Incredible Way the CIA Stole a Soviet Submarine During Cold War

Just after midnight on February 24, 1968,
a submarine set out from a major Soviet naval base near the city of Petropavlovsk, on Russia’s
far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula. The Cold War had been playing out for years
in Vietnam in the form of a grinding proxy struggle, as well as in the frozen conflict
in Korea. Now, officials both in the United States and
the Soviet Union feared, the situation was in danger of descending into a direct conflict
between the superpowers. The Soviet-allied North Koreans had captured
a U.S. spy ship. In the context of this crisis, a Soviet submarine
K-129 received orders to head out early for a mission in the North Pacific, its third
in quick succession. The K-129 carried three missiles capable of
delivering a nuclear payload well over 700 miles, and had been in service since 1960. Powered by a diesel engine, she belonged to
the 629A class of submarines, known to the U.S. as Golf-II. Golf subs weren’t at the cutting edge of
Soviet technology, but were still important assets in their arsenal. With an extra large complement 98 officers
and sailors packed on board, this patrol was scheduled to continue through May 5, making
a distant approach to American waters, far northwest of Hawaii. But on March 8, the Soviet base failed to
receive a planned radio transmission from the sub. The following day, the Soviet Navy began sending
a flotilla of subs, other ships, and planes to search for the lost vessel, but with as
much as a million square miles of ocean to search, they were unable to even locate a
wreck. Months later, the Soviet government would
inform the families of the crew aboard the K-129 that they were presumed dead. Because the Soviet command had made no attempt
to disguise the major deployment of so many warships, the U.S. Navy immediately became
aware of the operation, if not its purpose. But the Americans also had something called
the Sound Surveillance System, or SOSUS–a network of advanced audio receiving equipment–in
the Pacific, and they had registered an explosion on March 11. So they were able to surmise that their adversaries
were searching for a lost, and now sunken, vessel. Not only that, they were able to locate the
site of the explosion to within six miles. The Soviets were hundreds of miles off in
their search party, and U.S. intelligence could examine the site without the risk of
immediate interference. To take advantage of this opportunity, in
what was called Operation Sand Dollar, the U.S. Navy sent a specially equipped spy submarine,
the USS Halibut, for reconnaissance. Among the photos it captured were unmistakable
images of a wrecked sub on the deep ocean floor. CIA officials realized that if the U.S. could
access the Soviet submarine, the intelligence would be invaluable. But what they were suggesting was the single
biggest technological challenge in their organization’s history, and one of the most ambitious intelligence
operations in history, period. The K-129 was resting at some 16,000 feet–nearly
three miles–beneath the ocean surface. At such a depth, the pressure is crushing. Ordinary submarines would never dive anywhere
near that. Moreover, the heaviest object ever lifted
from a comparable depth weighed 50 tons. They were proposing the recovery of an object
that weighed 1,500 tons. And they would have to perform the incredible
lift with complete secrecy. If Soviet intelligence discovered the mission,
international law would shut it down. And in the Cold War, a legal battle was hardly
the biggest conflict that could develop between the two nations. The CIA might seem an unusual branch of government
to carry out a naval mission. You might, for instance, think about using
the Navy. There were people in Naval Intelligence who
were not pleased to take a supporting role in what they considered to be their natural
territory. But by now the CIA had for several years demonstrated
the ability to develop advanced technology on the fly, employing engineers as contractors
in secret projects with minimal organizational friction. So began Project Azorian, named for the Azores
Islands in the Atlantic Ocean, for no particular reason. CIA code names were essentially arbitrary. Still, this was really a new scale of research
and development. The technology to lift a heavy object from
the bottom of the ocean did not exist. Even mining and drilling in deep water were
considered a considerable challenge. But that fact actually helped to provide the
mission with its cover. The story would actually be another major
project of naval engineering: building a ship-based deep ocean mining rig. There would be some overlap in the equipment
needed, and the building of a huge recovery ship, impossible to hide, would make perfect
sense. If all went well, Soviet spies wouldn’t even
think to look for a military or intelligence component in the civilian industrial project. In 1970, the company Global Marine was the
leader in the development and operation of deep sea mining equipment. They had that year successfully tested complex
manipulation of seafloor drilling equipment with their ship the Glomar Challenger. Funding the research would present two challenges. First, the expensive project of course had
to get the green light from the highest levels. But there also had to be some explanation
for the funding of the extensive development. To that end, the eccentric and private billionaire
Howard Hughes lent his name as the mining operation’s investor of record, forming a
shell corporation called Summa to hide the money for Project Azorian. Hughes had assisted with intelligence gathering
in the past, and in addition to being a plausible funder, his inaccessibility meant he wasn’t
likely to be a security risk. He may not have even known, or cared, exactly
what the real operation was. But his name added a kind of luster to the
cover story, which received some interest from the press. The Hughes-Global Marine venture would be
the development of equipment that could gather nodules of manganese and other minerals that
accumulated around sediment on the ocean floor. In principle, it seemed like it could be a
profitable enterprise. And since no one had ever tried it before,
there was no hard evidence to the contrary. Early on, the CIA team rejected exotic ideas
like extracting hydrogen from the water around the wreck to create a balloon that would lift
the sub. Instead, they would use what was called a
string–actually a series of steel pipes–to lower a remote operated capture vehicle with
a claw to the ocean floor. The vehicle would have a detachable complement
of legs as a kind of lander, which would allow leverage to initiate the tremendous lift,
without the risk of sinking into the seafloor if it proved semi-fluid. The legs would then detach, and the string
would be pulled up one segment at a time. The ship itself, the Glomar Explorer, would
have a giant, hidden “moon pool” in its hull that could accommodate the submarine, which
measured over 320 feet in length. Pulling the wreck to the surface required
that the vehicle remain virtually stationary in the water, and so the Explorer was outfitted
with a complex gimbal system that allowed continual adjustment in the effective center
of mass for the huge ship. But there was also the matter of the nuclear
weapons. The recovery crew would have to treat the
entire wreck as contaminated, because the material within the warheads would have by
then leaked into everything. Plus, there were nuclear tipped torpedoes. But the payoff would be an inside look at
the Soviet nuclear weapons program, in addition to all of the technology of the submarine
itself. Even more valuable would be insights into
the Soviet Union’s communications systems, specifically, their coded communications. Provisions were made to try to salvage waterlogged
paper to preserve the K-129’s code books and other records. By 1974, the undertaking had overcome all
the engineering obstacles, at least they hoped–not to mention calls from some who were in the
loop to call off the project that was costing hundreds of millions of dollars, with a dubious
chance of success. The ship was its own prototype. The team could do testing closer to shore,
and did, off California’s Santa Catalina Island. But the whole thing was designed for one mission,
and they’d likely get one try. Once the Explorer was in place about 1,500
miles west of Hawaii, with sophisticated, essentially experimental equipment, it took
longer than planned to get everything running properly for a retrieval attempt. There was an inkling of what the Americans
were up to, but the CIA mission had apparently managed to keep intel out of the hands of
any foreign agents. And the task itself seemed impossible, so
it was reasonable for the Kremlin to brush aside fears that the U.S. might recover the
K-129. Still, while the recovery team were in position,
the Soviets took notice and sent a surveillance mission in what looked like a civilian vessel
to contact the Explorer. They exchanged messages in Russian, and the
command on the Soviet ship bought the cover story. This was, they determined, what it looked
like: an experimental mining expedition. Still, not everyone in the Soviet military
brass was convinced, and later a tugboat arrived with much the same purpose. The interaction the second time was, in a
way, both more confrontational and less harried for the recovery team. With the tugboat in close visual range of
the Explorer, the Soviet sailors mooned the American rig workers, who responded in kind,
after which the enemy tugboat departed. This was not the peak of tension in the Cold
War. When all of the components of the ship were
ready, the crew of the Explorer began lowering the recovery vehicle Clementine nearly three
miles to their target, one steel pipe section at a time. The lander arrived above the hull of the sunken
submarine, and the arms of the recovery craft closed and took hold. Up at the other end of the video feed, remote
steering of the robotic vessel took great skill and cool nerves. Once the arms were in place, the remote pilot
began the incredible feat of lifting the enormous payload from the seafloor with the force of
the lander’s legs. Fortunately, the ocean bottom was quite solid,
preserving more lifting power than a fluid base would allow. Once the sub was safely suspended in the water,
the legs were detached, and the rest of the power to pull would come from the string. As sections of pipe were removed from the
string, the cumulative weight dropped significantly, reducing the force needed to pull each time. But partway up, two of Clementine’s claws
broke, and submarine they held snapped. Most of the K-129 broke away, and fell back
to the seafloor, although a chunk was still in her grasp. The recovery team had to relay this news back
to Langley. The first reaction from the home office was
to abort and try again. But the engineers of the Glomar Explorer knew
that if they stopped and reset, they were likely to come back completely empty-handed. Even a partial success had been far from assured. In the end, their boss at the CIA relented
and let the team continue with the lift. At last, a portion of the submarine rose up
and into the moon pool. Everyone intended to make necessary repairs
and adjustments to the equipment, and return to the site the next time ocean conditions
were favorable, the following summer. The missiles–and most of the sub–remained
unrecovered. But a second expedition would never happen. The Soviet Union may never have learned the
extent of Project Azorian, but journalists in the U.S. were picking up clues to the story. Eventually, the Los Angeles Times received
a tip with enough details to report on the real mission behind “Project Jennifer,” and
a popular radio commentator broadcast an opinion piece on the story. Whatever the American public may have thought
about the funding of CIA black ops was irrelevant, though, since a return trip would have required
the same secrecy as the first. Workers now suited up to handle wreckage laced
with nuclear waste. There would be no missiles in this section,
but the presumption was that radioactive material would be everywhere. Additionally, there were nuclear-tipped torpedoes
in the recovered portion. As the crew bagged equipment that might have
value for American intelligence, they also found the remains of six sailors from the
K-129’s last, unfortunate voyage. Orders were to treat all human remains, including
fragments, with respect and dignity. Before the Glomar Explorer returned to port,
the sailors received a burial at sea with military honors, with both the Soviet naval
flag and the American flag on display, and both of the national anthems played. This ceremony was videotaped, and years later,
when the Cold War adversaries had awakened from their decades-long nightmare, a later
CIA director would present the naval flag, and the video, to Boris Yeltsin, first president
of the newly-established Russian Federation. The final price tag for Project Azorian was
$350 million. It took longer to plan than the early space
missions, and coincided with the Nixon era, when American confidence in the government
in general was low, and the illegal abuse of secrecy was rampant. Like the space program, it did offer some
spin-off technology. Almost as an afterthought, it made major advances
in the field of deep ocean drilling, and the Glomar Explorer would later serve a function
similar to its cover story. The requirements of detente with the Soviet
Union necessitated a calculated silence about the program, since an acknowledgement by the
Americans would embarrass their adversaries, unhelpful in strategic negotiations. In fact, it was in response to Freedom of
Information Act requests about the project that the CIA developed its so-called “Glomar
Response,” that it would “neither confirm nor deny” a matter in question. But parts of the project were declassified
in 2010, following the release of Michael White’s 2009 documentary Azorian: The Raising
of the K-129. Josh Dean’s The Taking of K-129, published
in 2017, provides most of the details for our coverage. But the exact extent of the intelligence that
was gleaned from the K-129 remains a secret. Was a project like Azorian too costly in terms
of time, money, and effort, or do the results pay off in the long run? Let us know what you think in the comments. Also, be sure to check out our other video
called “The Deadliest Submarine the USSR Ever Built.” Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t
forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!

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