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Sunday, September 2, 2018

Reading List: The Taking of K-129

Dean, Josh. The Taking of K-129. New York: Dutton, 2012. ISBN 978-1-101-98443-7.
On February 24, 1968, Soviet Golf class submarine K-129 sailed from its base in Petropavlovsk for a routine patrol in the Pacific Ocean. These ballistic missile submarines were, at the time, a key part of the Soviet nuclear deterrent. Each carried three SS-N-5 missiles armed with one 800 kiloton nuclear warhead per missile. This was an intermediate range missile which could hit targets inside an enemy country if the submarine approached sufficiently close to the coast. For defence and attacking other ships, Golf class submarines carried two torpedoes with nuclear warheads as well as conventional high explosive warhead torpedoes.

Unlike the U.S. nuclear powered Polaris submarines, the Golf class had conventional diesel-electric propulsion. When submerged, the submarine was powered by batteries which provided limited speed and range and required surfacing or running at shallow snorkel depth for regular recharging by the diesel engines. They would be the last generation of Soviet diesel-electric ballistic missile submarines: the Hotel class and subsequent boats would be nuclear powered.

K-129's mission was to proceed stealthily to a region of open ocean north of Midway Atoll and patrol there, ready to launch its missiles at U.S. assets in the Pacific in case of war. Submarines on patrol would send coded burst transmissions on a prearranged schedule to indicate that their mission was proceeding as planned.

On March 8, a scheduled transmission from K-129 failed to arrive. This wasn't immediately cause for concern, since equipment failure was not uncommon, and a submarine commander might choose not to transmit if worried that surfacing and sending the message might disclose his position to U.S. surveillance vessels and aircraft. But when K-129 remained silent for a second day, the level of worry escalated rapidly. Losing a submarine armed with nuclear weapons was a worst-case scenario, and one which had never happened in Soviet naval operations.

A large-scale search and rescue fleet of 24 vessels, including four submarines, set sail from the base in Kamchatka, all communicating in the open on radio and pinging away with active sonar. They were heard to repeatedly call a ship named Red Star with no reply. The search widened, and eventually included thirty-six vessels and fifty-three aircraft, continuing over a period of seventy-three days. Nothing was found, and six months after the disappearance, the Soviet Navy issued a statement that K-129 had been lost while on duty in the Pacific with all on board presumed dead. This was not only a wrenching emotional blow to the families of the crew, but also a financial gut-shot, depriving them of the pension due families of men lost in the line of duty and paying only the one-time accidental death payment and partial pension for industrial accidents.

But if the Soviets had no idea where their submarine was, this was not the case for the U.S. Navy. Sound travels huge distances through the oceans, and starting in the 1950s, the U.S. began to install arrays of hydrophones (undersea sound detectors) on the floors of the oceans around the world. By the 1960s, these arrays, called SOSUS (SOund SUrveillance System) were deployed and operational in both the Atlantic and Pacific and used to track the movements of Soviet submarines. When K-129 went missing, SOSUS analysts went back over their archived data and found a sharp pulse just a few seconds after midnight local time on March 11 around 180° West and 40° North: 2500 km northeast of Hawaii. Not only did the pulse appear nothing like the natural sounds often picked up by SOSUS, events like undersea earthquakes don't tend to happen at socially constructed round number times and locations like this one. The pulse was picked up by multiple sensors, allowing its position to be determined accurately. The U.S. knew where the K-129 lay on the ocean floor. But what to do with that knowledge?

One thing was immediately clear. If the submarine was in reasonably intact condition, it would be an intelligence treasure unparalleled in the postwar era. Although it did not represent the latest Soviet technology, it would provide analysts their first hands-on examination of Soviet ballistic missile, nuclear weapon, and submarine construction technologies. Further, the boat would certainly be equipped with cryptographic and secure radio communications gear which might provide an insight into penetrating the secret communications to and from submarines on patrol. (Recall that British breaking of the codes used to communicate with German submarines in World War II played a major part in winning the Battle of the Atlantic.) But a glance at a marine chart showed how daunting it would be to reach the site of the wreck. The ocean in the vicinity of the co-ordinates identified by SOSUS was around 5000 metres deep. Only a very few special-purpose research vessels can operate at such a depth, where the water pressure is around 490 times that of the atmosphere at sea level.

The U.S. intelligence community wanted that sub. The first step was to make sure they'd found it. The USS Halibut, a nuclear-powered Regulus cruise missile launching submarine converted for special operations missions, was dispatched to the area where the K-129 was thought to lie. Halibut could not dive anywhere near as deep as the ocean floor, but was equipped with a remote-controlled, wire-tethered “fish”, which could be lowered near the bottom and then directed around the search area, observing with side-looking sonar and taking pictures. After seven weeks searching in vain, with fresh food long exhausted and crew patience wearing thin, the search was abandoned and course set back to Pearl Harbor.

But the prize was too great to pass up. So Halibut set out again, and after another month of operating the fish, developing thousands of pictures, and fraying tempers, there it was! Broken into two parts, but with both apparently largely intact, lying on the ocean bottom. Now what?

While there were deep sea research vessels able to descend to such depths, they were completely inadequate to exploit the intelligence haul that K-129 promised. That would require going inside the structure, dismantling the missiles and warheads, examining and testing the materials, and searching for communications and cryptographic gear. The only way to do this was to raise the submarine. To say that this was a challenge is to understate its difficulty—adjectives fail. The greatest mass which had ever been raised from such a depth was around 50 tonnes and K-129 had a mass of 1,500 tonnes—thirty times greater. But hey, why not? We're Americans! We've landed on the Moon! (By then it was November, 1969, four months after that “one small step”.) And so, Project Azorian was born.

When it comes to doing industrial-scale things in the deep ocean, all roads (or sea lanes) lead to Global Marine. A publicly-traded company little known to those outside the offshore oil exploration industry, this company and its genius naval architect John Graham had pioneered deep-sea oil drilling. While most offshore oil rigs, like those on terra firma, were firmly anchored to the land around the drill hole, Global Marine had pioneered the technology which allowed a ship, with a derrick mounted amidships, to precisely station-keep above the bore-hole on the ocean floor far beneath the ship. The required dropping sonar markers on the ocean floor which the ship used to precisely maintain its position with respect to them. This was just one part of the puzzle.

To recover the submarine, the ship would need to lower what amounted to a giant claw (“That's claw, not craw!”, you “Get Smart” fans) to the abyssal plain, grab the sub, and lift its 1500 tonne mass to the surface. During the lift, the pipe string which connected the ship to the claw would be under such stress that, should it break, it would release energy comparable to an eight kiloton nuclear explosion, which would be bad.

This would have been absurdly ambitious if conducted in the open, like the Apollo Project, but in this case it also had to be done covertly, since the slightest hint that the U.S. was attempting to raise K-129 would almost certainly provoke a Soviet response ranging from diplomatic protests to a naval patrol around the site of the sinking aimed at harassing the recovery ships. The project needed a cover story and a cut-out to hide the funding to Global Marine which, as a public company, had to disclose its financials quarterly and, unlike minions of the federal government funded by taxes collected from hairdressers and cab drivers through implicit threat of violence, could not hide its activities in a “black budget”.

This was seriously weird and, as a contemporary philosopher said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” At the time, nobody was more professionally weird than Howard Hughes. He had taken reclusion to a new level, utterly withdrawing from contact with the public after revulsion from dealing with the Washington swamp and the media. His company still received royalties from every oil well drilled using his drill bits, and his aerospace and technology companies were plugged into the most secret ventures of the U.S. government. Simply saying, “It's a Hughes project” was sufficient to squelch most questions. This meant it had unlimited funds, the sanction of the U.S. government (including three-letter agencies whose names must not be spoken [brrrr!]), and told pesky journalists they'd encounter a stone wall from the centre of the Earth to the edge of the universe if they tried to dig into details.

But covert as the project might be, aspects of its construction and operation would unavoidably be in the public eye. You can't build a 189 metre long, 51,000 tonne ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, with an 80 metre tall derrick sticking up amidships, at a shipyard on the east coast of the U.S., send it around Cape Horn to its base on the west coast (the ship was too wide to pass through the Panama Canal), without people noticing. A cover story was needed, and the CIA and their contractors cooked up a doozy.

Large areas of the deep sea floor are covered by manganese nodules, concretions which form around a seed and grow extremely slowly, but eventually reach the size of potatoes or larger. Nodules are composed of around 30% manganese, plus other valuable metals such as nickel, copper, and cobalt. There are estimated to be more than 21 billion tonnes of manganese nodules on the deep ocean floor (depths of 4000 to 6000 metres), and their composition is richer than many of the ores from which the metals they contain are usually extracted. Further, they're just lying on the seabed. If you could figure out how to go down there and scoop them up, you wouldn't have to dig mines and process huge amounts of rock. Finally, they were in international waters, and despite attempts by kleptocratic dictators (some in landlocked countries) and the international institutions who support them to enact a “Law of the Sea” treaty to pick the pockets of those who created the means to use this resource, at the time the nodules were just there for the taking—you didn't have to pay kleptocratic dictators for mining rights or have your profits skimmed by ever-so-enlightened democratic politicians in developed countries.

So, the story was put out that Howard Hughes was setting out to mine the nodules on the Pacific Ocean floor, and that Glomar Explorer, built by Global Marine under contract for Hughes (operating, of course, as a cut-out for the CIA), would deploy a robotic mining barge called the Hughes Mining Barge 1 (HMB-1) which, lowered to the ocean floor, would collect nodules, crush them, and send the slurry to the surface for processing on the mother ship.

This solved a great number of potential problems. Global Marine, as a public company, could simply (and truthfully) report that it was building Glomar Explorer under contract to Hughes, and had no participation in the speculative and risky mining venture, which would have invited scrutiny by Wall Street analysts and investors. Hughes, operating as a proprietorship, was not required to disclose the source of the funds it was paying Global Marine. Everybody assumed the money was coming from Howard Hughes' personal fortune, which he had invested, over his career, in numerous risky ventures, when in fact, he was simply passing through money from a CIA black budget account. The HMB-1 was built by Lockheed Missiles and Space Company under contract from Hughes. Lockheed was involved in numerous classified U.S. government programs, so operating in the same manner for the famously secretive Hughes raised few eyebrows.

The barge, 99 metres in length, was built in a giant enclosed hangar in the port of Redwood City, California, which shielded it from the eyes of curious onlookers and Soviet reconnaissance satellites passing overhead. This was essential, because a glance at what was being built would have revealed that it looked nothing like a mining barge but rather a giant craw—sorry—claw! To install the claw on the ship, it was towed, enclosed in its covered barge, to a location near Catalina Island in southern California, where deeper water allowed it to be sunk beneath the surface, and then lifted into the well (“moon pool”) of Glomar Explorer, all out of sight to onlookers.

So far, the project had located the target on the ocean floor, designed and built a special ship and retrieval claw to seize it, fabricated a cover story of a mining venture so persuasive other mining companies were beginning to explore launching their own seabed mining projects, and evaded scrutiny by the press, Congress, and Soviet intelligence assets. But these are pussycats compared to the California Tax Nazis! After the first test of mating the claw to the ship, Glomar Explorer took to the ocean to, it was said, test the stabilisation system which would keep the derrick vertical as the ship pitched and rolled in the sea. Actually, the purpose of the voyage was to get the ship out of U.S. territorial waters on March 1st, the day California assessed a special inventory tax on all commercial vessels in state waters. This would not only cost a lot of money, it would force disclosure of the value of the ship, which could be difficult to reconcile with its cover mission. Similar fast footwork was required when Hughes took official ownership of the vessel from Global Marine after acceptance. A trip outside U.S. territorial waters was also required to get off the hook for the 7% sales tax California would otherwise charge on the transfer of ownership.

Finally, in June 1974, all was ready, and Glomar Explorer with HMB-1 attached set sail from Long Beach, California to the site of K-129's wreck, arriving on site on the Fourth of July, only to encounter foul weather. Opening the sea doors in the well in the centre of the ship and undocking the claw required calm seas, and it wasn't until July 18th that they were ready to begin the main mission. Just at that moment, what should show up but a Soviet missile tracking ship. After sending its helicopter to inspect Explorer, it eventually departed. This wasn't the last of the troubles with pesky Soviets.

On July 21, the recovery operation began, slowly lowering the claw on its string of pipes. Just at this moment, another Soviet ship arrived, a 47 metre ocean-going tug called SB-10. This tug would continue to harass the recovery operation for days, approaching on an apparent collision course and then veering off. (Glomar Explorer could not move during the retrieval operation, being required to use its thrusters to maintain its position directly above the wrecked submarine on the bottom.)

On August 3, the claw reached the bottom and its television cameras revealed it was precisely on target—there was the submarine, just as it had been photographed by the Halibut six years earlier. The claw gripped the larger part of the wreck, its tines closed under it, and a combination of pistons driving against the ocean bottom and the lift system pulling on the pipe from the ship freed the submarine from the bottom. Now the long lift could begin.

Everything had worked. The claw had been lowered, found its target on the first try, successfully seized it despite the ocean bottom's being much harder than expected, freed it from the bottom, and the ship had then successfully begun to lift the 6.4 million kg of pipe, claw, and submarine back toward the surface. Within the first day of the lift, more than a third of the way to the surface, with the load on the heavy lift equipment diminishing by 15 tonnes as each segment of lift pipe was removed from the string, a shudder went through the ship and the heavy lift equipment lurched violently. Something had gone wrong, seriously wrong. Examination of television images from the claw revealed that several of the tines gripping the hull of the submarine had failed and part of the sub, maybe more than half, had broken off and fallen back toward the abyss. (It was later decided that the cause of the failure was that the tines had been fabricated from maraging steel, which is very strong but brittle, rather than a more ductile alloy which would bend under stress but not break.)

After consultation with CIA headquarters, it was decided to continue the lift and recover whatever was left in the claw. (With some of the tines broken and the mechanism used to break the load free of the ocean floor left on the bottom, it would have been impossible to return and recover the lost part of the sub on this mission.) On August 6th, the claw and its precious payload reached the ship and entered the moon pool in its centre. Coincidentally, the Soviet tug departed the scene the same day. Now it was possible to assess what had been recovered, and the news was not good: two thirds of the sub had been lost, including the ballistic missile tubes and the code room. Only the front third was in the claw. Further, radiation five times greater than background was detected even outside the hull—those exploring it would have to proceed carefully.

An “exploitation team” composed of CIA specialists and volunteers from the ship's crew began to explore the wreckage, photographing and documenting every part recovered. They found the bodies of six Soviet sailors and assorted human remains which could not be identified; all went to the ship's morgue. Given that the bow portion of the submarine had been recovered, it is likely that one or more of its torpedoes equipped with nuclear warheads were recovered, but to this day the details of what was found in the wreck remain secret. By early September, the exploitation was complete and the bulk of the recovered hull, less what had been removed and sent for analysis, was dumped in the deep ocean 160 km south of Hawaii.

One somber task remained. On September 4, 1974, the remains of the six recovered crewmen and the unidentified human remains were buried at sea in accordance with Soviet Navy tradition. A video tape of this ceremony was made and, in 1992, a copy was presented to Russian President Boris Yeltsin by then CIA director Robert Gates.

The partial success encouraged some in the CIA to mount a follow-up mission to recover the rest of the sub, including the missiles and code room. After all, they knew precisely where it was, had a ship in hand, fully paid for, which had successfully lowered the claw to the bottom and returned to the surface with part of the sub, and they knew what had gone wrong with the claw and how to fix it. The effort was even given a name, Project Matador. But it was not to be.

Over the five years of the project there had been leaks to the press and reporters sniffing on the trail of the story but the CIA had been able to avert disclosure by contacting the reporters directly, explaining the importance of the mission and need for secrecy, and offering them an exclusive of full disclosure and permission to publish it before the project was officially declassified for the general public. This had kept a lid on the secret throughout the entire development process and the retrieval and analysis, but this all came to an end in March 1975 when Jack Anderson got wind of the story. There was no love lost between Anderson and what we now call the Deep State. Anderson believed the First Amendment was divinely inspired and absolute, while J. Edgar Hoover had called Anderson “lower than the regurgitated filth of vultures”. Further, this was a quintessential Jack Anderson story—based upon his sources, he presented Project Azorian as a US$ 350 million failure which had produced no useful intelligence information and was being kept secret only to cover up the squandering of taxpayers' money.

CIA Director William Colby offered Anderson the same deal other journalists had accepted, but was flatly turned down. Five minutes before Anderson went on the radio to break the story, Colby was still pleading with him to remain silent. On March 18, 1975, Anderson broke the story on his Mutual Radio Network show and, the next day, published additional details in his nationally syndicated newspaper column. Realising the cover had been blown, Colby called all of the reporters who had agreed to hold the story to give them the green light to publish. Seymour Hersh of the New York Times had his story ready to go, and it ran on the front page of the next day's paper, providing far more detail (albeit along with a few errors) than Anderson's disclosure. Hersh revealed that he had been aware of the project since 1973 but had agreed to withhold publication in the interest of national security.

The story led newspaper and broadcast news around the country and effectively drove a stake through any plans to mount a follow-up retrieval mission. On June 16, 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a formal recommendation to president Gerald Ford to terminate the project and that was the end of it. The Soviets had communicated through a back channel that they had no intention of permitting a second retrieval attempt and they had maintained an ocean-going tug on site to monitor any activity since shortly after the story broke in the U.S.

The CIA's official reaction to all the publicity was what has come to be called the “Glomar Response”: “We can neither confirm nor can we deny.” And that is where things stand more that four decades after the retrieval attempt. Although many of those involved in the project have spoken informally about aspects of it, there has never been an official report on precisely what was recovered or what was learned from it. Some CIA veterans have said, off the record, that much more was learned from the recovered material than has been suggested in press reports, with a few arguing that the entire large portion of the sub was recovered and the story about losing much of it was a cover story. (But if this was the case, the whole plan to mount a second retrieval mission and the substantial expense repairing and upgrading the claw for the attempt, which is well documented, would also have to have been a costly cover story.)

What is certain is that Project Azorian was one of the most daring intelligence exploits in history, carried out in total secrecy under the eyes of the Soviets, and kept secret from an inquiring press for five years by a cover story so persuasive other mining companies bought it hook, line, and sinker. We may never know all the details of the project, but from what we do know it is a real-world thriller which equals or exceeds those imagined by masters of the fictional genre.

Posted at September 2, 2018 14:08