Bruce Rule. for 42 years, was the lead acoustic analyst at the Office of Naval Intelligence. In 2003, he wrote
the Navy position-paper on the acoustic, dynamic and temporal characteristics of submarine pressure-hull and bulkhead collapse events. In 2009 he provided the Navy with the first reanalysis of acoustic detections of the loss of USS SCORPION in 40-years, which confirmed that disaster was the result of a battery explosion.
When the GOLF II Class Soviet SSB K-129 was lost in the northwest Pacific on 11 March 1968, the event produced a series of acoustic signals detected by US Air Force Technical Applications Center (AFTAC) sea-floor sensors (hydrophones) located at geographically dispersed positions in the central and western Pacific.
As discussed by CNO ltrser 0051P32 of 21 May 1968 (now open source), AFTAC had, by May 1968, compared the detection times of the K-129 acoustic signals by those sensors to determine the event occurred near 40-06N, 179-57E. That position provided the basis for the successful search for the K-129 wreck by USS HALIBUT (SSN 587) and the eventual recovery of the 38-foot bow section of the submarine on 6 August 1974 by the CIA salvage ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer (HGE).
That recovery operation was observed- but not recognized as such- by two Soviet surface ships whose position for the HGE during the recovery was reported by the newspaper Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky KRASNA YA ZVEZDA (Red Star), issue 5-7 Aug 1991, to have been 40-04-0SN 179-57-03E. That position is 2.00 nautical miles (nm), bearing 180 degrees from the AFTAC position, and 1593 nm from Pearl Harbor. As discussed by S.G. Kolesnikov in “Strategicheskoye raketno-yademoye oruzhiye” published by Arsenal Press, 1996, the maximum range of the R21/04 missile carried by the K-129 was reported to have been 756 nm.
Analysis of the AFT AC acoustic data obtained from public domain sources in 2008 established- for the first time- that the K-129 was lost because three explosions occurred within the pressure hull immediately prior to an apparent dual R-21 /04 missile launch training event scheduled for 12:00:00Z on 11 March 1968, hereafter referred to as T-0. Those explosions allowed that training event to become the firing to fuel exhaustion of two R-21 /04 missile within their closed- but subsequently breached- launch tubes. The AFT AC data confirms these R-21 /04 firing events and launch support system activity occurred over an eight minutes and 36 second period following ignition of the first missile. That launch support activity, apparently directed by a programmed launch sequence control system, remained at least partially operational despite the almost certain death of the crew from the first internal explosive that occurred 62 seconds before ignition of the first missile (T-62 seconds).
This article examines the possibility the K-129 had a dead man launch capability to insure the launch of at least one missile even had the platform been successfully attacked immediately prior to launch. The continued partial functioning of a programmed launch control system for such an extended period after the probable death of the crew and extreme internal damage, including a breaching of the pressure hull, suggests that if modern Russian SSBNs have a similar capability, they may be able to launch all 16 missiles in 105 seconds (open source data) or, in the case of TYPHOON, all 20 missiles in about 135 seconds even after attack (impact) by multiple conventional weapons .
ANALYSIS OF THE AFTAC ACOUSTIC DATA: TIMELINE OF EVENTS ON THE K-129
As discussed in Chapter SIX of Why the USS SCORPION CSSN-589) Was Lost (hereafter: WHY), reviewed in the Winter 2012 issue of this publication, the SCORPION crew was killed or functionally disabled (rendered unconscious) by two explosions associated with the main storage battery. Those explosions occurred 21 minutes and 50 seconds before the SCORPION pressure-hull collapsed at 18:42:34Z on 22 May 1968 at a depth of 1530 feet.
To support that assessment, Chapter SIX of WHY provides discussions of the 2008 analysis of the AFT AC acoustic detections of the loss of the K-129. As discussed above, the initiating events responsible for the K-129 disaster were three internal explosions that- like SCORPION events- were contained within the K-129 pressure hull. These events are discussed below.
– FIRST INTERNAL EXPLOSIVE EVENT AT 11:58:58Z (T-62 seconds)
The first explosive event contained within the K-129 pressure hull occurred at T -62 seconds (11:58:58Z on 11 March 1968) or 62 seconds before ignition of the first R-21 /04 missile at T-0 (12:00:00Z). The T-62 event had a duration (signal level above ambient sea noise at the sensor) of 1.5 seconds and an estimated energy yield- based on signal amplitude – of about 10 pounds of TNT. A nearly constant signal level was sustained for the duration of the acoustic event.
As stated in Chapter SIX of WHY, the assessment that the K129 crew was killed by the first internal explosion is based, in part, on a crew member who apparently had been reading a torpedo manual and who was found still in the remains of his bunk in the bow section of the K-129 recovered by the HOE. Had the crew member been conscious, he almost certainly would not have remained in his bunk between the first explosive event at T-62 seconds and the second explosive event 45 seconds later at (11:58:43Z), 17 seconds before the first R-21 ignited.
Further, examination (not autopsies) of the remains of the crew members found in the bow section indicated they died from burning explosive force before their bodies were subjected to the crushing hydrostatic (sea) pressure.
– SECOND INTERNAL EXPLOSIVE EVENT AT 11:59:43Z (T-17 seconds)
The second explosive event contained within the K- 129 pressure hull, which occurred 45 seconds later, at T-17 seconds (11:59:43Z), had a duration of 2.4 seconds with a relatively constant signal level for the initial 1.5 seconds followed by a high amplitude pulse with a duration of less than 0.2 seconds and an estimated energy yield of about 20 pounds of TNT. The suggestion is a relatively low-level thermal event that triggered a high Q exothermic event (explosion) with an energy level equal to the internal events that immediately followed ignition of the first R21 /04 missile (see below).
– THIRD INTERNAL EXPLOSIVE EVENT AT 11:59:47Z (T-13 seconds)
The third explosive event contained within the pressure hull occurred four seconds after the second event, or at T-13 seconds (11:59:47Z), had a duration of 0.7 seconds and an estimated energy yield of about five pounds of TNT.
– FIRST R-21/04 MISSILE FIRING EVENT AT 12:00:00Z (T-0)
Thirteen seconds after the third internal explosive event, the first R-21 /04 missile ignited at exactly 12:00:00Z (T-0), developed full thrust in 1.3 seconds and fired at full thrust for 95.2 seconds still within its closed launch tube. At T+5 seconds (12:00:05Z), an acoustic event occurred onboard the K-129 which is assessed to have been bum-through of that launch tube. (Open source Soviet data indicates a thickness of 0.88 inches for the QT28 nickel-steel alloy pressure hull and a thickness of 0.38 inches for the launch tubes where they were internal to the pressure hull which included at least the lower half of the tube).
Five additional high amplitude acoustic signals (internal explosions) with peak energy levels for less than 0.2 seconds occurred in the 22 second period following the assessed launch tube bum-through (12:00:05Z-12:00:27Z). Based on the extreme damage within the recovered first compartment of the K-129, it appears the 5000 degree (F) missile exhaust plume expanded almost instantly throughout the K-129 after the launch tube was breached. This conclusion is consistent with the destruction of documents and equipment Project AZORIAN was intended to recover from the 100 foot mid-ships section of the K-129 had that section not been lost as it was being raised by the HGE, i.e., such material and equipment were exposed to the 5000 degree missile exhaust plumes for a total (both missiles) of 190 seconds.
At T+77.5 seconds ((12:01:17.5Z), 77.5 seconds after ignition of the first R-21/04)), a major acoustic event with a peak energy level for 4.9 seconds occurred when, under normal circumstances, the R-21/04 would already have been ejected from its launch tube about 75 seconds earlier. Exactly 77.5 seconds later (at T+l55.0 seconds), another major acoustic event with a peak energy level for 5.2 seconds occurred. The timing of these events, 77 .5 after ignition and 155.0 seconds (2 X 77 .5) after ignition strongly suggest programmed launch support activity that occurred even though there already had been extreme internal damage and the pressure-hull appears to have been breached in the area below the launch tube as shown by images of the wreck.
– SECOND R-21/04 MISSILE FIRING EVENT AT 12:06:01Z (T+361 SECONDS)
At 12:06:01Z, six minutes and one second after ignition of the first R-21/04 missile, a second missile in an adjacent launch tube ignited and burned at full thrust for 95.4 seconds. Major acoustic events also occurred at exactly 77.5 (peak energy for 3.4 seconds) and 155.0 seconds (peak energy level for 4.3 seconds) after ignition of the second R-21/04 missile. The precise repeatability of the timing of those events from the first missile launch sequence to the second missile launch sequence provides additional support for the conclusion that an automated launch support system was at least still partially functioning in the K-129 despite the damaged and flooded condition. Although some components of this system remained operational, the launch tubes had not been opened because it was a simulated launch: a training event. The ignition of both missiles occurred as it would have during an actual launch, possibly because of the three earlier internal explosive events or because that operation required intervention by the now-dead crew as part of the training event that had to be taken to prevent what actually occurred, ignition within closed launch tubes. Analysis of the acoustic data does not resolve this issue.
Based on the duration of the signals that occurred at ignition plus 77.5 and 155.0 seconds for both R-21104 missiles compared to the duration of the internal explosive events that occurred immediately after launch tube bum-through, and the fact that the signals at 77.5 and 155.0 seconds obviously were scheduled events, the source of these four signals is assessed to have been bubble-pulse energy associated with programmed (scheduled) DE-ballasting (purging) of what, subsequent to a normal R-21/D4 launch, would have been flooded launch tubes. Bubble-pulse acoustic energy is produced by the pressure induced oscillations (alternate expansion/contraction cycles) of an air cavity (bubble) created, in this case, by the escape of high-pressure air from the de-ballasting events through the ruptured launch tubes and pressure hull. The at least partial functioning of the launch control system for more than eight minutes after ignition of the first R-21 /04 missile suggests the location of this control system and its air supply could have been external to the pressure hull.
Subsequent to the end of the second missile launch support sequence at 12:08:36Z ( 155 seconds after ignition), only one relatively low level acoustic event was detected by the AFT AC sensors. That event occurred on the K-129 at 12:09:01Z. No acoustic signals produced by structural collapse events were detected at any time indicating the K-129 pressure hull and all internal compartments were fully flooded before the submarine reached collapse depth.
Page 164 of “AZORIAN. The CIA and the Raising of the K129” by Norman Polmar and Michael White, which is based on the documentary film “Azorian: The Raising of the K-129” by Michael White, shows the time versus amplitude AFT AC acoustic data display from which the above timeline of events onboard the K-129 was derived. Both the book and the film provide extensive discussions of the development and execution of the AZORIAN recovery effort with video images of the K-129 wreck and computer-generated images (cgi) based on the video data. The cgi provided with this article is based on an outline of the K-129 wreck derived from HALIBUT photography and video images from the Hughes Glomar Explorer K-129 capture vehicle.
The above K-129 event timeline, first derived from the AFT AC acoustic data in 2008, confirms that some components of an automated (programmed) missile launch support system continued to operate despite the probable death of the crew one minute before the first missile fired at 12:00:00Z. The system was still partially functioning in a flooding pressure hull one minute after the second R-21 /04 had fired to fuel exhaustion at 12:07:36Z.
As noted in the book AZORIAN, a Russian source confirmed that the R-21/04 missile bum time to maximum range (fuel exhaustion) was (quote) about 94 seconds and six minutes between ignition events had been demonstrated during one of the first test launches from a GOLF-II SSB. (end quote) As discussed above, the values derived from analysis of the AFT AC acoustic data were 95.2 and 95.4 seconds for the R-21/04 firing times at full thrust and six minutes and one second for the firing interval. The agreement of these values with known R-21/04 missile system parameters confirms the conclusions discussed above.
This assessment of the K-129 missile launch support system suggests that if current Russian SSBNs have a similarly robust launch system survival capability, they may, as discussed above in BACKGROUND, be capable of ripple-firing all missiles even if the crew has been killed or incapacitated and the platform has sustained significant battle damage.
Further, the stand-off distance provided by Russian double hull construction, adds significantly to the problem of making a successful mission-ending attack on currently operational Russian SSBNs with conventional weapons.
In the case of TYPHOON Class Russian SSBN, the twin main pressure hull configuration-with the missile launch tubes located between the 7.2m (23.6 foot) diameter pressure hulls (open source)- provides a stand-off distance of at least 27 feet for the missile tubes against a midline beam weapon impact. This configuration, in combination with a reserve buoyancy in excess of 40 percent, further complicates an already difficult situation by making the outcome (success) of an attack on a TYPHOON very problematic, even with multiple conventional weapons. The reported design parameters of the new DOLGORUKY Class Russian SSBN (24,000 tons submerged displacement) are relevant to this issue.
The CGI framework image of the wreck of the K129 was made during a stage process of construction of the final CGI rendering for the film The Raising of the K129.
It was mopped from a tracing of the famous Halibut montage image that was made for the recovery engineers at Lockheed Ocean Systems and from a Video Montage made up from still frames of the cameras of lock heeds Capture Vehicle during the actual mission in 1974.