Grand Theft Afghanistan

German spies buying captured gear in 1980s Afghanistan part of a Cold War pattern

Grand Theft Afghanistan Grand Theft Afghanistan

Uncategorized October 11, 2013 0

Anti Soviet guerillas in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, 1987. Wikipedia photo Grand Theft Afghanistan German spies buying captured gear in 1980s Afghanistan part of a... Grand Theft Afghanistan
Anti Soviet guerillas in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, 1987. Wikipedia photo

Grand Theft Afghanistan

German spies buying captured gear in 1980s Afghanistan part of a Cold War pattern


On Sunday, the German newspaper Welt Am Sonntag reported that West German spies had operated covertly in Afghanistan in the 1980s, buying captured Soviet technology that could be used if the Soviet Union ever attacked NATO. The objective was to acquire as much Soviet military technology as possible, including helicopters and armored vehicles from the mujahideen rebels, ship it back to Germany and test its effectiveness.

The operation, called Sommerregen (“Summer Rain”) was just one part of a global hunt by Western powers for hard information about the secretive Soviet military. Unable to see effectively behind the Iron Curtain, Western countries — particularly the United States — were often forced to conduct covert operations in the Third World to retrieve Soviet military equipment. Soviet military technology was bought, bartered for goods or favors down the road, and even stolen right from under the noses of the owners.

Soviet troops in Afghanistan, with BTR-70 armored personnel carriers and T-62M tanks. Wikipedia photo


According Welt Am Sonntag, Operation Summer Rain was initiated by then West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Bordering the Warsaw Pact, West Germany would have borne the brunt of any Soviet-led invasion of NATO. West Germany was keenly interested in anything that would give it insights into how Soviet technology worked.

West Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, or BND, was tasked to run the operation. It was pretty simple: German intelligence agents would infiltrate Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, and make contact with Afghan mujahideen rebels. The spies would present the mujahideen with a wish list of the things they wanted, and the Afghans would get it for them. According to Welt Am Sonntag, this included, “tank ammunition, mines, navigation devices, and parts of downed helicopters or airplanes.” The relationship with the Afghans was smooth because the Germans paid well.

The Afghans would return with captured Soviet technology, which would then be sent back to a refugee camp just across the border in Pakistan. BND agents posing as humanitarian workers would take the equipment to a mobile medical station used to treat refugees — but also used to examine the captured technology. From there, the captured material was taken to Peshawar, Pakistan, and then spirited out of the country to West Germany.

Back in West Germany, engineers analyzed the captured material. This included using the equipment on German armored vehicles. “As far as I know, the West German Army had shot an infantry fighting vehicle with captured tank ammunition,” a former BND agent said.

Su-9 Fishpot interceptor. Creative commons photo, Flickr user Hawkeye UK


During the Cold War the United States military acquired Soviet aircraft in order to compare performance against American planes, as well as to develop tactics to counter them. Many of the aircraft came by way of defections.

In 1961 a Soviet pilot defected to Iran, at the time an American ally, bringing his Su-9 interceptor with him. The pilot received asylum and a life of (presumably) comfortable anonymity in the West, and the United States got the latest Soviet interceptor.

More deals were made. In the late 1960s, the U.S. borrowed a MiG-21 fighter — considered state of the art at the time — whose pilot had defected to Israel from Syria. According to Red Eagles: America’s Secret MiGs, Israel also loaned the United States a pair of older MiG-17 fighters it had acquired on the condition that it be allowed to purchase the then-new F-4 Phantom fighter.

The Cold War’s greatest prize, however, was the defection of Soviet fighter pilot Victor Belenko and his MiG-25 Foxbat interceptor, considered the latest in Soviet technology at the time. Flying from the Soviet Far East, Belenko landed at Hakodate Air Base in Japan without incident. After a short stint in a Japanese jail, Belenko was granted asylum in the United States. The MiG was eventually returned to the Soviet Union — but not before being dismantled for examination first.

P-12 radar system. Wikimedia Commons photo


The so-called “War of Attrition” between Israel and Egypt took place between 1967 and 1970. It was a period of almost continuous low-level warfare between the two countries, characterized by regular air strikes, artillery duels and other skirmishes.

Israeli reconnaissance reports indicated Egypt had deployed a new Soviet radar on its territory, known as the P-12. The P-12 was a search radar normally used in conjunction with the SA-2 surface to air missile system and had been used against American aircraft over North Vietnam. The P-12 was a threat to Israel’s air superiority and the Israelis needed to know how it worked.

So they stole one.

The radar system had been set up across the Red Sea, on the beach at the Egyptian port town of Ras Gharib. The Israeli Defense Forces planned Operation Rooster 53, a raid to capture the system and bring it back to Israel for analysis.

The Israeli Air Force would sortie A-4 Skyhawk and F-4 Phantom jets to cover the noise of approaching helicopters; with the War of Attrition going on, the presence of jets would not be considered unusual. Three helicopters full of Israeli paratroopers would then overcome the guards, and more helicopters would be brought in to lift the radar and control van back home to Israel.

It was a bold plan, and it succeeded. The radar was secured with only one Israeli soldier wounded, and two large CH-53 helicopters were brought in to take the radar system home. The radar was actually so heavy that it damaged the first helicopter carrying it, just barely making it back to Israeli territory. After the Israelis were done studying it the radar was sent to the United States — no doubt with strings attached.

Countries will resort to extraordinary means to get their hands on a rival’s military technology, even in peacetime. However, the rise of the Internet means that it’s now much easier to have hackers, not paratroopers, gather military secrets.

Having a pocketful of blueprints for the latest fighter is not the same thing as actually having the fighter, but it’s not bad work for not even leaving your borders. It’s also safer, and unlike with the guards at Ras Gharib, nobody gets hurt.

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