How the CIA lifted a Soviet submarine from the bottom of the ocean

Lila Thulin

In a corner of the recently reopened International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, a submarine control panel, a wig with slick bangs, detailed diazo blueprints, and a block of manganese are on display. All of them are evidence of a Cold War sting operation so daring that museum curator Vince Houghton compares it to the robbery in Ocean’s Eleven.

For this operation, code-named Project Azorian, the CIA commissioned the construction of a 600-foot (180-metre) ship to lift a sunken Soviet submarine from the ocean floor – in complete secrecy. “I can’t imagine that in any other country they would think: “Oh, we found a Soviet submarine at a depth [более трех миль]. Let’s steal it,” says Houghton. The operation, which took six years to complete, began in 1968 when a Soviet K-129 ballistic missile submarine went missing somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. In those days, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, American and Soviet submarines sailed the high seas with nuclear weapons on board, ready for a possible war. Some reports indicate that the sinking was caused by a mechanical error, such as an inadvertent launch of a rocket engine, while the Soviets suspected the Americans of foul play for some time.

Two months later, the Soviet Union stopped searching for the K-129 and the nuclear weapons it carried, but the United States, which had recently used aircraft to locate its two sunken submarines, found the K-129 more than 2,400 kilometers (1,500 km) away. miles) northwest of the Hawaiian Islands at a depth of 5 kilometers (16,500 feet). According to the declassified CIA archives for this project, “no country in the world has been able to lift an object of this size and weight from such a depth.” In fact, there were doubts in intelligence circles whether the game was worth the candle, even though the submarine was an extremely important source of information. According to Houghton, the K-129 was valuable not only because of the cipher books and nuclear warheads that were on board, but also because it would help to understand the intricacies of the production of submarines of a rival power.

If the US knew how the K-129 sonar or the mechanisms that allowed the boats to move silently worked, they could learn to spot them better. And by 1967, the Soviet Union had amassed a stockpile of nuclear weapons large enough for the two countries to have “virtual nuclear parity,” Hughton explains. As a result, the Americans were eager to gain a competitive advantage – and this advantage could give them the K-129. The CIA came up with several ways to get the submarine that looked absolutely incredible. One of the proposals was to provide such a supply of gas at the bottom of the ocean that the submarine would float to the surface. Instead, they settled on an idea reminiscent of the classic arcade game – a giant claw would grab the K-129 and pull it into the giant hold of the ship through the equipment shaft. Initially, the success rate was 10%. (Of course, this figure increased as the Azorian Project neared completion.)

Legally, the US was concerned that they could be accused of piracy if the Soviet Union suspected they were planning an illegal operation to salvage a submarine. In an effort to bypass diplomatic tensions and keep all the knowledge gained during the operation secret, the CIA came up with an intricate cover plan with the help of enigmatic billionaire Howard Hughes. This aviation tycoon sponsored the construction of a 618-foot (188-meter) long ship called the Hughes Glomar Explorer, which was billed as a deep-sea research vessel. In 1972, the ship was baptized with champagne, and a fabricated ship press release was published in the newspapers.

When the ship made its first test trip from Pennsylvania to the waters off Bermuda in 1973, the Los Angeles Times reacted to the event by calling the ship “shrouded in mystery” and noting: “Journalists were not allowed to be present at the launch, and no reported no details about the route of the ship and its tasks.” Apparently, the public and the press explained this mystery by saying that Hughes was a recluse, such a lover of loneliness that, according to rumors, he did not even appear at meetings of the board of directors of his own company. The Glomar Explorer then set off for the Pacific Ocean, bypassing South America, which was too wide to pass through the Panama Canal.

After some minor adventures (the US-backed 1973 coup in Chile took place on the same day as seven crew members tried to board the ship in the Chilean port of Valparaiso), the Glomar Explorer arrived in Long Beach, California, where more than 20 containers with equipment (including a photo lab, equipment for copying documents and transporting nuclear waste) to study the contents of K-129. At the same time, the team built a claw (officially called the “grab mechanism”, but it was nicknamed “Clementine”) on the huge floating barge “HMB-1” (HMB-1) in Redwood City. In the spring of 1974, HMB 1 submerged and docked with the Glomar Explorer off Catalina Island in Southern California. The roof of the barge opened, and the Glomar Explorer opened a hatch in its hollow shaft for lowering and raising equipment to take the steel claw on board. After that, the barge undocked and, unnoticed by anyone, returned to Redwood City.

That summer, with permission from President Richard Nixon, the Glomar Explorer traveled to the site where K-129 sank. By that time, the Cold War had come to a “detente”, but nevertheless, two Soviet ships (they were probably full of scouts on board) independently closely watched the so-called research vessel, which was trying to get a submarine from the bottom. (At some point, the Glomar’s crew stuffed the landing deck with boxes to prevent a helicopter from trying to land on it.) But still, no one guessed what their mission was, and so far, consisting of 274 pieces of steel pipe that stretched from the capture mechanism to the ship, slowly rose up with a submarine in the claw of the Clementine, the second Soviet ship sailed away.

After about a week of slow ascent, the “Azorian Project” finally managed to get the K-129 from the bottom – but only partially. According to the book Project AZORIAN: The CIA and the Raising of the K-129, written by naval historian Norman Polmar and documentary filmmaker Michael White, about halfway to the ship, several of the gripper arms holding the boat broke and most of the K-129 fell to the ocean floor.While later media reports and history books generally reported that the most valuable Submarine components such as the cipher tower sank, Houghton is skeptical about the details of the project’s alleged failure: “The consensus is that it was a failed mission,” he says. – The CIA allowed this opinion to become generally accepted, and why would they argue? I have always said that we have no idea what they got.” (Many details of this story come from declassified CIA documents and recently released historical accounts, but since the results of the operation are still classified, the CIA has reason to be obscure, and skepticism is We know, however, that the Glomar Explorer recovered the bodies of several crew members along with the K-129. They were buried according to the sea custom, the CIA filmed the funeral and handed it over to Russia almost 20 years later. It so happened that during operations from the day of the sea, samples of manganese were raised, which, according to legend, was what the Glomar Explorer was looking for.

The United States seemed to get away with an elaborate underwater heist, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger said at a meeting at the White House: “This operation is a miracle.” However, in early 1975, after the accidental robbery of the headquarters of the Hughes Summa Corporation, which was working as a cover for the Glomar Explorer ship, this story hit the headlines of the Los Angeles Times and national television channels. The truth surfaced later than it could have: famed New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh followed it as early as 1973, but complied with CIA Director William Colby’s request not to reveal the full story, so there was a lot of inaccuracies. (The code name was ostensibly “Jennifer”, but in fact only security procedures were called that, the location of the operation in the Los Angeles Times report was transferred to the Atlantic Ocean).

But this was enough to alert the Soviet Union and “disturb” (in his own words) President Ford. Project Matador, a plan to retrieve the rest of the K-129, appears to have been canceled just after this supposedly failed operation and its estimated (but according to Hughton not definitively known) cost of more than at 300 million dollars.

That spring, the CIA also faced a diplomatic dilemma. He was pressured by the Soviet ambassador to the United States and FOI journalists, and intelligence officers who wanted to avoid outright admitting that they illegally stole a submarine from the vigilant Soviets, but were forced to give at least some answer. “[Правительство США] did not want to mislead the Soviet Union, says Houghton, mainly because [оно] would in fact set back diplomacy considerably, because the head of the Soviet government would have to respond through sanctions or attack. In order to circumvent this diplomatic problem and comply with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, the “Glomar response” was coined – “we can neither confirm nor deny it.” While Glomar’s response was accepted in federal court as the reason for denying journalists’ request for information, the incident, writes historian M. Todd Bennett, “served as a catalyst for the previously routine ‘intelligence wars’ when Soviet and American intelligence began to respond to each other with more and more mirror actions. ”In May of that year, Soviet operatives increased the amount of microwave radiation they tested at the American embassy in Moscow.

Even forty-five years after the Glomar Explorer (partially) lifted the K-129 from the ocean floor, Project Azorian remains “legendary in the community.” [разведчиков]”, says Hughton. Glass display cases display coveralls worn by crew members on board, fake “premium” buckles, a barometer from the ship, and even the wig of CIA Deputy Director Vernon Walters, in which he secretly visited the Glomar Explorer. Also on display is the name of the engineer, John Graham, and a scaled-down copy of the detailed blueprint used to design the defunct ship.Houghton says the Azorian project holds a special place because it was so ambitious and practically impossible.” And yet, although only part of the submarine was recovered, the ship was built, and the ridiculous idea with a giant claw worked, and, despite its scale, the project remained secret for seven years. The Spy Museum believes that the “Azorian” saga is a hymn to innovation and an example of how “unsolvable problems” can be approached using creativity and new technologies.

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