By ABRAHAM RABINOVICH Forty years ago this Christmas eve, five small boats showing almost no lights slipped out of Cherbourg harbor into the teeth of a Force 9 gale which kept even large freighters from venturing out. Built for the Israel Navy, the vessels had been embargoed at the beginning of the year by French president Charles de Gaulle. Their empty berths on Christmas Day and the absence of any announcement about the embargo's termination prompted media inquiries, which failed to elicit convincing explanations. "Where are they?" asked a banner headline in a local newspaper. In the news doldrums of the holiday season, the international media scented an outlandish story: Had Israel stolen back its own boats? A television team flew out over the North Sea to see if the boats were headed for Norway, to which they had ostensibly been sold; others flew out over the Mediterranean. The boats were indeed on the run. Battered by towering waves as they crossed the Bay of Biscay, they dropped anchor in a Portuguese cove alongside an Israeli freighter fitted out as a refueling ship, one of several support vessels deployed along the 5,150-km. escape route. When the boats entered the Mediterranean, British maritime monitors on Gibraltar signaled "What ship?" A Lloyd's helicopter circled the silent vessels but saw no identity numbers or flags. The British monitors, guessing the boats' destination from the media reports, flashed "bon voyage" in salute to Nelsonian flair. Stung by Israel's audacity, French defense minister Michel Debre called for the air force to interdict the vessels which had been spotted off the North African coast racing east. Prime minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas refused. Near Crete, IAF Phantoms roared low overhead protectively and waggled their wings. The boats sailed into Haifa harbor on New Year's Eve, 1970, to cheers for a bravado display of high-stakes hutzpa. For Israel's navy, however, the flight from Cherbourg was no lighthearted caper but a matter of life or death - its own. A decade earlier, it had been warned that it could be downsized to a coast guard because of budget constraints. In 1960, the navy commander, Admiral Yohai Bin-Nun, assembled his senior officers in naval headquarters on Mount Carmel to explore alternatives. Renowned for his exploits as a naval commando, Bin-Nun offered a low-cost alternative of his own - a navy based entirely on naval commandos who would strike at enemy navies in their bases. From two days of heated discussion, an even more radical idea floated to the surface. A guided missile developed by Rafael, the keystone of Israel's nascent arms industry, had drawn no interest from the ground or air forces. If the Luz, as it was called, could be adapted for use at sea, suggested one of Bin-Nun's officers, it might be mounted on inexpensive patrol boats and provide them with a powerful punch. No such weapon system existed in the West although, unknown to the participants, one was nearing completion in the Soviet Union. TO IDENTIFY a craft that could serve as a platform for the concept, Bin-Nun dispatched officers to several Western navies. Their choice was a German torpedo boat, the Jaguar, which had begun life in World War II as a Schnellboot (S-boat). "This is a ship of war," reported the search team after returning from a training exercise on a Jaguar in the North Sea. In 1962, the Soviets began distributing their new Komar missile boat to Warsaw Pact allies and friendly Arab countries. Bin-Nun decided it was time to seek government backing for Israel's own missile boat concept. Meeting with the dynamic deputy defense minister, Shimon Peres, he was surprised by the quick response. "You'll get the money." It would come from the military aid package the German Federal Republic had been persuaded to provide, largely by Peres himself. To oversee the project, Bin-Nun assigned his deputy, Capt. Shlomo Erell, who enthusiastically embraced it. The Luz warhead was as devastating as the eight-inch shell of a heavy cruiser, its range was about the same and if its guidance system could function in a rolling sea its chances of hitting a target were far greater than gunfire. Israel could not think of acquiring a new 3,500-ton destroyer, let alone a 15,000-ton cruiser, but if the missile boat could be realized, it would have a fleet of 240-ton vessels as powerful as a cruiser, faster than any destroyer and capable of sinking any ship in the eastern Mediterranean. In blissful ignorance of the difficulties that lay ahead, Erell organized a think tank of naval officers and asked them to begin formulating the outlines of the boat circling at the center of his mind. Development of the maritime version of the Luz, which was guided onto target by an operator using a joystick, was proving problematic. A maverick engineer at Rafael, Ori Even-Tov, whose alternative suggestions were ignored, was lured away by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), founded by American immigrant Al Schwimmer, and brought to meet Erell. He proposed dropping the joystick approach and developing an autonomous guidance system that would enable the missile to seek out the target by itself, even in darkness. To the dismay of Rafael, Erell ordered the project shifted to IAI. Ensconced in a large, empty office, Even-Tov asked for two things - a mathematician to work with him and a set of basic American textbooks on airborne radar and allied fields. Ground-to-air and air-to-air missiles employing radar to home on targets existed in the West, but Israel was not privy to their secrets. What was available was textbook theory, and this the two men now ingested. For weeks, they pored over the material like students cramming for an exam, pausing to exchange comments and make notes. When they were finished, Even-Tov had a clear vision of his direction. It was one never taken before. He proposed using an altimeter to have the missile fly just a few meters above the sea surface, making it a difficult target to hit by defensive weapons and enabling it to strike at the waterline. Radar would home the missile onto target. His proposal to split the guidance system by using both altimeter and radar was an innovation in missile technology. The Luz, whose aerodynamic features were retained, had been steered by impulses sent to its tail from the ground. The redesigned missile, dubbed the Gabriel, would be a homing missile that tracked the target on its own. But the cone, in which a rotating radar would normally be placed for this purpose, was packed with explosives and redesign of the missile would involve unbearable outlays and delay. Instead, Even-Tov improvised a stationary radar antenna projecting from the missile's side. When at Erell's request he presented his report to Peres, Even-Tov saw a copy of it already lying on the latter's desk. Alongside it was an analysis from Rafael and the air force that Peres had requested. Their conclusion was that, on the basis of the data supplied by Even-Tov himself, the proposal was totally unfeasible. Peres was nevertheless reluctant to drop the project which would enable Israel's fledgling military industries to cut their teeth on a substantial venture. He told Even-Tov he would send him to France to meet with engineers at three of the country's leading aeronautical plants to get their appraisals. At two of the plants the verdict was a resounding negative. At the third, the chief engineer, a White Russian, questioned Even-Tov closely. "I think it can work," he said finally. "But it won't take five years and $5 million as you say but more like 20 years and $50 million." On the basis of that one quasi-positive appraisal, Peres authorized continuation of the program. Meanwhile, German naval engineers, at the request of Israeli counterparts, were redesigning the Jaguar boats that had been ordered, including lengthening them by 2.4 meters to accommodate the numerous systems the Israelis wished to place aboard. Plans to build the boats in a German shipyard were scuttled when Arab states learned of it and threatened to break off relations with Germany. Germany would quietly provide the funds for the boats, but they would now be built in the Cherbourg shipyard of 70-year-old Felix Amiot. BACK IN Haifa, the teams appointed by Erell to develop the overall weapon system now numbered hundreds of men, including naval officers and engineers and scientists from military industries. The highly classified project was dubbed Shalechet (Falling Leaves). The teams were divided into subgroups, each charged with resolving a specific design aspect. How many masts were needed to accommodate the dense electronics array? What kind of engine was powerful enough to provide 40 knots, yet small enough for this size boat? How could launch procedures be made simple enough to enable seamen in the midst of battle - not just technicians in laboratory conditions - to operate the system? The questions were endless and each solution carried with it new problems. How can missiles be launched on the small deck without endangering the crew manning the gun nearby? What to do about mutual interference - electronic, noise, electromagnetic - among systems located near each other? How to prevent the sea-skimming Gabriel being struck by waves in rough seas? The team leaders met regularly to report on progress and thrash out differences. Search radar, which scanned for enemy ships, and fire-control radar, which guided the missile at the beginning of its flight, vied with each other for higher position on the mast; gun and torpedo tubes elbowed each other for position on the deck; sonar argued against being thrown out to save weight. When no compromise could be reached, the Shalechet chief would generally decide; sometimes the decision would be passed on to the navy commander. The project's expanding scope obliged the navy to triple the number of men passing through its officers' courses. The heart of the system was the below-decks war room, the combat information center, from which boat commanders would direct the battle. The radar screens, consoles and communication equipment were state-of-the-art. Information from the boat's sensors and outside sources like aircraft or other ships would be instantly analyzed and displayed to provide a real-time picture of the battle zone and clear options. The flow of information was constant - from everyone to everyone - and the pace manic. Tests were constantly being set, reports presented, contracts for components signed, meetings scheduled. The pace would last for years, laced for all with moments of despair when it seemed mad to have attempted the enterprise, when it seemed an exercise in hubris that must end in farce, if not tragedy. As the pieces slowly began to fit together, however, this mood gave way to a sense of an epic voyage. Looking about him, Erell was convinced that no major power had ever invested as much energy in the design of a battleship.