In the world of intelligence, the most successful deception operation is one in which the physical activity required is carried out in full public view, but the true nature of the operation is shrouded in secrecy. Project Azorian, the 1974 recovery of a sunken Soviet submarine resting 16,300 feet below the surface of the North Pacific, was a singular success for the CIA and the U.S. Navy - despite last-minute media leaks that proved to be of no consequence.
Norman Polmar and Michael White’s engrossing book, while highly technical in patches, tells a dramatic story of how Navy intelligence officers pinpointed the location of the lost sub, and how CIA devised the technical means of hoisting it to the surface.
The submarine K-129, carrying 98 people and armed with nuclear weapons, set out from a Far Eastern Siberian port on Feb. 23, 1968. After one brief “burst transmission” three days later acknowledging that it was at sea, K-129 fell silent. The Soviets immediately launched an intense search, with a flotilla of ships tracing K-129’s intended route, stretching over an area one-quarter the size of the United States. The frantic Soviet activity predictably caught the attention of U.S. naval intelligence, and radio intercepts revealed a missing sub was the object of the search.
The U.S. Navy’s sound surveillance system, created to track the movement of Soviet subs, regardless of the depth or stealth, was once described to me, by an officer in a position to know, as “the Navy’s major intelligence achievement during the entire Cold War.”
In this instance, however, the system did not detect any indication of K-129’s fate, apparently because the sound of it breaking up was of brief duration. But a cable ship conducting acoustic surveys for a planned sound surveillance array site in the Pacific did record a “series of major acoustic events” on March 11.
So, too, did hydrophones of the U.S. Air Force Technical Applications Center, charged with monitoring atomic explosions anywhere in the world. Once these reports were correlated, scientists pinpointed the general area where the sub likely came to rest - more than 16,000 feet under the Pacific. But what was the exact location?
The Navy deployed a nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Halibut, towing cameras and sonar equipment that swept the ocean depths for days. In due course, photos were obtained showing wreckage of K-129. Given the depth, however, could any significant pieces of the sub be retrieved? The deepest previous “raising” operation was of a sub off the New England coast in 1939 - from 243 feet. Retrieving K-129 would be a conspicuous undertaking and, for obvious foreign policy reasons, the Nixon administration did not wish the Soviets to know an attempt was being made to snatch up a piece likely to be a trove of intelligence about nuclear weaponry and communications. (On this point, Richard Helms, the director of central intelligence, out-argued military brass who objected to the costs.)
By happenstance, the oddball billionaire Howard Hughes was receiving media attention for attempts to develop “undersea mining” techniques for manganese and other rare ores. Ergo: CIA would use Hughes’ “mining” as a shield for the recovery operation. The Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. was commissioned to construct a vessel 618 feet long, almost the size of a battleship, which the CIA insisted be named the Hughes Glomar Explorer. It was launched from the Chester, Pa., shipyard in 1972 after being christened by the wife of a Hughes executive, with speeches about how the ship would exploit “a new ocean industry.”
The Soviets should not have been deceived. Two years earlier, an anonymous letter to the Soviet Embassy warned that a U.S. recovery attempt would be made by the “Glomar.” The Soviet military thought any such effort would be futile because of the depth involved.
After a voyage around Cape Horn, the vessel was anchored off the California coast - in clear view of swimmers - and secretly outfitted with lift equipment that would emerge from the bottom of the ship and lift any debris found into a huge “moon pole” at the core of the ship. The technical aspects defy capsulization; you must read this on your own.
Alas, on the first lift attempt, on Aug. 4, 1974, some 100 feet of the K-129 hull broke away, and only the foremost 38 feet of the sub remained intact. Lost forever were the nuclear missiles and any cryptological gear. Material of potential intelligence value, including two nuclear torpedoes, was whisked away. Bodies of three Soviet seamen found in the wreckage were buried at sea.
Six months after the fact, the Los Angeles Times and other media reported that the U.S. had retrieved the sub. Media accounts referred to Operation Jennifer. In fact, “Jennifer” was a code name for a small part of Azorian. Was Azorian worth the estimated $500 million investment? From a strictly intelligence standpoint, likely not. CIA has never commented on what it learned from the recovered torpedoes and other materials. But Azorian certainly caught Soviet attention. Rear Adm. Viktor Dygalo, a submarine division commander, called it “something unreal, fantastic. I can compare it with a mission to the moon in regard of technology and invested money.” He and other people in the Soviet hierarchy realized that what the Americans had done was far beyond their capabilities. What was the value of such a blow to Soviet confidence?
Joseph C. Goulden is preparing a revised edition of his 1985 book, “The Dictionary of Espionage.”
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