would give the Israelis a vital short cut for a naval deployment into the Red Sea rather than have to make the lengthy and time-consuming voyage from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea around the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa.