Tags: CIA, Cold War, K-129, naval history, Navy Memorial, Norman Polmar, Project Azorian
It was the most ambitious, expensive, and risky oceanic engineering feat ever attempted â all for the intelligence contained in one Soviet submarine. It was also one of the most secretive operations, yet it was conducted under the spotlight of international media and Soviet intelligence. Sponsored by billionaire Howard Hughes under the cover of an undersea mining operation, Project Azorian attempted to raise a sunken Soviet submarine from a depth of 16,000 feet, far deeper than the 164 feet previously plumbed for a sunken submarine. Renowned naval historian Norman Polmar and film producer Michael White have recently published a book, Project Azorian: The CIA and the Raising of the K-129 (Naval Institute Press, 2010), that offers new details and convincingly answers many of the remaining questions surrounding the mystery of the subâs sinking. Polmar recently spoke at the Navy Memorial about this new book and his exhaustive research to produce it.Â
The K-129 mysteriously ceased communications and disappeared in March 1968 while operating in the north Pacific. The Soviets were unable to locate it, but U.S. Air Force surveillance systems picked up unusual acoustic âeventsâ traced to K-129 and were able to pinpoint its location within 2-3 miles. U.S. Navy submarine USS Halibut (SSGN/SSN 587) was dispatched to the area, found the wreckage and took thousands of photos â showing that K-129 was, surprisingly, relatively intact. Salivating over the potential intelligence they could collect and assuming that it was just a matter of time before the Soviets found it, the CIA embarked on what could have been considered a foolhardy salvage attempt. The likelihood of successfully raising the sub was estimated to be 10 percent, according to the authors. It required an astronomical investment in state-of-the-art and innovative equipment at a time when the U.S. was still heavily engaged in the Vietnam War â a cost the government could not justify at the time. But the opportunity to obtain a Soviet nuclear-tipped missile and its guidance system was just too tempting. However, the project of this scale needed a convincing âcover.âÂ
So, the CIA enlisted the help of Howard Hughes, the eccentric billionaire who predictably agreed to underwrite the project. It was given a fake mission of a sea floor mining operation paid for by Hughes and it proved to be a perfect front. Openly reported in the press and with a legitimate money trail (as the government already had contracts with Hughes and the other contractors working on the project), a specially-outfitted deep sea mining ship was built in which heavy equipment â ostensibly mining â could be lifted from the ocean floor. It was brilliant.
The Hughes Glomar Explorer set out for its historic mission in June of 1974. Its task was daunting: âBeyond the lowering of the âcapture vehicleâ or âclawâ at the end of a pipe-string and then recovering the submarine, the system would have to raise the capture vehicle, submarine hulk, and pipe-string up through an open well. There would be strong dynamic forces at work in the North Pacific even in summer, and it would be necessary to hold the ship in an exact position over the three-mile pipe-string. As the K-129 was raised it would be necessary to ensure perfect alignment with the opening of the docking well or moon pool. And, of course, the recovery had to be unobservable by outsiders.â
Even knowing the outcome of the adventure, the story is a riveting one. Authors Polmar and White are successful at unveiling â peeling back, really â many previously unreported details of this story through suspenseful chapter ends and a non-chronological story arc, one that keeps the readerâs attention. It could have read like an academic treatise, but it doesnât. The authors also convincingly answer many remaining mysteries of the mission â including what caused the K-129 disaster. The book will obviously attract industry insiders, but its friendly prose and narrative style will also appeal to any Tom Clancy fan.
A full recap of all the erroneous press reports at the time also provides interesting fodder and adds some consumer color to the story, lending credence to the projectâs mystique as a bona fide Cold War-era mystery. Knowing Polmar and his dry, sarcastic wit, I can tell that he held his tongue when debunking many of the theories that abounded about the demise of the K-129 and the myriad, confident journalists and authors that subsequently posited wildly off-base accounts. Polmar does not suffer fools, but he held back judiciously in this academically supported thesis. He knows that hindsight is 20-20.Â
The mission was partly successful, but it remains debatable as to whether the intelligence gleaned from the salvage effort was worth the estimated $500 million (1970s money!). A total of 38 feet of the submarine was salvaged; the remaining 100 feet broke off and dropped back to the ocean floor, shattering into tiny bits of debris that were impossible to recapture. The authors allege that the true story of Project Azorian represents a feat that, while only producing modest intelligence gains, was as ambitious an engineering project as landing a man on the moon. We Americans have a habit of justifying the climbing of any mountain âŠ just because itâs there!
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