Industrial Espionage Against Concorde

Industrial espionage and heated competition have always fueled the fire between two competing factions; especially when they’re on the brink of war. Ever since the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Eastern Bloc and Western world competed to be the best; technologically, politically, and scientifically. The USSR’s development of their own atomic bomb and the race to space are two prime examples of the heated competition between two worlds. However, little did the public know that there was always a threat of industrial espionage.

In the late 1960’s, the British and French aerospace engineers came together as one to create a high-speed airliner. This aircraft would later be known as Concorde, a technological marvel and equally enviable. Due to its enviability, Concorde became a vulnerable target to industrial espionage. Soviet spies had been dropped all over the map to steal information from their enemies and competitors. This was a common practice among countries during the Cold War era. By 1963, the Soviet Union had deployed their spies to acquire information on the West’s supersonic transport. The KGB created a program known as “Directorate T” which was known for stealing technological advancements of their counterparts.

Examples of Soviet activities would be carried out by the Eastern German Stasi. One such operation was known as “Operation Brunnhilde.” This ring of Soviet spies lasted between the late 1950’s and the year of 1966. Though 20 raids occurred from this operation, it is known that many Western European projects and secrets had been potentially compromised. It was found years later that this ring of spies had been involved in stealing early Concorde documents. Swiss chemical engineer named Dr. Jean Paul Soupert had been living in Brussels, and was a member of the ring. He had revealed some of the missions carried out by his fellow spies, and concluded that Concorde documents had been obtained.

While “Operation Brunnhilde” did obtain early Concorde documents, other groups were found to have acquired Concorde documents as well. In the year of 1965, Sergei Pavlov was arrested by the French for stealing classified information. He was the head of the Paris office for the Russian airline, Aeroflot. Much to the misfortune of the Soviets, he was deported. Due to his deportation, the KGB installed another lead spy in his place; Sergei Fabiew, who was Aeroflot’s station manager in Paris. He was later found to have also participated in the KGB’s activities and was subsequently arrested in 1977.

Despite the plethora of Russian spies that were set to steal Concorde documents, there were several pro-Soviets within the countries producing Concorde; they too, helped in the risky mission of stealing documents for the USSR. In 1967, a spy known as “Ace” was responsible for stealing over 90,000 technical documents regarding Concorde. Since the 1960’s, his actions have been closely guarded. Ace’s name was revealed to be James Doyle, a Briton who had been recruited as an aeronautical engineer at Filton. In 1992, a KGB archivist smuggled papers out of Russia, which noted the 90,000 technical documents. According to a 1999 BBC article, the Vickers VC-10 and Lockheed L-1011 were also among the 90,000 documents. Ace was among a dozen or more UK spies working with the Soviets.

TU-144 prototype in Zhukovsky airfield from www.tupolev.ru.

It is believed that Ace is responsible for passing other confidential and highly sensitive projects over to the Soviets. Ace was known to make monthly “tube-meetings” with Soviet spies who would give him “shopping-lists” of items they requested for him to obtain. Concorde’s warning and recording systems were among those on the shopping list. Ace stated that BAC security was completely oblivious to his activities and he had easy access to everything his clients wanted. At the time, none of this information was classified. Ace even arranged a meeting with his KGB client to see the aircraft. In 1970, Ace left the company after disputes ensued from his actions. He changed his name, to “Jimmy Cameron.” Eventually he discontinued stockpiling and delivering documents to the KGB’s, because they had become “too demanding.” Because Ace did not sign any documents, he was not prosecuted. Decades later, he admits he was not a communist, but the amount of money he received was significant. He claims to this day that the information is no more of a secret than the information released to the press by the BAC.

The scandalous espionage that was being conducted against Concorde and her designers created mass publicity, which led to over 100 staff being fired from the London embassy in 1971. This induced a setback against the KGB, which heavily relied on their agents blending in amongst others to obtain targeted information. KGB spies often transported their recordings in everything from towel dispensers to cigar tins.

The scandalous espionage that was being conducted against Concorde and her designers created mass publicity, which led to over 100 staff being fired from the London embassy in 1971. This induced a setback against the KGB, which heavily relied on their agents blending in amongst others to obtain targeted information. KGB spies often transported their recordings in everything from towel dispensers to cigar tins.

Many seem to think that stealing blueprints to a passenger jet like Concorde was not that significant. However, Concorde shares many technologies and designs with supersonic strategic bombers. Because they are so similar, the technology can be recycled and implemented into military aircraft. Therefore, the enemy (at the time) stealing such technology was seen as a threat.

The British manufacture had been warned of potential “moles” within the confines of the project, passing information along to the KGB. Sir Robert Wall, senior management at BAC directly stated: “But the information that was given over must have been virtually useless because the TU-144 (the Russian supersonic transport) was one of the worst aircraft the world has ever seen.” French engineers also had been dealing with the threat of Russian spies. There are unconfirmed reports of one of the agents being a Roman Catholic Priest.

Much to the luck of the West, the Tupolev 144 (the Russian supersonic transport) was almost a complete failure. In 1973, the aircraft had an embarrassing accident at the Paris Air Show; which killed its crew and several more on the ground. After several accidents and failures, the aircraft was pulled from passenger service and only operated mail services. By 1984, the aircraft had retired completely while Concorde was enjoying her heydays. The Tupolev only briefly returned to service in 1997 for NASA’s test bed program.

One question that often comes to mind is, how truthful or effective were some of those blueprints and documents? Because Concorde was being built during a sensitive time, the manufactures knew that the USSR would be after their aircraft’s designs. BAC and Sud Aviation (Concorde’s manufactures) put false documents into circulation in the event of industrial espionage. Many blame the 1973 Paris Air Show accident on the false designs, which had been potentially implemented into the aircraft. After about a year of the Soviet Union’s efforts to steal Concorde designs, the design teams were able to comprehend the intensity of the industrial espionage. The design teams fired back with a humorous touch. A false tire formula, which actually had the consistency of bubble gum– had been channeled to the KGB.

To answer the question of the effectiveness of the industrial espionage, it wasn’t completely successful. At the time, the Russians were behind 2-3 years as opposed to the Concorde team. With little time to develop an aircraft to counteract Concorde, industrial espionage was seen as a necessary act by the USSR. Industrial espionage was seen as an action to “fill in the gaps” which could not be filled in by the technologically-behind Soviet Union. While the TU-144 is still revered by many, it will always be seen as a flop to others– due to its obvious flaws which could not be fixed.