Operation Samson: Israel's Deployment of Nuclear Missiles on Subs from Germany
Part 3: First Submarines Are Secretly Assembled in England
A country that has the bomb is also likely to search for a safe place to store it and a safe launching platform -- a submarine, for example.
In the 1970s, Brandt and Schmidt were the first German chancellors to be confronted with the Israelis' determination to obtain submarines. Three vessels were to be built in Great Britain, using plans drawn up by the German company Industriekontor Lübeck (IKL).
But an export permit was needed to send the documents out of the country. To get around this, IKL agreed with the German Defense Ministry that the drawings would be completed on the letterhead of a British shipyard and flown on a British plane to the British town of Barrow-in-Furness, where the submarines were assembled.
Assuring Israel's security was no longer the only objective of the German-Israeli arms cooperation, which had since become a lucrative business for West German industry. In 1977, the last of the first three submarines arrived in Haifa. At the time, nobody was thinking about nuclear second-strike capability. It was not until the early 1980s, when more and more Israeli officers were returning from US military academies and raving about American submarines, that a discussion began about modernizing the Israeli navy -- and about the nuclear option.
A power struggle was raging in the Israeli military at the time. Two planning teams were developing different strategies for the country's navy. One group advocated new, larger Sa'ar 4 missile boats, while the other group wanted Israel to buy submarines instead. Israel was "a small island, where 97 percent of all goods arrive via water," said Ami Ayalon, the deputy commander of the navy at the time, who would later become head of the Israeli domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bet.
Even then it was becoming apparent, according to Ayalon, "that in the Middle East things were heading toward nuclear weapons," especially in Iraq. The fact that the Arab states were seriously interested in building the bomb changed Israel's defense doctrine, he says. "A submarine can be used as a tactical weapon for various missions, but at the center of our discussions in the 1980s was the question of whether the navy was to receive an additional task known as strategic depth," says Ayalon. "Purchasing the submarines was the country's most important strategic decision."
Strategic depth. Or nuclear second-strike capability.
At the end of the debate, the navy specified as its requirement nine corvettes and three submarines. It was "a megalomaniacal demand," as Ayalon, who would later rise to become commander-in-chief of the navy, admits today. But the navy's strategists had hopes of a budgetary miracle.
Alternatively, they were hoping for a rich beneficiary who would be willing to give Israel a few submarines.
KOHL AND RABIN TURN ISRAEL INTO A MODERN SUBMARINE POWER
The two men who finally catapulted Israel into the circle of modern submarine powers were Helmut Kohl and Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin's father had fought in World War II as a volunteer in the Jewish Legion of the British army, and Rabin himself led the Israeli army to victory, as its chief of staff, in the 1967 Six-Day War. In 1984, having served one term as prime minister in the mid-1960s, he moved to the cabinet, becoming the defense minister.
Rabin knew that the German government in Bonn had introduced new "political principles" for arms exports in 1982. According to the new policy, arms shipments could "not contribute to an increase in existing tensions." This malleable wording made possible the delivery of submarines to Israel, especially in combination with a famous remark once made by former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher: "Anything that floats is OK" -- because governments generally do not use boats to oppress demonstrators or opposition forces.
After World War II, the Allies had initially forbidden Germany from building large submarines. As a result, the chief supplier to the German navy, Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft AG (HDW), located in the northern port city of Kiel, had shifted its focus to small, maneuverable boats that could also operate in the Baltic and North Seas. The Israelis were interested in ships that could navigate in similarly shallow waters, such as those along the Lebanese coast, where they have to be able to lie at periscope depth, listen in on radio communications and compare the sounds of ship's propellers with an onboard database. The Israelis obtained bids from the United States, Great Britain and the Netherlands, but "the German boats were the best," says an Israeli who was involved in the decision.
A few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the German government, practically unnoticed by the general public, gave the green light for the construction of two "Dolphin"-class submarines, with an option for a third vessel.
But the strategic deal of the century almost fell through. Although the Germans had agreed to pay part of the costs, this explicitly excluded the weapons systems -- the Americans were supposed to also pay a share. But in the meantime, the Israelis had voted a new government into office that was bitterly divided over the investments.
'An Inconceivable Scenario'
In particular Moshe Arens, who was appointed defense minister in 1990, fought to stop the agreement -- with success. On Nov. 30, 1990, the Israelis notified the shipyard in Kiel that it wished to withdraw from the contract.
Was the dream of nuclear second-strike capability lost? By no means.
In January 1991, the US air force attacked Iraq, and then Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein reacted by firing modified Scud missiles at Tel Aviv and Haifa. The bombardment lasted almost six weeks. Gas masks, some of which came from Germany, were distributed to households. "It was an inconceivable scenario," recalls Ehud Barak, the current Israeli defense minister. During those days, Jewish immigrants from Russia arrived, "and we had to hand them gas masks at the airport to protect them against rockets that the Iraqis had built with the help of the Russians and the Germans."
A few days after the Scud missile bombardment began, a German military official requested a meeting at the Chancellery, presented a secret report and emptied the contents of a bag onto a table. He spread out dozens of electronic parts, components of a control system and the percussion fuse of the modified Scud missiles. They had one thing in common: They were made in Germany. Without German technology there would have been no Scuds, and without Scuds no dead Israelis.
Once again, Germany bore some of the responsibility, and that was also the message that Hanan Alon, a senior Israeli Defense Ministry official, brought to Kohl during a visit to Bonn shortly after the war began. "It would be unpleasant if it came out, through the media, that Germany helped Iraq to make poison gas, and then supplied us with the equipment against it, Mr. Chancellor," Alon said. According to Israeli officials, Alon also issued an open threat, saying: "You are certainly aware that the words gas and Germany don't sound very good together."
- Part 1: Israel's Deployment of Nuclear Missiles on Subs from Germany
- Part 2: Franz-Josef Strauss and the Beginnings of Illegal Arms Cooperation
- Part 3: First Submarines Are Secretly Assembled in England
- Part 4: The Shipyards of Kiel
- Part 5: The Germans and the Atomic Question: No Questions, No Problems
- Part 6: The Deal for Submarine Number Six
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