Glomar Explorer - the CIA and Howard Hughes' Attempt to Raise a Sunken Russian Submarine

When the Soviet ballistic-missile combat submarine K-129 sank in 1968, the CIA and Howard Hughes decided to go after her.
Marcia Wendorf

On March 8, 1968, the diesel-electric powered Soviet submarine K-129 was on her third and final 70-day ballistic-missile combat patrol approximately 1,560 miles (2,510 km) northwest of Hawaii.

She was carrying 98 sailors, three nuclear missiles with one megaton warheads, nuclear-tipped torpedoes, and Russian cryptographic equipment.

Soviet submarine K-129
Soviet submarine K-129 Source: Wikimedia Commons

When K-129 missed two scheduled radio check-ins, Soviet naval authorities in Kamchatka became alarmed, and they launched an air, surface, and sub-surface mission to find her. Unfortunately, they had no idea where to look.

On the other hand, the U.S. knew exactly where to look for K-129. On March 8, 1968, hydrophones monitored by the U.S. Air Force's Technical Applications Center (AFTAC) had picked up the unmistakable sound of a submarine imploding, what a source described as, "an isolated, single sound of an explosion or implosion, 'a good-sized bang'."

U.S. authorities were quickly able to locate the site of the wreck, which was hundreds of miles away from where the Soviet Navy was looking.

After two months of searching, the Soviets gave up, and declared their sub as lost with all hands. The U.S. Navy moved in, and in August, 1968, the submarine USS Halibut began towing a fish over the wreck site.

The fish was a 12-foot (3.7 m) long, two-ton collection of cameras, strobe lights, and sonar gear that was built to withstand extreme depths.

The Halibut took thousands of photographs of the wreck site, and even though K-129 was lying at the tremendous depth of 4,900 meters (16,000 feet), she was still mostly intact. Only her rear engine compartment showed signs of damage, and out of it was hanging a nuclear-tipped torpedo.

K-129 was the first strategic-missile submarine to have been lost, and she had been carrying SS-N-5 Serb nuclear missiles, which the U.S. was desperate to get their hands on.

The U.S. was also interested in the Soviet cryptographic equipment. Before Azorian, the deepest ocean salvage of a ship was from 245 feet, and the only object known to have been recovered from as far down as K-129 was, was a satellite "bucket" that weighed only several hundred pounds. K-129 lay 17,000 feet underwater, and she weighed 2,000 tons.

Then U.S. president, Richard Nixon, was consulted, and he authorized a "black" (clandestine) attempt to recover K-129. The mission was put under the control of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) rather than the U.S. Navy, and thus began Project Azorian.

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Project Azorian Is Born

Project Azorian was the largest covert operation the U.S. had undertaken since the Manhattan Project during WWII. It was also one of the deepest, if not the deepest, the secret of the Cold War. Project Azorian was also expensive, costing $800 million, or $4 billion in today's dollars.

The CIA approached reclusive industrialist Howard Hughes to build a recovery ship under his company Global Marine Development.

The CIA created a cover story that the new ship's purpose was to extract manganese nodules from the ocean floor, and construction of the Glomar (Global Marine) Explorer began in 1972.

A public relations blitz soon began, with Hughes announcing that he was building a new kind of ship that would mine the riches of the ocean floor. Even the respected U.S. science program, "Nova," got caught up in the excitement, and they produced an entire documentary on ocean mining.

Glomar Begins Her Mission

The Glomar Explorer set sail from Long Beach, California on June 20, 1974, and sailed to the wreck site. However, recovery operations could not begin before President Nixon returned from a trip to Moscow on July 3rd. Alerted by a possible spy, who has to this day never been identified, several Soviet ships shadowed the Glomar's every move.

The ships included the Chazhma, whose crew took photographs from on deck and from a helicopter circling above the Glomar, and the Soviet naval tug, the SB-10.

Had the Soviets challenged the Glomar, the U.S. Navy had already decided that their "only option would be to sink the lift ship [the Glomar]... the men on board the Glomar knew nothing of this plan."

The Glomar Explorer had pioneering precision stability equipment onboard that kept her stationary above a point on the ocean floor despite high winds or seas. But, the Glomar's most pioneering feature was a moon pool, located in the center of the ship, and away from prying eyes.

The moon pool was a room the size of a football field that had a retractable floor that allowed it to be opened to the ocean below.

A moon pool
A moon pool Source: NOAA - Wikimedia Commons

From the moon pool, a submersible device that had been manufactured by the Lockheed Corporation at its notorious "Skunk Works", and that had giant claws, was lowered down to the ocean floor. There, it grabbed the 300-foot-long K-129 intact and slowly began raising her toward the surface.

Over the course of several days, the 1,750-ton-submarine was raised up one mile, but she still had two miles to go. Then, disaster struck.

When K-129 had been pulled up over 6,700 feet, two of the grabber arms snapped, and nearly 100 feet of the front section of K-129 fell back to the seafloor, taking with it a missile, the missile's fire control system, and possibly some cryptographic equipment.

Engineers determined that the failure had two causes: the seafloor had been harder than expected which damaged the gragger arms, and the steel used to make the grabber arms was brittle at the depths it encountered.

All that was left in the grabber arms was about 40 feet of the submarine, and included in that section were the remains of six Soviet seamen. By total coincidence, also dredged up were some manganese nodules.

“Those who go down to the sea in ships,
who do business on great waters,
they see the works of the Lord,
and His wonders in the deep. ...
-- Psalm 107:23-29

In 1992, the U.S. government gave the Russian government a video showing personnel onboard the Glomar Explorer respectfully burying at sea the remains of the six Soviet sailors.

The CIA Invents "Neither Confirm Nor Deny"

In 1975, a 25-year-old Washington-based reporter for Rolling Stone Magazine named Harriet Phillippi Ryan, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information relating to the Glomar Explorer.

In its first use of the phrase, the CIA refused to "either confirm or deny" the existence of any such operation. This kind of response has since become known as the "Glomar response."

Following her dramatic feat, the General Services Administration (GSA) tried to find lessors for the Glomar Explorer, but without success.

In September 1976, the GSA transferred the Glomar to the Navy for storage. In 1997, the ship was converted for deep sea drilling up to a depth of 11,500 feet (3,500 m), which was 2,000 feet (610 m) deeper than any other existing rig.

A Less Than Fitting End for a Grand Lady

By 2010, the Glomar Explorer had been acquired by Transocean, and in 2013, she was reflagged from Houston, Texas to Port Vila, Vanuatu.

In April 2015, Transocean announced that the ship would be scrapped, and in their November 2015 issue, the World Ship Society's magazine reported that on June 5, 2015, the Glomar had arrived at the Chinese scrapyard at Zhoushan.

The CIA itself considers the PBS documentary, "Azorian: The Rising of the K-129" by military and intelligence historian Norman Polmar and documentarian Michael White, as the most definitive account of the attempt to raise K-129.

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