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Shadowy Interests: West German–Israeli Intelligence and Military Cooperation, 1957–82


From the late 1950s onwards, West German–Israeli relations developed in two parallel tracks. On the one hand were the open bilateral relations, encompassing political, economic, cultural and, after 1965, also diplomatic relations. These relations were influenced by the historical legacy of the Second World War and the Holocaust, generally characterised by periods of closeness but also fraught with difficulties and crises. Parallel to the open bilateral relations, extensive covert relations developed between the intelligence services and armed forces of both countries. These relations, which were kept secret, remained stable even during times of crisis in the open relations. As such, they were used not only to advance tangible security interests but also to stabilise the wider bilateral relations. The intelligence services of both countries became important foreign policy actors in the shadowy diplomacy which connected West Germany and Israel by providing each side with practical, tangible security benefits through their cooperation. Not only Israel but also Germany benefited greatly from this bilateral security cooperation, which extended across the fields of intelligence collection and analysis, the development of military systems and analysis of enemy military capabilities.

A complex network of contacts and cooperation developed between the West German and Israeli intelligence services, ministries of defence and armed forces from 1957 onwards. These relations have exercised considerable influence on the overall security posture and military capabilities of both countries. The clandestine relations were motivated mainly by national security interests and were less influenced by the historical legacy of the Holocaust. These relations involved considerable cooperation and joint operations across a wide spectrum of intelligence and military issues. Exploring these relations clearly shows that the West German side committed substantial resources and undertook considerable political risks not only because of its historically motivated commitment to support the State of Israel but also due to the strong and tangible benefits this cooperation offered to Germany’s security and defence.1

This chapter examines and analyses the covert West German–Israeli relations and cooperation in the fields of intelligence and security, and the interests which motivated the two countries to develop such intricate and politically risk-laden cooperation in the years 1957 to 1982. It begins with the first Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND)–Mossad contacts, which came in the aftermath of the 1956 Suez War, and ends with Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, in which military technologies developed together by Israel and West Germany played an important role.

West German–Israeli security relations were based on two distinctly separate pillars: military cooperation, one the one hand, and intelligence cooperation efforts on the other. These pillars often converged but did not always run parallel. Military cooperation consisted of a wide range of covert activities affecting national security policies and armed forces. These include the sale, purchase, joint design and production of major weapon systems, the financing of arms purchases from third countries, the procurement of enemy weapons for testing and evaluation, the training of officers and military personnel and the development of military strategies and tactics. The scale of this cooperation was often very considerable and it influenced major weapons systems design and the battlefield capabilities of both the IDF and the Bundeswehr. The largest arms development programmes over which both countries cooperated were the Tornado fighter-bomber aircraft, the Leopard II and Merkava main battle tanks, the Marder armoured personnel carrier, the Sidewinder air-to-air missile and the Dolphin and Type 212 attack submarines. The Tornado cooperation, in the form of Operation CERBERUS, is examined in detail later in the chapter as a case study illustrating the depth and military importance of the covert relations.

Intelligence cooperation was conducted principally between the Mossad, on the Israeli side, and the BND on the German side, and was aimed at obtaining information and enhancing intelligence capabilities. This cooperation was conducted not only in Europe and the Middle East but also in Africa and Asia. The division between the intelligence and military pillars was not necessarily one of different institutions or services. On the contrary, often the lines between the responsibilities of the military and the intelligence services were blurred, or even intentionally transgressed. During other times, however, the distinction was more clearly maintained. The reasons for this can be traced to three elements: the personal authority and control of the heads of the respective intelligence services; the institutional and legal restrictions on the activities of the military in Germany; and the development of long-term personal contacts between mid-level intelligence executives responsible for particular operational issues.

Until 1955, West Germany’s unofficial but effective foreign intelligence service was known as the Organisation Gehlen (OG), after its commanding officer General Reinhard Gehlen, and was run in a semi-private way. It was funded largely by the Americans and tied only in a loose and informal way to the government of the Federal Republic. In 1955 the OG was made into a fully accountable, official government service called the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) responsible for civilian and military intelligence collection and analysis. Many of the OG officers were former Nazis, some of whom barely bothered to disguise their Nazi past.2 Until 1955 the OG was considered by the Mossad to be a private information service peddling its wares for profit. Many Mossad officers at that time were Holocaust survivors, or had lost members of their families in the Holocaust, and found the idea of cooperating with the OG abhorrent. Only in 1955, when the BND was officially created and given a legal mandate of collecting and evaluating information for the West German government, and began to recruit a new, younger generation of officers who had not served in the Second World War, could attempts be made at establishing official contact with Israeli intelligence.3

In 1957, BND President General Reinhard Gehlen sought to make first contact with the Mossad. His reasons were threefold: first, he was deeply impressed by Israel’s military victory in the 1956 Suez campaign, which was achieved through extensive and accurate intelligence work.4 In Gehlen’s eyes, this triumph of arms turned Israel into a regional ‘intelligence power’ in the Middle East. The second reason was Gehlen’s need to diversify his sources of information on which he depended for the continued political support of the West German government for his organisation. In its first decade of operations, the OG/BND relied on old networks of agents in Eastern Europe, left over from the Second World War. But by 1957 many of these agents behind the Iron Curtain were aging or had been captured, and the intelligence produced from these old networks was in marked decline. The problem of lack of sources was exacerbated by the ‘economic miracle’ in West Germany, which turned German political attention to countries and potential markets beyond Europe. Gehlen’s organisation was thus forced to gather information on other parts of the world, for which he had neither the experienced personnel nor the contacts. The third reason for cooperation with Israel was Gehlen’s wish to distance himself and his organisation from the CIA and to carve out his own intelligence niche within the Western alliance. For these reasons Gehlen wanted to be able to draw upon the Mossad’s global sources, and was willing to go a long way, both morally and materially, to make this cooperation work.

In 1957, Gehlen dispatched a trusted associate to meet with Mossad officials in Paris and request cooperation in fields of interest to both services. The Mossad leadership had misgivings about working with West Germany in general and especially with Gehlen, who served the Nazi regime as intelligence chief on Hitler’s Eastern Front. But the promise of operational freedom in Germany and the German-speaking origins of many Mossad officers won the day. Another element in the BND’s appeal for the Mossad was its developing relations with Arab countries, especially Egypt. BND representatives, many of whom were former Nazis, proved to be welcome guests in Arab capitals. Their activities provided the BND with much information needed by Israel. In return, the BND needed information on Eastern Europe, which the Mossad, through its collection efforts in communist countries and the questioning of new immigrants to Israel, could provide.

The head of Mossad, Isser Harel, trusted, at first, neither Gehlen’s approach to the Mossad nor the real capabilities of his service. Though not a Holocaust survivor himself, Harel had lost much of his family in Nazi concentration camps.5 He strongly disliked everything German but realised the potential for cooperation with the BND. He therefore initiated a series of ‘tests’ for the BND to prove its worth for the Mossad. These activities, undertaken by the BND for the Mossad, involved the smuggling of Mossad personnel into and out of Eastern European countries. It also involved assisting the Mossad in organising the immigration of Jews from these countries to Israel by illegal means. The BND carried out these tasks as required, and Harel then authorised the expansion of the relations and the stationing of the first Mossad liaison officer in Germany, who worked under cover at the Israeli mission in Cologne.6

On the German side, Gehlen entrusted one of his close confidants, General Wolfgang Langkau, also known under the cover names ‘Langendorf’ or ‘Holten’, to be the liaison officer with the Mossad.7 Langkau was an experienced intelligence officer who headed the ‘Strategic Service’, a small semi-independent group within the BND which was answerable directly to the BND president.8 The Strategic Service was running its own agent networks but it was also used to maintain contacts with foreign intelligence services.9 Langkau came to respect the Mossad’s professionalism and its constant flow of reliable information, and became one of the Mossad’s strongest supporters in Pullach. He developed good working relations with the head of Mossad, Meir Amit, who took over from Harel in 1962, and with the Mossad liaison officers to the BND. Under Langkau’s influence the cooperation continued to develop and entered new fields of operations.

The BND’s need to ensure the Mossad’s goodwill became even more paramount after the arrest, in November 1961, of Heinz Felfe, a senior BND official who for many years had been a mole working for the Soviet KGB.10 Felfe was responsible for counter-intelligence work at the BND and enjoyed access to information on the BND’s agents behind the Iron Curtain. It is hard to overestimate the damage Felfe’s treachery inflicted on the BND and its operations in Eastern Europe. Felfe betrayed to the Soviets almost every BND network or intelligence asset behind the Iron Curtain, carefully built and nurtured over fifteen years. He passed on to his KGB controllers tens of thousands of secretly copied documents detailing BND plans, structure, personnel, agents and communications. After his arrest, the Soviet security services rounded up dozens of Western agents, many of whom were tried and executed. It is estimated that as a result of Felfe’s work for the Soviets at least sixty agents lost their lives, and he betrayed virtually every ongoing BND operation in Eastern Europe. Almost overnight the BND had lost most of its important sources of information and its institutional survival was at stake.11

BND President Gehlen, who was personally shocked by the disastrous treachery of such a close friend and colleague, entrusted the rebuilding of the BND collection efforts behind the Iron Curtain to General Langkau. Gehlen and Langkau realised that for keeping even some semblance of effective collection in Eastern Europe the BND had to rely on extensive cooperation with other intelligence services, which could provide up-to-date information which, in turn, the BND could present to German politicians as its own. This needed to be done at least as a temporary measure, until new agent networks could be recruited over a period of several years. Gehlen and Langkau could not rely on the British or French intelligence, both of which were struggling at the time with the throes of decolonialisation, the French preoccupied with the violent conflict in Algeria and the British pulling back from their former colonies and not enthusiastic about sharing information with Gehlen, whom they considered to be ‘as leaky as a sieve’.

Another reason which made Gehlen reluctant to count on the British or French intelligence was their wish to keep exclusive control of the intelligence relations with newly independent African states, an area in which Gehlen, and German politicians, wanted to expand their activities and which was fast becoming another arena in the cold war conflict. Neither did Gehlen want to return to a dependency on the CIA. The BND was, therefore, pushing for even more cooperation with Israel. Gehlen was so desperate to secure Israeli goodwill that he offered to provide the Mossad with confidential German information, including an offer to regularly supply the Mossad with a copy of one of Germany’s most secret documents—the BND daily report to the Kanzler (Chancellor).12 The year 1961 marked a major increase in West German– Israeli intelligence cooperation, which incrementally spread in the ensuing decades to cover not only Eastern Europe and the Arab countries but also parts of Africa and Asia as well.

Two distinct stages in the West German–Israeli military and intelligence relations can be discerned. During the first stage, from 1957 until the late 1960s, these relations ran on parallel but separate tracks. The first track consisted of Mossad–BND intelligence cooperation, which involved the collection and analysis of information as well as operations in third countries. The second track was direct cooperation between the Israeli Ministry of Defence (IMoD), on the Israeli side, and the German Ministry of Defence (BMVg) and German army—the Bundeswehr—on the German side. This state of affairs meant that both the Mossad and the Israeli Ministry of Defence had permanent representatives in Germany, who often knew little about the activities of one another. This situation of parallel, competitive interests reached a somewhat absurd climax in the very late 1950s when the Israeli MoD tried to conceal its arms deals with Germany from the Mossad, fearing that Mossad head Isser Harel might use this information as a political tool against Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his policy of reconciliation with West Germany.13

The second stage began in the late 1960s after a short lull in military relations following the events that led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and West Germany in 1965. Media reports, in 1964, of covert arms sales from Germany to Israel caused a public sensation and forced the German government to issue an official statement that it would not in the future supply Israel with weapons. As compensation to Israel, and following protracted negotiations conducted through a German intermediary, Kurt Birrenbach, the West German government offered full diplomatic relations with Israel, despite its fear of an Arab recognition of East Germany. The second stage was characterised by the foreign intelligence services on both sides acting as ‘service providers’ for their respective defence establishments in order to better maintain secrecy. The Mossad and BND were now handling various aspects of the secret military relations, which by their operational nature required the use of intelligence methods for camouflage, the secret transfer of funds and the provision of secure civilian services. Thus the foreign intelligence services became, in reality if not in policy, an integral part of the military relations. This integration had two effects: firstly, the internal competition in Israel between the Mossad and the military establishment over reaping the benefits of the German–Israeli cooperation was all but eliminated. Secondly, closer personal relations between Mossad and BND officials opened the way for deeper cooperation in other fields as well.

The German–Israeli military cooperation produced tangible military and economic results. The BND was especially interested in Soviet arms captured by Israel in the various Middle East wars. These weapons, including tanks, aircraft, rockets and missiles, were closely analysed and evaluated to discover their strengths and weaknesses and to enable the development of effective countermeasures. Such capabilities significantly enhanced the military potential of both Israel and West Germany, as well as providing them with a larger degree of independence in the design and manufacture of weapon systems, with the concomitant economic and trade benefits to be had in terms of competing on the global arms market.

On the Israeli side, cooperation with West Germany gave it technical means which made a considerable contribution to the military victories of 1967, 1973 and 1982. It also contributed significantly to the development of Israel’s military high-tech industries and thus to the country’s economic growth. On the West German side, cooperation with Israel significantly enhanced the Bundeswehr’s main land and air weapon systems in the 1970s and 1980s, including the Leopard II tank and the Tornado aircraft. It enabled Germany to produce and procure systems especially designed with the Bundeswehr’s requirements in mind, as well as diversify its weapon supply and become less dependent on the United States as weapons supplier.

One example of the benefits of the West German–Israeli security relations resulted in one of the most important inventions in armour warfare since the Second World War—Reactive Armour. This armour, which today provides the basic protection for all modern tanks, was first developed by West German scientist Professor Manfred Held after participating in tests on Soviet tanks captured by Israel following the June 1967 Six Day War. These tests involved firing different projectiles at a large number of captured armoured vehicles and tank wrecks in order to assess the effectiveness of the armour against different munitions and projectiles. In several of the tanks tested, even strong shaped charge projectiles failed to penetrate. Held noticed that these tanks still contained some old ammunition which exploded upon the external impact of an incoming shell.

He concluded that an internal explosion, within an armour plate, can negate the effects of an external explosion, such as an incoming enemy shell.14 This discovery paved the way for the development of reactive armour, which is made up of numerous ‘boxes’ attached on the top and sides of every modern tank. These boxes contain explosives which detonate when the tank is hit by an enemy shell, negating the explosion and saving the tank and its crew. This technology was incorporated into Israeli and German tank design and first used in combat by the IDF during the 1982 Lebanon war with impressive results. Today reactive armour is considered an absolute prerequisite for any modern tank and more recently was used extensively by the US, British, Canadian and Danish armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Radar plays a crucial role in military capabilities since it can accurately detect moving objects, such as ships or aircraft, at great distances. Radar is also used to guide missiles on to a target, such as anti-aircraft missiles fired from the ground. The ability to disrupt an enemy’s radar is paramount for achieving and maintaining aerial superiority or being able to penetrate enemy airspace. As radar systems became ever more sophisticated, so did their importance for intelligence services. Technical details and capabilities of enemy radars became prime targets for intelligence collection and analysis efforts. These details were critical not only for wartime planning but also for aerial intelligence operations. For example, in 1960 the CIA underestimated Soviet radar capabilities to detect and guide missiles to its top secret U-2 reconnaissance plane, leading to the shooting down of Gary Powers’ aircraft over the Soviet Union. Accurate radar intelligence (‘Radint’) became a core function of military intelligence during and well after the cold war.

The West German Ministry of Defence and the BND launched a decade-long operation in the early 1970s to uncover the secrets of Soviet radars and develop electronic countermeasures to defeat them. This operation, codenamed first CALIGULA and later CERBERUS, was aimed at providing West Germany’s new fighter-bomber aircraft, the Tornado, with the best possible electronic warfare capabilities to enable it to penetrate East European airspace and deploy tactical nuclear weapons in the event of war in Europe. The BND ‘Radint’ operation was conducted with Israeli assistance and involved worldwide collection efforts, ranging from Northern Europe to China, as well as cooperation with other Western intelligence agencies.15 Since Israel was also facing, at the time, similar Soviet radars and missiles supplied to the neighbouring Arab states, its intelligence community was determined to assist the West Germans in cracking Soviet radar secrets and thwarting the threat they presented.

In early 1965 Israeli intelligence received information indicating that the Egyptian Army was being provided with Soviet-made SAM-2 anti-aircraft missiles. These missiles were transported to Egypt under great secrecy and reportedly deployed in the Helwan area, where they could shoot down Israeli fighters penetrating Egyptian airspace. These warnings caused great consternation for the Israeli military, and air force Commander General Ezer Weizman requested the permission of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to send Israeli aircraft on a perilous reconnaissance mission over Egypt in order to photograph the new missiles and their emplacements. After being briefed on the threat posed by these missiles, Eshkol authorised the flight.16 While the reconnaissance flight was conducted by two Israeli jets, Eshkol himself stayed at the air force command post to enable split-second decisions to be taken during such a critical operation. The Israeli pilots returned safely and the aerial imagery they made confirmed that the Egyptians could now mount a serious threat to Israeli air superiority over the Suez Canal area.17

Detailed information on the SAM-2 missiles was obtained in the West for the first time by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) from a high-ranking agent in the Soviet Union codenamed ‘HERO’. ‘HERO’ was Oleg Vladimirovich Penkovsky, a colonel in the Soviet military intelligence (GRU). Born in 1919, Penkovsky enjoyed a brilliant career in the GRU, reaching the rank of full colonel at the young age of thirty-one. He graduated from the Soviet Military Diplomatic Academy and was decorated for distinguished service. However, further promotions were blocked by the KGB because his father had been a White Russian officer during the revolution. Bitter and disappointed, Penkovsky turned to the CIA and SIS offering his services as an agent.18 Penkovsky proved to be an incredibly wealthy source of secret information, especially on Soviet military technology and developments. The material he provided revealed to the West the complex capabilities of a new Soviet anti-aircraft missile, designated as the SAM-2 ‘GUIDELINE’.19 Unfortunately, having successfully passed to the West much secret information on Soviet military capabilities, Penkovsky was arrested by the KGB in October 1962 and later executed.

Both the West German and the Israeli intelligence services became interested in the SAM-2 and its smaller counterpart SAM-3 in the late 1960s, as the Soviets began to equip large units of their Warsaw Pact and Arab allies with the new missiles. NATO and its air forces urgently required a way of overcoming the SAM missile threat in order to continue presenting a credible nuclear deterrent against the Soviet Union. During the June 1967 war, the Israeli air force achieved almost total air superiority by destroying in a surprise dawn attack most of the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian air forces. The SAM missiles, although used on several occasions, did not play a major role in that conflict. But on the few times they were used, they proved their superior capabilities.20

In February 1972, Egyptian Defence Minister General Ahmed Ismail Ali visited Moscow as part of the Egyptian preparation for a major military thrust against Israel, planned for late 1973. Ali explained to his Soviet hosts that Israel’s aerial superiority presented his forces with the biggest problem in crossing the Suez Canal. In return, the Soviets promised to beef up Egyptian anti-aircraft defences and construct the world’s most formidable formation against the Israeli air force—a virtual curtain of SAM-2 and SAM-3 missiles across its borders with Israel, which would prevent a repetition of the Egyptian air defeat of 1967.21 Israeli strategic planners began to view the problem of Soviet anti-aircraft missiles and radars as a growing strategic threat.

Nascent work on the development of electronic warfare and radar countermeasures had already begun in 1964 when the Israeli navy began a small development programme to provide its vessels with some form of protection from Soviet ship-launched ‘STYX’ missiles. This programme, codenamed ‘Avshalom’, was based on a revolutionary idea: not only would the system jam the enemy’s missile radar, but it would also create a fake artificial target for the missile to home in on. Such an ‘active’ system would provide double protection by first jamming the homing enemy radars and then creating a non-existing ‘phony’ target on which the radar-guided missile would expend itself harmlessly into the sea.22 The practicality of the active countermeasures concept had, at that time, never been proven in battle. Many experts doubted the possibility of projecting a realistic image of a false target that was convincing enough to fool a missile’s accurate radar.23 Work on ‘Avshalom’ continued at a slow pace, and it was not until the October 1973 war that its operating principles were proven to work.24 Once the ‘Avshalom’ system demonstrated success, it was decided to try and expand the concept to provide a solution also to the Soviet SAM anti-aircraft missiles. However, the requirements for an aerial system were far different from those of ships, where space and power were not a problem. A radar countermeasure system for combat aircraft had to be very compact and at the same time powerful in order to be effective over many kilometres. Since Israel could not finance such a costly and lengthy development programme alone, a decision was made to seek a joint project together with West Germany.

In the early 1970s, West Germany embarked, together with the United Kingdom and Italy, on a new programme for building the Tornado, the world’s most advanced fighter-bomber aircraft. The Tornado project, described by West German Kanzler Helmut Schmidt as ‘the biggest armaments program since the birth of Christ’, needed an electronic countermeasures system to foil Soviet missiles and be able to deliver nuclear weapons over Soviet territory in case of war. In secret negotiations, the West German and Israeli ministries of defence agreed that Israeli governmental defence contractors would covertly develop the Tornado’s electronic warfare systems for Germany, but that the new systems would be presented as having been entirely made in West Germany to prevent any political trouble between West Germany and the Arab states. The BND and the Mossad were entrusted with keeping this highly sensitive project secret.

In October 1972, therefore, German Defence Minister Georg Leber authorised the joint development of a radar deception jammer with Israel. To prevent any possible leak of the sensitive project, Leber ordered strict secrecy precautions. The project was to be handled only by a small circle of trustworthy officials at the German Ministry of Defence and BND, who were instructed to exercise the strictest secrecy.25 The word ‘Israel’ was to not to be used anywhere in writing, but would instead be replaced by the code ‘I-20’. The German Ministry of Defence gave its part of the project the codename ‘CALIGULA’. All CALIGULA documents were delivered under special security arrangements and a special registry was set up for the CALIGULA documents, separate from the ministry’s central registry.26 The multiple codes and circuitous ways of communications were meant to confuse and prevent all but the selected few from gaining an overview of the entire project. In later years the codename for the project was changed to ‘CERBERUS’. The German Ministry of Defence allocated large amounts of money from its overall Tornado budget to the CERBERUS programme. These amounts were paid over to the BND, and from there passed on to Israel via special means. In the years 1972–88, the cost of the CERBERUS project amounted to over DM 415 million.27

The crucial question facing the Israeli CERBERUS designers was to try and discover which radar frequencies would be used by the Soviets in wartime. Soviet radar crews, and Arab radar crews trained by the Soviets, used one frequency for everyday training but a completely different frequency at wartime. Since Soviet radar systems controlling the SAM missiles were capable of operating over a broad range of frequencies, the CERBERUS system had to be designed to have the capability of instantly recognising the specific frequency used and adapting its systems to jam them accordingly. In theory, this capability would assure maximum effectiveness of CERBERUS over the different frequencies, but scientists were aware of the fact that different frequencies ‘reacted’ differently to the jamming and wanted to know more precisely which frequencies the Soviets would use against hostile aircraft penetrating their airspace.28

The Israeli intelligence services were already aware of the importance of analysing enemy radar frequencies. On 26 December 1969, under the codename ‘Operation Rooster’, an Israeli special forces unit was dispatched on a hazardous mission deep inside Egyptian territory to capture a new Soviet P-12 radar station in Ras Arab, which was directing Egyptian fighter activities against the Israeli air force.29 Under the cover of darkness, Israeli special forces arrived at the station and quickly overpowered its Egyptian garrison. Special intelligence teams went into action, dismantling the radar unit, which weighed over 4 tons, and collecting all relevant operating manuals and secret documents. The radar was slung underneath a helicopter, which took off immediately and flew towards Israel. During the hazardous flight, one of the cables holding the radar broke loose and the pilots were ordered to release the load over the Red Sea to prevent their helicopter from crashing. The crew, however, realising the crucial importance of their mission, kept on flying with the radar hanging by only one cable until they could land within Israeli territory.30 This capture enabled Israeli scientists to discover some of the latest advances in Soviet radar technology, but more information on frequencies was still needed.

The main problem in ascertaining which radar frequencies would be used by the Soviets against NATO aircraft in wartime was that these radar systems stationed in East Germany were kept switched off. Soviet crews would only operate them in real emergencies, thus preserving tactical surprise. The BND was anxious to obtain accurate frequency readings of the Soviet radars for the CERBERUS project. Thus a decision was made to try and ‘provoke’ Soviet radars stationed along East Germany’s borders in to switching their radars on against Luftwaffe aircraft, a risky manoeuvre since ‘accidental’ penetrations could have been interpreted by the East Germans as an attack. The BND arranged with the Luftwaffe to have military aircraft ‘mistakenly’ penetrate East German airspace during manoeuvres, hoping that Soviet units stationed on the internal German border would switch their equipment on against the incoming aircraft, thereby enabling the BND’s electronic monitoring stations inside West Germany to take accurate readings of the frequencies used by the Soviet radars. Several such ‘accidental’ penetrations of East German airspace took place but the Soviets did not respond to the bait and their radars remained off.

Determined to obtain accurate radar readings, in the mid-1970s the BND created a chain of three electronic monitoring stations surrounding the Soviet Union through cooperation with other intelligence services. These stations were equipped with state-of-the-art electronic receivers and were designed to record Soviet radar frequencies over long periods of time. The first station was constructed near the town of Husum in north Germany. Codenamed ‘KASTAGNETTE’, it was constructed to monitor radar transmissions from the Warsaw Pact countries.31 A second station was constructed in cooperation with the Italian intelligence service SISMI near the Italian airbase in Lecce, in southern Italy near Brindisi, to monitor radar transmissions from South-East European countries. A third station was built together with the Iranian intelligence service, Savak, close to Tehran, to monitor radars on the Soviet Union’s southern borders. This chain of three electronic monitoring stations recorded Soviet anti-aircraft radars whenever these were operated, during training sessions, manoeuvres or emergencies. The monitoring stations provided BND analysts with an accurate long-term picture of the Soviet use of different frequencies against different threats and enabled the BND, together with the Luftwaffe’s strategic planners, to construct operating scenarios against Soviet aggression in NATO’s central front in Germany. The information on the Soviet frequencies was provided to the Mossad and incorporated in the design and modifications of CERBERUS. The monitoring stations were also used to track down the movements of Soviet mobile headquarters, especially those of nuclear forces, providing intelligence warning against a possible Soviet attack.32

Following the 1979 Revolution in Iran, the BND was forced to close its Tehran monitoring station. In an effort to find a substitute station, since complete coverage of the USSR was essential for the success of the radar monitoring operation, in 1980 the BND signed, together with the CIA, an agreement with the Chinese intelligence service over the construction and maintenance of an electronic monitoring station in the Pamir Mountains, adjacent to China’s Xinxiang border with the USSR.33 Under codename ‘LANZE’, the BND provided over DM 26 million for the construction of the Pamir station, which was manned by twelve German, American and Chinese intelligence specialists. A further DM 20 million for the establishment of the Pamir station came directly from the Tornado budget.34 This base was also used by the Americans to monitor the movements of Soviet mobile nuclear headquarters deep inside Russia. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Pamir station was used to follow troop movements inside Afghanistan. In a similar ploy to earlier efforts over East Germany, the BND arranged with the Chinese to have their aircraft ‘mistakenly’ penetrate Soviet airspace, in the hope that the lesser-trained Soviet radar crews on this dormant border would panic into switching on their equipment and thus revealing their emergency frequencies. This ploy was successful and the Pamir station was able to report the precise frequencies used, information that was incorporated without delay into CERBERUS. By the early 1980s the CERBERUS project provided the West German Luftwaffe and the Israeli air force with the world’s best electronic countermeasures system able to defeat a wide range of Soviet radar threats.35

The security significance of CERBERUS for West Germany can only be fully understood when examined within the context of NATO’s overall strategy for a major conflict in Europe against the Warsaw Pact powers. CERBERUS technology became a lynchpin within the Luftwaffe’s overall conflict strategy and had a strong impact on Germany’s military capabilities in the event of an all-out European war.36 In the late 1960s, NATO’s move from a strategy based on massive retaliation to that of ‘flexible response’37 depended on having the capabilities to deliver accurately tactical and strategic nuclear weapons over targets in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.38 This ability, in which the Tornado aircraft armed with tactical nuclear weapons were assigned a key role, was crucial if a strong NATO military posture was to be maintained and Moscow deterred from undertaking military action.39

Against the strategic threat of a massive Warsaw Pact attack, the Bundeswehr, as a central part of NATO’s defences in Europe, relied on response with theatre nuclear weapons. Unlike France and Britain, Germany did not have long-range strategic nuclear missiles and therefore had to rely on air-delivered tactical nuclear warheads. As Germany was not allowed to have its own nuclear weapons, these warheads were held and commanded jointly together with the US forces in Europe.40 The capability to deliver these weapons effectively despite heavy Soviet air defences was perceived by German military strategic planners as a major contribution to NATO’s overall nuclear strategy. This contribution depended on the success of CERBERUS to allow nuclear-armed Tornados to penetrate Soviet airspace with minimal losses and deliver the nuclear weapons accurately over their targets.

Israeli superiority in the development of electronic countermeasures was dramatically proven during the June 1982 Lebanon war. Within the space of a few hours, Israeli aircraft attacked and destroyed all of Syria’s most modern Soviet-made anti-aircraft missile batteries in Lebanon’s Baka’a Valley. The Syrian air force sent up its best pilots to fend off the Israeli attack. In the ensuing dogfights over a hundred of the most modern Soviet-made Syrian fighter aircraft were shot down without a single Israeli casualty, an unprecedented defeat for Soviet air capabilities, one which had strong reverberations not only for the Arab states but also within the Soviet military.

The element of secrecy played a crucial role in West German–Israeli security relations. Not only did the military superiority of systems developed jointly depend on the enemy being kept ignorant of their capabilities, and therefore being unable to develop appropriate countermeasures, but the political risks of exposure were severe. The political risks to Germany of military cooperation with Israel became even higher after the 1973 Arab oil embargo. However, the risks were not always one-sided: earlier Israeli governments faced internal political risks in military cooperation with Germany at a time when Israeli public opinion was strongly against any form of relations with the Federal Republic, let alone supplying it with weapons. However, throughout decades of close and expanding cooperation, both the Israeli and German governments perceived the benefits of this cooperation to be greater than the risks of their exposure. Both sides went to great lengths to hide or camouflage their cooperation.

But even in the few instances when these relations were discovered they were not abandoned, only disguised, and like a military chameleon resurfaced quickly in parallel fields. This is clear testimony to the importance attached by both sides to this cooperation and to the success of the military and intelligence communities in developing resilient interpersonal relations between key officials. It was often this personal element, rather than firm policies dictated from above, which made the difference between success and failure and contributed to the attainment of many of the common goals of this cooperation.

There are three main prerequisites for effective intelligence and military cooperation: common interests; common threats; and unique knowledge or technologies wanted by the other side. Common interests enable joint work towards achieving targets which would provide benefits or advance these interests. Common threats do not only mean being faced with the same, or similar, enemies, but also include facing similar military, technical or ideological threats. Specialist knowledge or technologies are the ‘coin’ which is being exchanged by the intelligence services, including secret information, arms sales, joint developments of military hardware, training, funds, access to facilities or capabilities or the intervention with third parties.

Throughout the cold war, Israel and West Germany had strong common interests, spanning reconciliation with the past, foreign policies, economics and social issues. There were also strong common military interests: although both countries did not face the same military enemy in the field (East German assistance to Syria during the 1973 war notwithstanding), they did face, on their immediate borders, similar Soviet-made weapon systems, ranging from the simplest infantry weapons to sophisticated missiles, radars, tanks and aircraft. Both countries possessed, or acquired over time, specific knowledge or technologies that the other desired. These were the basic motives for the West German– Israeli intelligence and military cooperation presented above.

Beyond immediate security interests, the wider framework for Israeli–West German security relations was provided by the cold war. Many West German decision-makers perceived Israel as an integral part of the Western alliance in the cold war and considered its defence not only a moral obligation but also a realistic prospect for blocking Soviet advances in the Middle East. At a lecture in Cologne University in June 1967, the influential German politician and architect of German–Israeli diplomatic relations, Kurt Birrenbach, explained the reasoning to help Israel as ‘Hier die Araber—dort Nord Vietnam!’ (Here the Arabs, there North Vietnam!). In return, the military assistance Israel provided to West Germany enhanced the Bundeswehr’s military capabilities and thus contributed to NATO’s military position on its central front in Europe.

The main security interests for West German–Israeli military cooperation were fourfold: improving military capabilities; saving time and money through the joint research and development of military projects; enhancing indigenous military industries and manufacturing capacities, as well as arms exports; and maintaining the relations for their own sake (relational dynamics). Many of the joint initiatives and projects were aimed at improving the military capabilities of both countries. The acquisition of Soviet military technologies and the development of electronic countermeasures, ships, submarines, tanks and ammunition all influenced significantly the military capabilities of the Bundeswehr and the IDF. The acquisition of Soviet military technologies enabled a significant reduction in the time needed for research and development of major weapon systems. The element of time is crucial in arms manufacturing—a system that takes too long to research, develop and manufacture will only be effective against older designed weaponry and equipment. Military technology advances at a rapid pace and any advantage in product development times can improve not only its military value but also its export marketability.

Last but not least, the military and intelligence cooperation developed its own momentum. As one former head of the Mossad noted, ‘you know who your friends are today, but you can’t know who you will need as friends tomorrow’. Cooperation was also enhanced by the development of a multitude of personal relations among day-to-day decision-makers, often mid-level defence or intelligence executives, and by long-term institutional interests. Even on issues where there seemed to be no apparent immediate benefit, the German and Israeli intelligence services and defence establishments seemed ready to assist their counterparts because of existing patterns of cooperation. The West German government’s willingness to undertake political risks in their covert cooperation with Israel well illustrated the perceived value of these military relations on the German side.

German–Israeli security relations have moved a tremendous distance in the three decades between the mid-1950s and mid-1980s. The covert relations flourished in the shadows, even while public sentiments in Israel were strongly anti-German. Until 1965, Israeli passports were regularly stamped ‘valid for all countries except Germany’, reflecting public animosity and recoil from Germany and its responsibility for the Holocaust. During the early years of their cooperation with the BND, Mossad officers who travelled to West Germany on duty were forbidden to sleep at hotels in Munich and were warned against socialising too closely with their BND counterparts. In contrast, today the Israeli army’s chief of staff’s official car is a German-made BMW and this does not raise any eyebrows in Israel, while more Israelis travel to Germany than to any other European country.

When examining not only the open German–Israeli relations but also the covert intelligence and military relations, German interests must be defined as twofold, a combination of cold war realpolitik security needs and of long-term historical perception. It is undeniable that the historical need to come to terms with its Nazi past, not only within German internal politics but also as part of Germany’s international acceptance, led to some degree of West German political support of Israel in the 1950s and 1960s. As shown in this chapter, some of this support was motivated by cold war security and intelligence needs. As West Germany established itself again as a leading economic and military power in Europe, it could allow itself to decrease the intensity of its relations with Israel.

But what actually happened was not a decrease but indeed an increase on both the open and covert levels. German historical commitment to Israel was augmented to a large degree by the increasingly important security needs of the Bundeswehr as an integral and crucial part of NATO. The relations between both countries, while paying lip service to their common historical heritage, fulfilled current security needs and came to be considered indispensable for the security postures of both countries. Secrecy was the prime consideration in preventing a crisis between West Germany and its Arab oil suppliers. But the value of the covert relations to both sides was so high that political risks were undertaken by consecutive West German governments in order to maintain its security cooperation with Israel. The ways or means changed, but the interests and cooperation targets remained the same throughout the cold war and even beyond.

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