Reviewed by Mr. Lorie Allen Secretary of the Capitol Chapter
Naval Institute Press, 2010
Editor’s Note: The Winter Business Meeting and Lunch-eon of tile Naval Submarine league Capitol Chapter was held 011 February 25, 201 I, at the Army Navy Country Club, Arlington, Virginia. The program featured Mr. Norman Polmar as guest speaker.
The subject of Mr. Polmar’s wide-ranging and entertaining discussion was: Project Azorian -tile most ambitious Ocean Engineering Operation in marine history, which he said was either highly successful or mostly unsuccessful, depending on one’s point of view.
In late February 1968, the diesel-powered Soviet G-11 class ballistic missile submarine K-129, departed Petropavlovsk in the Soviet Union to take up a patrol station in the western Pacific northwest of Hawaii.
Its intended target in the event of war was the United States military complexes on Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. The K-129 was armed with three 1 -megaton nuclear-tipped missiles and two nuclear-armed torpedoes. The K-129’s course was due south from Petropavlovsk. As the K-129 reached Latitude 40° North, the K-129 turned due east. The K-129 used this course to avoid detection by the U.S. Navy’s SOSUS network as well as to avoid detection by the Navy’s far-ranging P-3 Orion aircraft and the submarine did escape U.S. detection.
In March, 1968, during the transit to the K-l 29’s patrol area some 1200 miles northwest of Oahu, the submarine suffered a catastrophic operational accident, and was lost with all hands. The Soviet Navy, unable to raise the K-129 by communications, was alanned and rushed a search fleet from the eastern Soviet Union into the North Pacific in search of the K-129. The Soviet search failed to find the K-129.
U.S. Intelligence clearly knew that something had occurred to an important Soviet naval asset. Although not detected by SOSUS or Navy P-3s on patrol, the Navy cable ship ALBERT J. MYER had an active hydrophone deployed, and the ship recorded several strange sounds. While SOSUS had not detected those sounds, the Air Force Technical Applications Center seafloor acoustic system-an Air Force system-determined the approximate location of the K-129.
The submarine USS HALIBUT (SSN-587), in a top-secret deployment, trailing a sonar-camera sled found the K-129 remains at a depth of 16,400 feet. This was at a time when the deepest submarine recovery-USS SQUALUS (SS-192)-was 245 feet!
Enter Dr. Henry Kissinger, the National Security Advisor to then President Richard Nixon. Dr. Kissinger advised the President that he should authorize an attempted recovery of the submarine to be able to examine the nuclear missile warheads. Enter the NSA at Fort George Meade, which was interested in obtaining the crypto machines and related material. The project was assigned to Director Richard Helms of the CIA.
The United States was thus planning to attempt to recover another country’s national asset, without their knowing of it from over 16,400 feet below the surface of the Pacific!
Project Azorian was thus born. The original task force was established on I July 1969 by the CIA. Because the Project was of such huge dimensions in cost, technical and security risk, and intelligence value(s), it sometimes caused difficult problems for the officials who had to make the major decisions affecting it. Some of the questions did not lend themselves to clear-cut unequivocal answers. But the intelligence value of the K-129 was still great. And there was always the political or physical response of the Russians if they should learn of the deep ocean recovery effort to be considered. Because of these difficult questions, there could not be and was not unanimity of opinion among senior officials in CIA, Defense, State, the White House, and other agencies collectively responsible for Project Azorian. The decision on whether or not to proceed was a difficult one.
On 8 August, 1969 an Executive Committee reported and briefed President Nixon of the feasibility of the recovery of K-129. Following the meeting, the United States, under an elaborate ruse, employing a deep ocean minerals milling venture gained the support and public sponsorship of billionaire Howard Hughes. The degree of Howard Hughes’ direct involvement in promoting the super-secret mission was significant.
Elaborate cover stories were circulated in the press regarding this very profitable new future venture in deep ocean mining and a number of firms formed separate ventures including Lockheed Corporation. But because Azorian was a black program, Lockheed-a Azorian team member, ended up competing with itself Even a number of universities in the United States developed full-fledged deep ocean mining programs for their students to support the burgeoning new industry.
Hughes established a subsidiary, Summa Corporation, as project lead and cover that would develop a U.S. owned asset dubbed the massive heavy lift ship HUGHES GLOMAR EXPLORER. The HOE was a 63,000-ton ship when fully outfitted; it would be as big as a battleship in tonnage. It would be capable of lifting a 2,000-ton section of submarine, using 4,000-tons of special drill pipe in 60-foot sections, with a 2,000-ton recovery or capture module to grab the K-129. HOE would be a never-before-tried, one-of-a-kind system, capable of precisely staying on station in deep ocean seas and currents, capable of lifting 8,000 tons from a depth of more than three miles-without the Soviets watching every step of the salvage operation.
Attesting to the thoroughness of the Azorian plan, the HOE, on Independence Day, July 4, 1974, would arrive at the deep sea mining site she had been working toward-actually, the recovery site of the K-129, one day after President Nixon departed Moscow on a diplomatic visit. It would take several weeks to ensure that the Glomar Explorer would, in all aspects, be ready to attempt the recovery. Weather would play a role in finally deciding when ready for a capture attempt.
A weather hold was in effect on 17 July when the HGE was advised that a Soviet naval ship, the 459-foot missile range instrumentation ship CHAZHMA, was under way on a course toward the HGE’s location and should be expected in the immediate vicinity of the HGE at 0400 hours on 18 July. CHAZHMA carried a helicopter and had sailed from Petropavlovsk to support a Soyuz event, or so it seemed. Measures were taken to prevent the helicopter from attempting a landing aboard HGE.
The Soviet ship closed to within one mile of HGE. CHAZHMA launched her helicopter for picture taking of the HGE at close range, which caused a measure of concern that the Soviets suspected something might be afoot. But mining work continued aboard HGE.
The CHAZHMA would later close to within 500-yards of HGE for closer inspection. HGE would be signaled “Why are you here?” HGE Answered: We are conducting deep ocean mining tests.” “What kind of vessel are you?” Answer: “A deep ocean mining vessel.” “What equipment do you have onboard?” Answer: “Deep ocean mining equipment.” “How long will you remain here?” Answer: “We expect to complete our tests in two to three weeks.
That night, the CHAZHMA signed off saying -“we wish you the best” and got underway to return to Petropavlovsk. The HGE had already started lowering the capture vehicle on the pipe-pipe string hidden beneath the ship.
On 22 July, the Soviet salvage tug SB-10 arrived and began conducting surveillance of the HGE from close range, down to 75 yards at times. Altogether, the Soviet surveillance lasted 13 days and 16 hours before the SB-10, satisfied that HGE was indeed conducting deep ocean mining tests, signaled goodbye and departed.
HGE had actually recovered almost 140-feet of the sunken K-129 while under surveillance. But because of the hardness of the ocean floor around the K-129’s watery grave, the capture vehicle had sustained damage when it was closed onto the submarine hull, and a 102-foot section of the submarine fell from the failed-capture module as she was being raised. The single surviving nuclear-tipped missile was in the section, which had slipped away to the bottom.
In a touch of irony, a 38-foot section of the K-129 was just below the HGE when the SB-10 had completed its last close-in surveillance of the HGE before the SB-10 ‘s departure.
One can only conjecture the reaction and chagrin of the Soviet authorities when they later realized that two Soviet Navy ships were on scene and in effect had witnessed the recovery operation against their lost ballistic missile submarine.
The 38-foot recovered section yielded considerable intelligence value including the recovery of two nuclear-tipped torpedoes even though they had been crushed.
Mr. Polmar’s presentation included a clip from the impressive film Project Azorian, which contained actual scenes of the K-129 wreckage on the ocean floor and of the lift operation. Film producer Michael White is coauthor with Nonnan Polmar of the new book PROJECT AZORIAN: THE CIA AND THE RAISING OF THE K-129 (Naval Institute Press, 20 I 0).