During the Cold War, the C.I.A. Secretly Plucked a Soviet Submarine From the Ocean Floor Using a Giant Claw:
Whilst talking of things Russian military and spying, following is an interesting item from the Smithsonian online magazine. If it wasn't true it might well seem a far fetched movie plot.
This weekend the International Spy Museum opens in Washington D C.. Sounds kinda weird, doesn’t it, a museum of things that are clandestine and secret.
Anyway, one of the exhibits concerns an espionage mission that the museum’s curator, Vince Houghton, has compared it to the heist in Ocean’s 11. The mission, codenamed Project Azorian, involved the C.I.A. commissioning the construction of a 600-foot ship to retrieve a sunken Soviet submarine from the ocean floor—all in complete secrecy. “I can’t imagine there’s another country in the world that would have thought, ‘We found a Soviet submarine, under [more than three miles] of water. Let’s go steal it,’ says Houghton.
In 1968 the Soviet ballistic missile submarine K-129 went missing without explanation somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. In this post-Cuban Missile Crisis era, both American and Soviet submarines prowled the open seas with nuclear weapons aboard, prepared for potential war. Some reports indicate that the sinking was due to a mechanical error such as inadvertent missile engine ignition, while the Soviets for a time suspected the Americans of foul play. After two months, the Soviet Union abandoned its search for K-129 and the nuclear weapons it carried, but the United States, which had recently used Air Force technology to locate two of its own sunken submarines, pinpointed the K-129 1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii and 16,500 feet below the surface. According to the declassified C.I.A. history of the project, “No country in the world had succeeded in raising an object of this size and weight from such a depth.”
The value of the K-129 stemmed not just from the code books and nuclear warheads onboard, but also the chance to understand the manufacturing process behind the rival power’s submarines. If the U.S. knew how the K-129’s sonar systems operated, or the mechanisms by which the submarines kept quiet, they could improve their ability to detect them.
To keep the mission secret, the C.I.A. constructed an elaborate cover story with the help of billionaire Howard Hughes. He lent his name to the construction of a 618-foot-long ship, to be named the Hughes Glomar Explorer, which was advertised as a deep-sea mining research vessel. In 1972, a champagne christening ceremony and fabricated press release celebrated the ship. Reporters were not allowed to view the launch and details of the ship’s mission were not released, this being put down to Hughes’ reputation as a recluse and eccentric.
Meanwhile, a team built the claw (nicknamed “Clementine” and formally known as the “capture vehicle”), and installed in the ship. The capture vehicle was designed to be lowered to the ocean floor, grasp the targeted submarine section, and then lift that section into the ship's hold.
A diagram of Project Azorian's retrieval mechanism on display at the International Spy Museum
In addition to designing the recovery ship and its lifting cradle, the U.S. used concepts developed with another program that utilised their precision stability equipment to keep the ship nearly stationary above the target (and do this while lowering nearly three miles (4.8 km) of pipe).
They also worked with scientists to develop methods for preserving paper that had been underwater for years in hopes of being able to recover and read the submarine's codebooks.
Although the Soviet Union had been unable to locate K-129, the U.S. knew where to look. The US had. identified an acoustic event that likely originated from an explosion aboard the submarine and zeroed in on the location to within five nautical miles (5.8 mi; 9.3 km).
With the approval of President Richard Nixon, Glomar Explorer set off towards the spot where the K-129 rested. By this point, the Cold War had reached a détente, but still, two separate Soviet ships (likely loaded with intelligence operatives) closely monitored the supposed mining vessel as it worked to retrieve the submarine. The mission however continued undetected as the 274 pieces of heavy steel pipe that stretched between the claw and the ship were being slowly hauled back onboard. With the submarine in Clementine’s grasp, the second Soviet tug sailed away.
After about a week of slow upward progress, Project Azorian finally completed the lift of the K-129, but only one part of it. Midway through the process, a few of the grabber arms encircling the submarine broke, and a large part of the K-129 fell back to the ocean floor.
The recovered section included two nuclear torpedoes, and thus Project Azorian was not a complete failure. The bodies of six crewmen were also recovered, and were given a memorial service and with military honours, buried at sea in a metal casket because of radioactivity concerns. Other crew members have reported that code books and other materials of apparent interest to CIA employees aboard the vessel were recovered.
The CIA considered that the project was one of the greatest intelligence coups of the Cold War. The entire salvage operation was recorded by a CIA documentary film crew, but this film remains classified.
A short portion of the film, showing the recovery and subsequent burial at sea of the six bodies recovered in the forward section of K-129, was given to the Russian Government in 1992.
The Glomar Explorer was subsequently leased for deepsea mining and drilling until it was scrapped in 2015.