Operation Samson Israel's Deployment of Nuclear Missiles on Subs from Germany


Part 4: The Shipyards of Kiel

The Germans got the message. "Israel-Germany-gas" would sound like a "horrible triad" in the rest of the world, then Foreign Minister Genscher warned in an internal memo.

On Jan. 30, 1991, two weeks after the beginning of the Gulf War, the German government agreed to supply Israel with armaments worth 1.2 billion deutsche marks. This included the complete financing of two submarines with 880 million deutsche marks. The budgetary miracle had come to pass. Israel had found its benefactor.

According to military wisdom, a country that buys one or two submarines will also buy a third one. One submarine is usually in dock, while the other two take turns being deployed during operations. "After we had ordered the first two boats, it was clear that we had entered into a deal which would involve repeat orders," says an individual who was a member of the Israeli cabinet at the time.

Indeed, in February 1995, the contract for the third submarine, the Tekumah, was signed. The German share of the costs totaled 220 million deutsche marks.

On March 29, 1995, an Israeli Air Force plane landed in the military area of Cologne-Bonn Airport. On board were three men: Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, his national security adviser and Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit. The small delegation was driven to the chancellor's residence, where Kohl was waiting with his foreign policy adviser, Joachim Bitterlich, and his intelligence coordinator, Bernd Schmidbauer.

Wheat Beer for Israel

On that evening in Bonn, Kohl and Rabin spoke at length about the German-Israeli relationship, which was still difficult. At dinner, Kohl surprised his visitors by serving wheat beer. The Israelis were delighted. "The beer tastes great," Rabin said. The ice had been broken.

The Israeli premier thanked Kohl for his support regarding the third submarine and asked him for further help in the future. At around midnight, Schmidbauer took Rabin back to the airport. Kohl, who was virtually unsurpassed in the art of male bonding in politics, later sent a case of wheat beer to Israel as a gift.


Since then, one of the most secretive arms projects in the Western world has been underway in Kiel, where a special form of bonding between the German and the Israeli people developed. Around half a dozen Israelis work at the shipyard today on a long-term basis. Friendships, some of them close, have formed between HDW engineers and their families and the Israeli families, and special occasions are celebrated together. But despite these friendships, the Israelis always make sure that no outsiders are allowed near the submarines. Even managers from Thyssen-Krupp, which bought HDW in 2005, are denied access. "The main goal of everyone involved was to ensure that there would be no public debate about the project, neither in Israel nor in Germany," says former Israeli navy chief Ayalon. This explains why everything related to the equipment on the ships remains hidden behind a veil of secrecy.

One of the special features is the equipment used in the Dolphin class, which is named after the first ship. Unlike conventional submarines, the Dolphins don't just have torpedo tubes with a 533-millimeter diameter in the steel bow. In response to a special Israeli request, the HDW engineers designed four additional tubes that are 650 millimeters in diameter -- a special design not found in any other submarine in the Western world.

What is the purpose of the large tubes? In a classified 2006 memo, the German government argued that the tubes are an "option for the transfer of special forces and the pressure-free stowage of their equipment" -- combat swimmers, for example --, who can be released through the narrow shaft for secret operations. The same explanation is given by the Israelis.

Keeping Options Open

In the United States, however, it has long been speculated that the wider shafts could be intended for ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. This suspicion was fueled by an Israeli request for US Tomahawk cruise missiles in 2000. The missiles have a range of over 600 kilometers, while nuclear versions can even fly about 2,500 kilometers. But Washington rejected the request twice. This is why the Israelis still rely on ballistic missiles of their own design today, such as Popeye Turbo.

Their use as nuclear carrier missiles is readily possible in the Dolphins. Contrary to official assumptions, HDW equipped the Israeli submarines with a newly developed hydraulic ejection system instead of a compressed air ejection system. In this process, water is compressed with the help of a hydraulic ram. The resulting pressure is then used to catapult the weapon out of the shaft.

The resulting momentum is limited, however, and it isn't enough to eject a three to five-ton midrange missile out of the ship, at least according to insiders. This is not the case with lighter-weight missiles weighing up to 1.5 tons -- like the Popeye Turbo or the American Tomahawk, which weighs just that, nuclear warhead included.

There are indications that, with the expanded tubes, the Israelis wanted to keep open the option of future, more voluminous developments.


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