Published by the Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD. 2010
Reviewed by Mr. John D. Alden
The end result was unimpressive: after a six-year effort the CIA managed to recover a relatively insignificant section of an almost-obsolescent Soviet submarine from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, while the desired missile and control compartment slipped out between broken claws of the grab device. One is immediately reminded of the recent Macondo oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico at a depth of over 4,000 feet, which was finally sealed by an intercepting well some 2Yi miles below the sea floor. The ill-fated drill rig Deepwater Horizon only a year before had completed the deepest well in history at 35,050 feet in 4,132 feet of water.
The difference is that the salvage of the K-129 took place in the mid-Pacific Ocean 36 years earlier, using technology then “well beyond the state-of-the-art in numerous engineering and scientific disciplines.” Just locating and photographing the wreck earned the USS HALIBUT (SSN 587) a Presidential Unit Citation. The grab itself was at the end of a 16,800-foot, or over three miles long, string of drilling pipe, the whole- including the object to be lifted-weighing some 8,000 tons. This was suspended from a massive stabilized platform that held the lifting rig steady despite the constant motion of the ship. Not only that, the super-secret project was carried out under the very noses of Soviet spy ships, as well as hidden from the inquisitive world press, in the guise of the highly-visible Hughes Glomar Explorer, a ship ostensibly intended to mine manganese modules from the deep ocean floor .
How U.S. acoustic experts were able to locate a sunken sub-marine that the Soviet navy couldn’t find, American engineers designed and built an unprecedented ship and lifting system, and proponents of the project succeeded in extracting the necessary funding, is all spelled out and expertly illustrated by naval analyst Polmar and TV producer White in fascinating detail. Along the way they deconstruct years of misinformation and conspiracy theories published by earlier authors, thanks largely to a newly-released-although severely redacted-CIA account of the operation plus information from key former-Soviet sources.
Three decades later, Project Azorian is still justly rated as “history’s most ambitious ocean engineering effort.” Ironically, it even picked up a few unsought manganese nodules in the process.