Army Tried To Get Data On Soviet Lasers With Bond-Like Sensors Hidden In Consumer Cameras

The service needed a way to get the sensors closer to their targets without arousing the suspicions of Soviet commanders in Germany.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Russia photo


When it comes to intelligence gathering, one of the biggest hurdles can just be finding a way to get close enough to the target to get any meaningful data. During the Cold War, the U.S. Army devised a small sensor that sounds straight out of a James Bond movie, which an individual could hide inside a camera lens to try to discreetly record the signatures from lasers on Soviet armored vehicles, helicopters, and other weapon systems in East Germany.

The Army’s then-brand-new Intelligence and Security Command initiated the project, nicknamed Trivial Tiger, in 1977. Declassified details of the program are included in an INSCOM history covering activities during the 1978 Fiscal Year, which a private individual received through the Freedom of Information Act request in May 2018. Government transparency website then posted a copy of this document online in July 2018.

“A means of delivering these microminiaturized devices into the proper area was studied with the resultant sensor/camera piggy back configuration,” according to the historical review. “[The] object of the project was to acquire Electro-Optics signals believed associated with such tactical devices as field artillery range finders, helicopter-borne target designator, and other weapons associated systems that might use lasers to increase offensive operational effectiveness.”

It’s not entirely clear how the system worked or what kind of data it necessarily recorded and how. The sensors themselves were modified variants of devices that INSCOM had first developed under a separate project called Gravel Stream. Almost all of that section in the history is redacted, with only a portion of the last sentence left uncensored.

US Army troops patrol the Berlin Wall in West Berlin in 1986., Roland Holschneider/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Images

It says “[redacted] position horizontally polarized, thereby changing its mini-directional transmit capability, severely impacting on the possibility of success,” which could reflect trouble with placing the sensors and attempting to operate or receiving information from them remotely. This could explain the decision to convert two of the five Gravel Stream types into the hand-held Trivial Tiger versions. It could also imply that the sensor was recording information about possible laser signatures in a format that could be transmitted via radio frequency.

We do know that the Trivial Tiger configuration was small enough to slot in between a regular Nikon camera and a 1000 millimeter telephoto lens. This had to be the case since the U.S. Military Liaison Mission to Commander in Chief, Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, routinely used these cameras already. Inserting the sensor inside made it less likely that the Soviets would notice anything out of the ordinary.

A rare 1970s-era Nikon Nikkor-P 1200mm f11 lens, similar to the 1000mm lenses that the U.S. Military Liaison Mission would have had access to in 1978, attached to a modern DSRL camera., via Nikon Rumors

The kind of laser systems the history describes were just beginning to come into their own in the 1970s and gathering any information on what frequencies they operated on or their other characteristics would have been immensely important to the U.S. military. With this information in hand, American engineers could devise defensive systems to detect and even counter them. 

These could warn friendly forces on the ground, at sea, and in the air of impending attacks, since laser range finders or designators would be indicators of enemy forces targeting them. This might also alert those same forces that they were under surveillance or that an enemy was just nearby based on those signal signatures. Today, laser warning receivers are a common feature in various self-defense systems for vehicles and aircraft.

And planning to give them to the U.S. Military Liaison Mission made good sense given its unique situation. This unit was the product of a broader deal then-allied powers – the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and France – agreed to at the Potsdam Conference in Germany very shortly after World War II. The ostensible goal was to set the ground rules for the occupation and rebuilding of the German nation and to increase transparency about military activities between the various parties to prevent any confusion or dangerous altercations.

The trailer below for the documentary Keep The Cold War Cold includes video footage that members of the U.S. Military Liaison Mission captured during their operations in East Germany.

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Even as the Soviet Union drifted apart from its former allies and Germany came to exist as two separate countries, the Military Liaison Missions continued to operate in both the East and the West. Both sides understood the inherent intelligence-gathering value and worked to exploit it as much as possible.

The U.S. mission liaising with Group of Soviet Forces in Germany was no different and operated out of a building in the city of Potsdam in East Germany proper with its personnel exploiting quasi-diplomatic status to move with relative freedom around East Germany taking pictures and recording video of military facilities and activities whenever possible. As such, the unit was, until 1990, a highly reliable source of information about new Soviet equipment and combat doctrine.

The Trivial Tiger sensors would have been a perfect addition to the Military Liaison Mission’s intelligence gathering toolkit. Even if the Soviets had become aware of the equipment, it’s not clear how they would have been able to directly counter it short of seizing the cameras from American personnel, which would have caused a major incident and threatened the mutually-beneficial liaison arrangements across Germany.

The situation could still be dangerous for all involved, though. In 1985, a Soviet guard shot and killed a member of the Military Liaison Mission who was taking pictures of a base in Ludwigslust, East Germany. The Soviets claims that U.S. Army Major Arthur Nicholson refused to heed warnings that he was in a restricted area. 

A low-quality scan of a picture a member of the U.S. Military Liaison Mission in East Germany took of a MiG-23 combat jet., DOD

After subsequent negotiations, the Soviets issued a blanket order to their forces not to use force against Western military personnel unless under direct threat. They violated this policy again in 1987, wounding another member of the U.S. Military Liaison Mission. After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the issue became increasingly moot.

We don’t know if the Military Liaison Mission ever received the sensors, though. They were only delivered for testing during the 1978 fiscal year and we do not have access yet to the historical review for the next fiscal cycle. We do know that the U.S. military shared information about Trivial Tiger with its counterparts in the British Commanders'-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany. Spreading the sensors around to other allied elements would have made good sense and increased the opportunities to potentially collect valuable information.

To think that the Army had developed this sensor package, which was small enough to conceal inside a camera without being detected, more than four decades ago, one can only imagine the advanced equipment that the service’s spies have access to now. 

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