Declassified documents reveal new details of the US intelligence mission to lift a sunken Soviet submarine
Historical The US Department of State in the United States International Relations series published a volume on national security policies in 1973-1976. Among the nearly thousand pages of transcripts of meetings and internal documents of the 9 department devoted to the Azorian project, the io200 publication found itself partially succeeded by the CIA’s attempt to lift the Soviet K-129 submarine from the seabed.
The submarine K-129 was launched in the 1959 year. It was built on the project 629 - diesel-electric submarines carrying three ballistic missiles R-13. All these were made 24 pieces. K-129 was later converted by the 629A project - under the P-21 missiles.
8 March 1968 of the year K-129 sank in the northern part of the Pacific Ocean, about three thousand kilometers from the Hawaiian Islands, at a depth of 5,6 thousands of meters. There were 98 people on board. According to the official version, the submarine was flooded with water through a faulty air intake valve. Americans adhere to the version of the false triggering of rocket engines in closed mines - this is evidenced by the high radiation background in the extracted fragments and the noise from which the operators of the SOSUS hydroacoustic system found the submarine.
The USSR searched for K-129 for two months, but never found. Intelligence of the U.S. Navy guessed what happened, according to the activity of the Soviet fleet in the area of the well-known submarine route of Project 629, and made SOSUS operators listen to the hours and days of archived records in search of something like an explosion. This allowed to narrow the search area to three thousand square kilometers. From Pearl Harbor, the USS Halibut submarine, equipped with deep-sea search engines, went there. K-129 was found in three weeks - by August 1968.
In Washington, they reasoned that the Soviet submarine with ballistic missiles on board was just a gift from heaven. If it could be raised, the Pentagon would have at its disposal the P-21 missile technology, cryptographic equipment and documentation. It remains only to understand how to extract the submarine mass 2,5 thousands of tons from a depth of 5,5 kilometers, and even so that no one noticed. This is how the secret CIA project Azorian appeared.
In the next part of the Bondiade, which appeared on screens in 1977, there was a giant tanker that captured nuclear submarines. Perhaps the screenwriter of the film was inspired by the leaks published two years before regarding the Azorian project. To get the K-129 from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, the CIA decided to create a giant ship, at the bottom of which the lifting mechanism and dock for the submarine would be hidden. It also had to be equipped with stabilization systems, such as those used on drilling platforms.
Ship Hughes Glomar Explorer. Photo: AP
The capture device, designed specifically for the Soviet submarine, was collected separately on a closed barge. To install it on a ready-made ship, the barge needed to be flooded and complete installation under water - so the ship’s assignment could be hidden from most workers.
The construction was entrusted to the company GlobalMarineDevelopment, used by the shipyard SunShipbuilding in Philadelphia. The ship was named “Hughes Glomar Explorer” - according to legend, the ship was built by industrial magnate Howard Hughes to extract iron-manganese nodules from the seabed. The billionaire did not object to the use of his name: his companies and so fulfilled many secret military contracts.
“Mr. Hughes is a recognized pioneer entrepreneur with a wide range of business interests; he has the necessary financial resources; he often acts in secret; and he is so eccentric that media reports on his activities often range from truth to perfect stories, ”the project leaders told Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in a letter dated 1974 on May. It was among the documents included in the current Department of State publication.
Development, construction and testing of the project stretched to 1974 year - and even then ended in a hurry. Six years after the death of the K-129 in Washington, they already doubted whether the game was worth the candle: the Soviet Union switched to the P-29 missiles of a much longer range. The usefulness of the information that would have been obtained by disassembling the P-21 was questionable.
The then director of the CIA, William Colby, however, insisted on continuing the mission, not wanting to spoil relations with hired staff. “We need to take care of the reputation of the state. Closing the project at such a late stage will seem to contractors to be tyrannical. This is an important point in intelligence programs, where security and cover issues require closer relations between contractors and the state, ”he explained in another letter published by the State Department.
As a result, 4 July 1974 of the year “Hughes Glomar Explorer” arrived at the place of death of K-129. The operation to lift the submarine lasted more than a month: it was necessary to wait for perfect weather. In addition, the incredible size of the vessel incomprehensible destination twice attracted the attention of Soviet ships in the area.
By early August, "Clementine", as the sailors called the capture device, was lowered to the bottom on a stepped pipe, like a drill. It was supposed to raise more than half of the submarine at a time - the front 42 meters. However, two thirds of the captured part, including the cabin, collapsed back - the steel “claws” could not bear the load. As a result, only the first 11 meters of the K-129's bow were in the secret dock of the “Glomar Explorer”.
The operation was recognized as partially successful: according to official information, in the raised fragment of the submarine were two torpedoes with nuclear warheads and six crew members. Some employees of the Azorian project later claimed that they managed to “save” the codebooks and other documentation.
Soviet sailors were buried at sea with military honors. Because of the high background radiation, the bodies were lowered into metal coffins. According to the correspondence published by the State Department, the possibility of preserving the personal belongings of the deceased for subsequent transfer to the relatives was initially considered: this could ease the tension if the Soviet Union found out about the project.
Intelligence agents filmed the entire operation of raising the boat on film for the archive department. In 1992, CIA Director Robert Gates handed over a fragment of the recording with the burial ceremony to Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
The wreckage of the Clementines and K-129 had not yet touched the bottom, and the CIA was already preparing for the second attempt. It was clear that the "Hughes Glomar Explorer" will have to return to the dock and substantially rework the capture system. So the new voyage of the “dual purpose” ship would take place no earlier than the next favorable weather season - the second half of the summer of 1975.
The failure with the Azorian, however, came at the very height of the Watergate scandal. 9 August 1974, US President Richard Nixon has already resigned under the threat of impeachment, so for many in Washington, not ambitious projects with dubious international consequences, but “covering the rear” became a priority.
Even Kissinger, who had always supported Operation Azorian, began to consider it a time bomb. “This story will inevitably leak: too many had to be dedicated. All remaining intestines are thin. Yesterday, they kept trying to make it clear that they wanted to protect themselves from the “Azorian”. A depressing meeting, ”he explains his position to the new president, Gerald Ford, in a transcript published by the State Department.
The fact that the Azorian project was about to become public was best understood by the CIA. In January, 1974, about their project, was learned by NewYorkTimes journalist Seymour Hersh. The director of the department, William Colby, met him twice, urging him to postpone the publication of the investigation because of the threat of an international scandal.
The second meeting between Hersh and Colby took place on 10 February 1975 of the year. But three days earlier, LosAngelesTimes wrote about the true purpose of Hughes Glomar Explorer. The newspaper learned about the secret project due to its own oversight by the CIA.
5 June 1974, the office of one of the companies working on the Glomar Explorer, was robbed. In addition to money, the criminals carried out four boxes of documents. Among them could be a memo with the description of the Azorian project - if it was not properly destroyed after reading.
A few months later, a man turned to the Los Angeles police who identified himself as the intermediary of those in whose hands the documents turned out to be. The latter demanded $ 500 thousands for them. The CIA tried to find out if there was a description of “Azarian” among the papers, and told about the FBI note. Those handed over to the police, and the latter asked the intermediary.
So this story came to the Los Angeles Times. Their first article was short, with many inaccuracies and dubious sources, so the CIA continued to insist on the silence of journalists who knew the details of the case. But 18 March, 1975, columnist Jack Anderson publicly announced his intention to reveal all the details. It untied the rest: The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times came up with editorials on the Glomar Explorer.
Hersh and colleagues mistakenly called the secret project “Jennifer” - this code name was used on all documents to designate a category of secrecy. In the CIA and the US Department of Defense, a system of blocks of information has priority over general levels of admission: classified documents and objects are divided into conditional “cells”, the right of access to each of which is determined by additional criteria - service needs, guarantees, and so on.
The Ford administration decided to ignore publications in the press. The temptation to admit the existence of a grand project, of course, was great. “This episode is an important achievement of America. This operation is a technical miracle with preservation of secrecy, ”said Defense Minister James Schlesinger at a meeting between the President and the 19 power unit in March 1975 (the transcript was declassified in 2010).
Further publicity, however, could force the USSR to take retaliatory actions, therefore the Azorian project remained secret. The CIA responded to official requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with the words "we can neither confirm nor deny". This phrase is now called the “response of Glomar” or “glomarization”.
A sharp reaction was expected from the Soviet Union, as to the incident with the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft in 1960. Moscow was silent. According to the CIA, the Kremlin chose not to publicly acknowledge the loss of the submarine, the inability to find the place of its death, and the failure of intelligence regarding the ship Glomar Explorer.
In the same report of April 1975, analysts of the CIA warned: "There is no doubt that the Soviets will do everything possible to complicate or thwart the second attempt." Pairs of divers armed with several meters of cable would be enough to damage a device like the Clementines. And most importantly, in the USSR they now knew where K-129 rests.
As a result, the US authorities refused to attempt to raise the remnants of the Soviet submarine. In June 1975, Kissinger wrote to Ford: “It is now clear that the Soviets do not intend to allow us to freely carry out a second mission. The Soviet tugboat is on duty from March 28, and by all indications will remain there. Our capture system is vulnerable to the most innocent events at sea, such as a boat passing too close and “accidentally” touching a ship. The threat of a more aggressive hostile reaction is also present, right up to direct confrontation with the ships of the Soviet Navy. ”
According to the official version, the Azorian project was closed on this. Glomar Explorer really was retooled for deepwater drilling, and in 2010 was sold to another company.
Now the Azorian project remains secret. Most of the available reliable information became known only in 2010 year. At that time, the already mentioned transcript of the Ford meeting with the security forces and a well-censored article 1985 of the year from the internal CIA journal were published. It is still not clear what the Americans were able to lift from the bottom, in addition to the torpedoes and seamen’s bodies, are hidden many details of the mission planning and ship preparation, including the designation of some field laboratories stationed on board at the last moment.
But it is known how much three presidential administrations of the United States spent on a secret project - $ 800 million. In terms of modern dollars it is almost $ 4 billion. The Azorian has become one of the most expensive secret operations of the Cold War.