Technological espionage: the incredible rescue of a Soviet submarine organized by the CIA | Technology
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In the early hours of March 11-12, 1968, hydrophones located at the bottom of the Pacific detected two underwater explosions. By measuring the delay recorded by each station, they were able to establish its origin and probable nature: just over the international date line, about two thousand kilometers southeast of the tip of the Kamchatka peninsula, a submarine had just suffered a terrible catastrophe.
It was Soviet, specifically the so-called K-129, which a few days ago had left its Petropavlosk base on routine patrol. It was a not particularly modern diesel model but it was aggressive: it was loaded with three one-megaton nuclear missiles, each capable of destroying a city.
The Soviet Admiralty immediately sent rescue ships to the area where they estimated the sinking had occurred, a move that alerted Western secret services. But the operation was unsuccessful. The depth of the ocean in the area was almost 5,000 meters. After two months of unsuccessful attempts, the search was called off. The K-129, with its crew of 83 men, was considered lost without being able to determine the causes.
The incident intrigued the US Navy enough to investigate what happened. Six months later, he sent another submersible to the area, the halibut, cWith the mission of locating and photographing the remains that should be found in the position marked by the hydrophones.
The halibut it was an old nuclear submarine adapted to dedicate it to “special operations”. A fancy way of saying “espionage.” The missile launch ramp was removed and reinforced with equipment no other submersible had: precision satellite targeting systems, state-of-the-art sonar and a Univac computer. And a couple of cable-controlled scout pods, too. They were called, quite appropriately, “the fish.” Fish that weighed two tons and had cost five million dollars each.
For two months, the halibut He was coming and going through the area where the explosion had been detected, dragging a “fish” in search of the remains of K-129. It was not an easy operation. The robot had to fly over the bottom at a height of a few meters, which required a towing cable of more than eight kilometers. The sub was forced to maintain an exquisitely precise course and speed, lest its payload sink into the ground. To avoid obstacles, in total darkness, the “fish” had only the pulses that its sonar sent to the controllers of the halibut. It also carried some cameras and spotlights for great depths but the beam only illuminated a limited area of the bottom. In that small rectangle of light the remains of the shipwreck should appear at some point.
The team recorded tens of thousands of photos of the bottom. The majority, nondescript although in some abyssal fish appeared clueless. But finally, the effort paid off: one of the images showed part of the turret of a submarine. It was so close that it was necessary to assemble a mosaic of several photos to have an overall view.
It was K-129, lying in the bottom on her starboard side. It was split in two: The bow section was about a hundred feet long. The aft one, with the propulsion equipment, had landed a few dozen meters away. The part of the turret, where the three vertical missile tubes should have been, was damaged. One had disappeared, perhaps due to an explosion; the second seemed empty but the third kept the seal that protected the missile. And inside the hull must be found still other equipment of interest such as encrypted transmitters and code books.
The interest of the CIA and Nixon
The American commanders discussed the possibility of opening a hole that would allow a submarine robot to enter and perhaps recover some element. But the idea was soon abandoned. The possible loot did not justify the cost and complexity of the operation. The K-129 was an old submarine. In the three years since its sinking, much of its equipment—particularly its missiles—had become obsolete.
Until then, it was the Navy that had been in control of the operation. But when the CIA learned of the discovery, its specialists conceived a much more daring plan: to recover the entire bow section of the submarine along with its contents, missile and torpedoes included.
The project reached the ears of Henry Kissinger and from there, to President Nixon. Both were enthusiastic and thus began an operation worthy of the best spy novels.
The CIA commissioned the construction of a huge ship that would serve as a platform from which to raise the submarine. At 180 meters long, it was longer than a destroyer of the time, its superstructure was crowned by a tower similar to those used for drilling oil wells, and fore and aft it had propellers embedded in the hull to allow fine position adjustments when at anchor.
The project was classified as top secret but, naturally, the construction of such a peculiar ship would not go unnoticed, so a screen had to be found to hide its true mission. The CIA found someone they had branded as a trustworthy patriot: Howard Hughes, the paranoid millionaire who lived in seclusion on the top floor of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. Hughes agreed to form a shell company dedicated to mineral exploration on the seabed. To make it very clear, the ship would bear his name: Hughes Glomar Explorer. Officially it was nothing more than a platform to collect manganese nodules on the bottom of the Pacific.
At the same time, the agency had hired another vital piece: Lockheed Aircraft. This company had experience in highly secretive jobs, including the construction of the legendary U-2 and SR-71 spy planes. Lockheed would be in charge of preparing the mechanism of the enormous claw capable of grabbing the submarine to raise it to the surface. The contraption would be carried to the Glomar Explorer in a submersible barge to be able to install it under its keel without fear of prying eyes and once the operation was finished, that same raft would serve to hide the trophy.
After almost four years of preparations and a long journey, the Glomar Explorer he got to the point where he was to do his job in the summer of 1974. It was a relatively calm time on the ocean, a calm that would not last more than a few weeks. First of all, it was necessary to ensure that the ship would always remain on its target. Sonic beacons were installed on the bottom and also connection to navigation satellites. There was no GPS yet; just military Transit satellites that essentially worked by taking advantage of the Doppler effect and offered less accuracy than a current car navigator.
The capture claw would not be lowered on a cable from a rigid tube made up of thirty-foot sections, neatly stored in the hold. Each new section was assembled using the “drill tower” located amidships. A crane entered it vertically from the top and a vise gripped it and threaded with the section immediately below. The entire structure could tilt to compensate for rocking. The system was inspired by the drills used in oil prospecting, although, of course, working at a depth of 5,000 meters had never been attempted.
Just as the operation was about to begin, the Glomar Explorer received the sight of a Russian oceanographic vessel. She was bristling with antennae, suggesting an interest that went beyond mere science. But the official explanation that it was an underwater mining test was enough to convince their captain that he left wishing them luck.
Getting to the bottom meant assembling more than five hundred sections of pipe. At six minutes per section and accounting for inevitable delays, the operation would take weeks. When the level of one thousand meters had already been passed, a new visitor appeared: a Russian deep-sea tugboat, equally intrigued by that strange ship. Again, the explanations were convincing. Even if the Soviets had launched divers, they would have only seen a long tube sinking into the depths, something perfectly innocent. That yes, the tugboat would continue in the area, curious for days what the “mining” operations were developing.
Finally, the capture mechanism came to be placed exactly on the submarine thanks to the adjustment provided by several propellers driven by electric motors. It was not a simple claw but a four-legged frame that would rest on the bottom as the jaws closed around the sub’s hull. Hydraulic pistons should lift it out of the ground without straining the long hoist tube. Video and sonar cameras would allow the entire process to be followed from five kilometers above.
Thus began the slow ascent of the dam. To lighten the load, the legs and pistons were abandoned on the seabed. It would take more than two days of effort as the ship creaked under the combined weight of the submarine and the lifting tube. Suddenly, when they had already traveled more than two kilometers vertically, part of the fastening nails gave way. The submersible’s hull, already greatly weakened, split in two, the larger section sinking back into the depths, taking the missile bay with it. Upon hitting the bottom, it shattered into hundreds of unrecoverable pieces. Only a relatively minor piece remained in the jaws and was hoisted aboard.
An inspection of its interior found some torpedoes, but no communication equipment or codebooks. At least, that’s the official CIA version. Also the remains of six crew members, four of whom could be identified. aboard the Glomar Explorer a funeral was held according to Russian and American traditions and the bodies were returned to the sea. The ceremony was filmed by agency staff and handed over years later to Russian authorities. The film of the rest of the operation remains undisclosed.
The recovery of the submarine K-129 was a boast both from a technical point of view and for the fact that it was carried out in the utmost secrecy. And so it would have remained if it had not been for some leaks in the press that uncovered the operation in March 1975. Since then there have been many attempts to find out details of what had been known under the code names of “Azorian” or “project Jennifer”. Over the years, half a dozen books have been written based on interviews with those who were first-hand protagonists. The CIA has also published a very generic version, still with censored paragraphs. But the real, complete story remains hidden in some highly secure file.
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