Israeli Illicit Procurement of Krytron Tubes

Israeli Illicit Procurement of Krytron Tubes

Key Points

·         This case highlights the deceptive methods used by those seeking to illicitly procure or transfer technology to WMD programmes;

·         It also highlights the importance of due-diligence when considering new business partners;

·         Firms should ensure that the companies that distribute products on their behalf have active and proliferation-resistant compliance systems in place.


Israel has never officially admitted to possessing nuclear weapons; however, it is widely believed that Israel has run an active programme since the 1950s, and assembled its first device in 1967 on the eve of the Six Day War. Because of the unofficial nature of the programme, and Israel’s status as a Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) outlier, illicit procurement has been one of the ways that Israel has sought the sensitive technology to supply its programme.

This case study looks at an instance of illicit procurement undertaken in the early 1980s where Israel attempted to acquire Krytron tubes from a US Company. Recently released FBI files, the 2011 biography of Israeli film producer Arnon Milchan and press reports from the time allow a relatively detailed picture to be built up of allegations about the transfer of approximately 800 krytrons.

The case study goes to highlight the deceptive methods used by those seeking to illicitly procure sensitive technologies.

The Technology and its Role

A krytron is a small tube filled with gas which works as a very high-speed switch. It has a variety of possible uses in a wide variety of civil and military applications. Krytrons were first developed in the 1930s for use in photographic equipment. The basic principles underlying their design has barely changed since. In the present day, they are used in scientific equipment and photocopying machines besides a wide variety of other products.

Krytrons are also of use in nuclear weapons in the detonation system in a manner similar to that of a triggered-spark gap. Because of this, krytrons are listed on the NSG’s ‘List of Nuclear-related Dual-use Equipment, Materials, Software and Related Technology’ in section 6 ‘Components for Nuclear Explosive Devices’. [i]

Milco Int. Inc. and Illicit Krytron Tube Shipments

Between 1979 and 1983, a US-based company, Milco Int. Inc. shipped 15 shipments of krytron tubes to Israel without applying for and obtaining the required State Department ‘Munitions License’. The State Department previously rejected a number of these licenses for export of krytrons to Israel. The table below details the entities involved in the transaction and the role that they played:




Other details

EG&G Company

Wellesley, Mass, USA

Manufactured the krytron tubes; shipped them to Milco Int. Inc.

Shipped approximately 800 tubes to Milco Int. Inc.; Invoices provided by EG&G were clear that export of the tubes required a licence.

Milco International Incorporated

California, USA

Shipped krytrons to Heli Trading Company

Company providing expertise to the US government Department of Defence and facilitates exports; 15 shipments were made of krytrons by Milco Int. Inc. to Heli Trading Company 1979 – 1983.

Heli Trading Company


Imported the krytrons from Milco Int. Inc.

Company owned by Arnon Milchan, Israeli film producer.

Israeli Ministry of Defence


Alleged End-user

Deceptive Method: ‘Radio Tubes’

Milco International Incorporated deceptively described the shipment as something that it was not; this made it more difficult for the US national authority to intercept. The krytrons were described as ‘pentodes’ or radio tubes. These are components of use in consumer radio and television receivers. These can be shipped without a license; they were marked ‘G-DEST’ for general destinations and therefore rated as no license required.

Other Allegations

According to some reports, the smuggling ring also transferred other controlled technologies; it is not possible to verify these claims. However, it has been alleged that Milco Int. Inc. also transferred the items in the table below:

Further allegations [ii]

Product / Material


Possible applications


MTCR: Listed under Category II, Item 9, ‘Instrumentation, Navigation and Direction Finding’. [iii]

Missile: can be used in missile guidance systems

Computerised Flight Control Systems

MTCR: Listed under Category II

Neutron Generators

NSG: Listed on the NSG ‘List of Nuclear-Related Dual-Use, Materials, Software, and Related Technology’ under Section 6 ‘Components for Nuclear Explosive Devices’. [iv]

Nuclear: Can be used to  produce a burst of neutrons to trigger a fission event.

High-speed Oscilloscopes

NSG (Previously): Up until the mid-1990s, listed on the NSG ‘List of Nuclear-Related Dual-Use, Materials, Software, and Related Technology’ under section 7.1. Removed in 1998 when the list was updated in line with ‘developments in nuclear-related technology’. [v]

Nuclear: Used to record signals omitted during a nuclear weapons test; have to be very high speed.


Information relating to the discovery of the illicit krytron transactions is scant, but it appears that the discovery occurred after transfers of over 800 krytrons in 15 shipments had taken place. This is not to say that further transfers were not halted because of the discovery.

Implications and Consequences

Richard Kelly Smyth and Milco Int. Inc.

Richard Kelly Smyth was the President of Milco Int. Inc. and was thus liable for exporting goods without a license under US law. When charged he tried to implicate Arnon Milchan whilst plea bargaining to no avail. He fled while released on bail in 1985 and went on the run with his wife for 16 years. He was arrested in Malaga, Spain in July 2001 and extradited to the US where he stood trial.

He submitted a guilty plea in reference to one of the 30 counts against him. He was eventually sentenced to 40 years in prison and fined $20,000 for his role in the smuggling ring. By 2002 when he was sentenced he was 72 and in poor health; this meant that he was eligible to apply for parole immediately and only served 4 years of his 40 year sentence.

Before being charged, Kelly Smyth provided scientific advice to the US Airforce and NATO. As he later noted ‘I wish I had never done it. My wife, Emilie, and I wish to spend the rest of our lives surrounded by our families and peers’. [vi]

Arnon Milchan and Heli Trading Company

Arnon Milchan, the famous Israeli film director, is known to have played a role in the case because of his ownership of the Heli Trading Company that imported the krytrons. However, it is alleged that his role goes deeper than that in newer accounts of events.

A recent biography has alleged that Milchan was an operative working for LAKAM (Science Liaison Bureau), an organisation allegedly set up by the Israeli state to steal technology for Israel’s nuclear programme. No charges were filed against Milchan.

EG&G Company

EG&G Company were caught up in a case which was not beneficial for its reputation. The invoices produced by EG&G did note that krytrons cannot be exported without an export license. However, this case goes to show the importance to companies of making sure that they carry out due-diligence checks on distributers that they do business with.

While it is not so relevant in this case, where the distributer has blatantly attempted to circumvent export regulations, it is also important that companies check that their distributers have proliferation-resistant compliance systems in place.

Israeli Ministry of Defence

Following the discovery of the illicit procurement, the Israeli Ministry of Defence allegedly returned the majority of the krytrons procured. They denied that the krytrons were meant to be used in a nuclear weapons programme.


Najwa S’ad, ‘The Great Krytron Caper’, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, 15 July 1985, available from

‘New Book Recounts Tale of Israeli Agent At Home in Hollywood’, The New York Times, 18 July 2011.

‘FBI Investigates MILCO Nuclear Trigger Smuggling to Israel’, The Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy, available from

‘800 Nuclear Triggers Smuggled to Israel, Mastermind Untouchable- Secret FBI Files’, PR Newswire, 22 March 2012.


[i] ‘List of Nuclear-Related Dual-Use, Materials, Software, and Related Technology’, IAEA Website,

[ii] ‘FBI Investigates Milco Nuclear Trigger Smuggling to Israel’, The Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy, available at

[iii] ‘MTCR Equipment, Software and Technology Annex’, MTCR Website,

[iv] ‘List of Nuclear-Related Dual-Use, Materials, Software, and Related Technology’, IAEA Website,

[v] See IAEA INFCIRC/254/Rev.3/Pt.2, Federation of American Scientists Website,

[vi] ‘US Nuclear Parts Trafficker Sentenced’, BBC News, 30 April 2002, available from