Project Azorian

Project Azorian
Hughes Glomar Explorer

Coordinates: 40°06′N 179°54′E / 40.1°N 179.9°E / 40.1; 179.9[1] "AZORIAN" (erroneously called JENNIFER after its Top Secret Security Compartment by the press)[2] was the code name for a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) project to recover the sunken Soviet submarine K-129 from the Pacific Ocean floor in the summer of 1974, using the purpose-built ship Hughes Glomar Explorer.[3] The 1968 sinking of the K-129 occurred approximately 1,560 nautical miles (2,890 km) northwest of Hawaii.[4] Project Azorian was one of the most complex, expensive, and secretive intelligence operations of the Cold War at a cost of about $800 million ($3.6 billion in 2011 dollars). In addition to designing the high tech recovery ship and its unique lifting cradle, the U.S. used concepts developed with Global Marine (see Project Mohole) that utilized their precision stability equipment to keep the ship nearly stationary above the target (and do this while lowering nearly three miles of pipe). They 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. The exact reasons why this project was undertaken are unknown, but likely reasons included the recovery of an intact nuclear missile (R-21 (missile) also known as NATO SS-N-5-SERB), and cryptological documents and equipment. After the Soviet Union performed their unsuccessful search for the K-129, the U.S. searched diligently and used acoustic data from four AFTAC sites and the Adak SOSUS array to pinpoint the location within 2 nautical miles, and the USS Halibut submarine used the Fish: a towed, 12 foot, 2 ton collection of cameras, strobe lights, and sonar to detect seafloor objects and built to withstand extreme depths. The recovery operation commenced covertly (in international waters) about 6 years later with a supposed commercial purpose: mining the sea floor for manganese nodules under the cover of Howard Hughes and the Hughes Glomar Explorer[5]


The Target: the wreck of the K-129

In April 1968, Soviet Pacific Fleet surface and air assets were observed conducting a surge deployment to the North Pacific Ocean that involved some unusual search operations. The activity was evaluated by U.S. Navy Intelligence as a possible reaction to the loss of a Soviet submarine. Soviet surface ship searches were centered on a location known to be associated with Soviet Golf II Class SSB strategic ballistic missile diesel submarine patrol routes. These submarines carried three nuclear missiles in an extended sail/conning tower and routinely deployed to within missile range of the U.S. west coast. The American SOSUS (Sea Spider) hydrophone network in the northern Pacific was tasked with reviewing its recordings in the hopes of detecting an implosion (or explosion) related to such a loss. Naval Facility (NAVFAC) Point Sur, south of Monterey, California, was able to isolate a sonic signature on its low frequency array (LOFAR) recordings of an implosion event that had occurred on March 8, 1968 (for which they received a Meritorious Unit Commendation in 1969).[citation needed] Using NavFac Point Sur's date and time of the event, NavFac Adak and the U.S. West Coast NAVFAC were also able to isolate the acoustic event. With five SOSUS lines-of-bearing, Naval Intelligence was able to localize the site of the K-129 wreck to the vicinity of 40º N latitude and 180º longitude (International Date Line).[6]

After weeks of search, the Soviets were unable to locate their sunken boat, and Soviet Pacific Fleet operations gradually returned to a normal level. In July 1968, the U.S. Navy initiated "Operation Sand Dollar" with the deployment of USS Halibut from Pearl Harbor to the wreck site. Sand Dollar's objective was to find and photograph the K-129. In 1965, Halibut had been configured to use deep submergence search equipment, the only such specially-equipped submarine then in U.S. inventory. Despite a SOSUS-provided locus containing over 1,200 square miles (3,100 km2) of search area, and a wreck located over 3 miles (4.8 km) in depth, Halibut almost miraculously located the wreck after only three weeks of at-depth visual search utilizing robotic remote-controlled cameras. (Compare this to almost 5 months of open and unrestricted search required to locate the wreck of the U.S. nuclear-powered submarine Scorpion in the Atlantic, also in 1968). Halibut is reported to have spent the next several weeks taking over 20,000 closeup photos of every aspect of the K-129 wreck, a feat for which Halibut received a special classified Presidential Unit Citation signed by Lyndon Johnson in 1968.

In 1970, based upon this photography, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and Henry Kissinger, then National Security Advisor, proposed a clandestine plan to recover the wreckage so that the U.S. could study Soviet nuclear missile technology, as well as possibly recover cryptographic materials. The proposal was accepted by President Nixon and the CIA was tasked to attempt the recovery.

Building the Glomar Explorer, and its cover story

Global Marine Development Inc., the research and development arm of Global Marine Inc., a pioneer in deepwater offshore drilling operations, was contracted to design, build and operate the "Hughes Glomar Explorer" in order to secretly salvage the sunken Soviet submarine from the ocean floor. The ship was built at the Sun Shipbuilding yard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Billionaire businessman Howard Hughes — whose companies were already contractors on numerous classified US military weapons, aircraft and satellite contracts[citation needed] — agreed to lend his name to the project in order to support the cover story that the ship was mining manganese nodules from the ocean floor, but Hughes and his companies had no actual involvement in the project. The K-129 was photographed at a depth of over 16,000 feet (4,900 m), and thus the salvage operation would be well beyond the depth of any ship salvage operation ever before attempted.[citation needed] On November 1, 1972, work began on the 63,000-short-ton (57,000 t), 619-foot-long (189 m) Hughes Glomar Explorer (HGE).


Recovery site of K-129

The Hughes Glomar Explorer (HGE) employed a large mechanical claw, which Lockheed officially titled the "Capture Vehicle" (CV) but affectionately called Clementine. The capture vehicle was designed to be lowered to the ocean floor, grasp around the targeted submarine section, and then lift that section into the ship's hold. One requirement of this technology was to keep the floating base stable and in position over a fixed point 16,000 feet (4,900 m) below the ocean surface.

The capture vehicle was lowered and raised on a pipe string similar to those used on oil drilling rigs. Section by section, 60-foot (18 m) steel pipes were strung together to lower the claw through a hole in the middle of the ship. This configuration was designed by Western Gear Corp. of Everett, Washington. Upon a successful capture by the claw, the lift reversed the process — 60-foot (18 m) sections drawn up and removed one at a time. The salvaged "Target Object" was thus to be drawn into a huge compartment in the middle of the ship, called the Moon Pool by its crew, and the outer doors of the Moon Pool closed to form a floor for the salvaged section. This allowed for the entire salvage process to take place underwater, away from the view of other ships, aircraft, or spy satellites.

Sailing 3,008 nautical miles (5,571 km) from Long Beach, California on June 20, 1974, Hughes Glomar Explorer arrived at the recovery site July 4 and conducted salvage operations for over a month. During this period, at least two Soviet Navy ships visited the Glomar Explorer's worksite, the ocean going tug "SB-10", and the Soviet Missile Range Instrumentation Ship (SMRIS) "Chazma".[4]

US Major General Roland Lajoie stated that - according to a briefing he received by the CIA - during recovery operations, "Clementine" suffered a catastrophic failure, causing two-thirds of the already raised portion of K-129 to sink back to the ocean floor. Former Lockheed and Hughes Global Marine employees who worked on the operation have stated that several of the "claws" intended to grab the submarine fractured, possibly because they were manufactured from maraging steel, which is very strong, but not very ductile compared with other kinds of steel. Thus many[who?] have characterized Project Azorian as an intelligence failure.

However, the recovered section did include two nuclear torpedoes, and thus Project Azorian is not considered[who?] a complete failure. The bodies of six crewmen were also recovered, and were subsequently given a memorial service and with military honors, 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, and images of inventory printouts exhibited in the documentary [6] suggest that various submarine components, such as hatch covers, instruments and sonar equipment were also recovered. White's documentary also states that the ship's bell from K-129 was recovered, and was subsequently returned to Russia as part of a diplomatic effort. Senior administration officials have stated that the project was one of the greatest intelligence coups of the Cold War.[citation needed] The true answer will not be known until the CIA declassifies its files.

Project Azorian remains a technological milestone as the deepest salvage operation ever conducted.[clarification needed] 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 the K-129, was given to the Russians in 1992 by then CIA Director Robert Gates.

Public disclosure

The New York Times suppresses its story

In February 1975, investigative reporter and former Timesman Seymour Hersh had planned to publish a story on Project Azorian. Bill Kovach, the New York Times Washington bureau chief at the time, said in 2005 that the government offered a convincing argument to delay publication — exposure at that time, while the project was ongoing, "would have caused an international incident." The Times published its account in March 1975,[7] after a story appeared in the Los Angeles Times, and included a five-paragraph explanation of the many twists and turns in the path to publication.[8] CIA director George H. W. Bush reported on several occasions to U.S. president Gerald Ford on media reports and the future use of the ship.[9][10] The CIA concluded that it seemed unclear what, if any, action was taken by the Soviet Union after learning of the story.[11]

FOIA and the Glomar response

After stories had been published about the CIA's attempts to stop publication of information about Project Azorian, Harriet Ann Phillippi, a journalist, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA for any records about the CIA’s attempts. The CIA refused to either confirm or deny the existence of such documents.[12] This type of non-responsive reply has since come to be known as the "Glomar response" or "Glomarization."[13]

1998 release of video

A video showing the 1974 memorial services for the six Soviet seamen whose bodies were recovered by Project Azorian was forwarded by the U.S. to Russia in the early 1990s. Portions of this video were shown on television documentaries concerning Project Azorian, including a 1998 Discovery Channel special called A Matter of National Security [based on Clyde W. Burleson's book, The Jennifer Project(1977)] and again in 2003, on a PBS Cold War submarine episode of NOVA.[14][15][16]

2010 release of 1985 CIA article

In February 2010, the CIA released an article from the fall 1985 edition of the CIA internal journal Studies in Intelligence following an application by researcher Matthew Aid at the National Security Archive[17] to declassify the information under the US Freedom of Information Act. Exactly what the operation managed to salvage remained unclear.[18] The report was written by an unidentified participant in Project Azorian.

Conspiracy theory

Red Star Rogue

Kenneth Sewell, in his book Red Star Rogue (2005), offers additional theories and speculation.[19] The book makes the case that K-129 was hijacked by an 11-man special forces team placed aboard and directed by a cabal of KGB hardliners, with full involvement of KGB director Yuri Andropov, that the submarine was successfully commandeered, and that the KGB team actually attempted to launch a nuclear missile targeted against Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Sewell's thesis is that the attack was designed in a manner to implicate the Chinese and point away from any Soviet involvement in an effort to provoke a nuclear confrontation between China and the United States. At that time, relations between Moscow and Beijing had deteriorated to the point at which many believed that open war was inevitable (see the Sino-Soviet Split), while relations between Beijing and the U.S., though cool in 1968, drastically improved by 1970 (culminating in the Sino-American rapprochement and 1972 Nixon visit to China). The theory is that the Soviets feared a U.S.-China detente which would disadvantage Soviet interests around the world. The author's hypothesis is that the missile's fail-safe devices were inadequately circumvented, and an explosion resulted which sank the submarine. This book also claims that Project Azorian was almost a total success and recovered all of its targeted material, including a nuclear missile warhead and cryptographic equipment and codebooks.

Multiple misdirection

Time magazine[20] as well as a court filing by Felice D. Cohen and Morton H. Halperin on behalf of the Military Audit Project suggest that the alleged project goal of raising a Soviet submarine might itself have been a cover story for another secret mission. Tapping of undersea communication cables, the installation of an underwater equivalent of a missile silo, and installation and repair of surveillance systems to monitor ship and submarine movements are listed as examples for such a secret mission.[21]

New eye witness account

W. Craig Reed, in Red November: Inside the Secret U.S. - Soviet Submarine War (2010), delivers an inside account of Project Azorian provided by Joe Houston, the senior engineer who designed leading-edge camera systems used by the Glomar Explorer team to photograph K-129 on the ocean floor. The team needed pictures that offered precise measurements to design the grappling arm and other systems used to bring the sunken sub up from the bottom. Houston worked for the mysterious "Mr. P" (John Parangosky) who worked for CIA Deputy Director Carl E. Duckett — the two leaders of Project Azorian. Duckett later worked with Houston at another company, and intimated that the CIA may have recovered much more from the K-129 than admitted to publicly. Reed also details how the mini-sub technology used by the submarine Halibut to find K-129 was repurposed for subsequent Operation Ivy Bells missions to wiretap underwater Soviet communications cables.

In a documentary film titled "AZORIAN: The Raising Of The K-129", which was produced by Michael White and released in 2009, three principals who participated in the design of the Hughes Glomar Explorer heavy lift system and the Lockheed capture vehicle (claw) gave on-camera interviews. These individuals were also on board the ship during the mission and were intimately involved with the recovery operation. They are: Sherman Wetmore, Global Marine heavy lift operations manager; Charlie Johnson, Global Marine heavy lift engineer; and Raymond Feldman, Lockheed Ocean Systems senior staff engineer. These three, plus others who were not on board during the recovery but were cleared on all aspects of the mission, confirmed that only 38 feet of the bow was eventually recovered. The intent was to recover the forward two thirds (138 feet) of the K-129, which had broken off from the rear section of the sub and was designated the Target Object (TO). The capture vehicle successfully lifted the TO from the ocean floor. On the way up, a failure of part of the capture vehicle caused the loss of 100 feet, including the sail, of the TO. In late Oct of 2010 a book, "Project Azorian: The CIA And The Raising of the K-129" by Norman Polmar and Michael White was published. The book, based on the film, contains additional documentary evidence about the effort to locate the sub and the recovery operation.[6]

Appearances in popular culture

In 1977, a thriller Fireplay by author William Wingate was published. Clearly inspired by the press reports, Wingates' story has the CIA successfully raise the entire submarine only to discover that it is an empty shell, part of an elaborate plot to discredit the CIA.[22]

The 1978 thriller Ice by James Follett, sees the Soviet navy mobilizing powerful naval forces to cover a planned attempt to salvage a Delta II class submarine that has sunk in the South Atlantic. The justification for this effort is the CIA's successful salvage of a Soviet submarine in 1974.[23]

Project Azorian also provided inspiration for The Jennifer Morgue, a 2006 science fiction espionage novel by Charles Stross. In Stross' story, Project Jennifer fails due to intervention by the Deep Ones.

The West Wing season 3 episode Gone Quiet featured a reference to "Project Jennifer" by Assistant Secretary of State 'Albie' Duncan (Hal Holbrook), amid a plot centered around an American submarine in North Korean waters. [24]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Matthew Aid with William Burr and Thomas Blanton (2010-02-12). "Project Azorian: The CIA's Declassified History of the Glomar Explorer". The National Security Archive. Retrieved 2010-02-13. 
  3. ^ Wiegley, Roger D., LT (JAG) USN "The Recovered Sunken Warship: Raising a Legal Question" United States Naval Institute Proceedings January 1979 p.30
  4. ^ a b "Project Azorian: The Story of the Hughes Glomar Explorer". Studies in Intelligence, CIA. Fall 1985. Retrieved 2010-02-13. 
  5. ^ Polmar, Norman; White, Michael (2010). Project Azorian : the CIA and the raising of the K-129 (null ed.). Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 9781591146902. 
  6. ^ a b c Michael White (February 8, 2011). Azorian: The Raising of the K-129 (DVD). Michael White Films. ISBN 9781591146902. ASIN B0047H7PYQ. 
  7. ^ Phelan, James. "An Easy Burglary Led to the Disclosure of Hughes-C.I.A. Plan to Salvage Soviet Sub"(fee). New York Times 27 March 1975, p. 18.
  8. ^ Prying open the Times -
  9. ^ Bush, George H.W. (2. Dec 1976). "Meeting with the President, Oval Office, 1. December 1976, 9:00 to 9:30 a.m.". Central Intelligence Agency. 
  10. ^ Bush, George H.W. (12. July 1976). "Meeting with the President, Oval Office, 12. July 1976, 8:00 a.m.". Central Intelligence Agency. 
  11. ^ "Implications for US-Soviet Relations of Certain Soviet Activities: Microwaves in Moscow (section 13)". Central Intelligence Agency. June 1976. 
  12. ^ Philippi v. CIA (Turner et al.), U.S. Court of Appeals, 211 U.S. App. D.D. 95, June 25, 1981
  13. ^ FOIA Update, Vol. VII, No. 1, Page 3 (1986). "OIP Guidance: Privacy "Glomarization"". United States Department of Justice. 
  14. ^ Clyde W, Burleson, author, "The Jennifer Project", 1977
  15. ^ 'Burial at Sea' video recorded on September 4, 1974 obtained from the CIA by Freedom Of Information Act Request, in multiple video formats
  16. ^ PBS,Nova, "Submarines, Secrets and Spies". Broadcast January, 1999.
  17. ^ "Gone fishing: Secret hunt for a sunken Soviet sub". Associated Press. February 13, 2010. 
  18. ^ "US admits salvaging sunken Soviet submarine - The American government has finally revealed details of a secret mission to raise a sunken Soviet submarine|
  19. ^ Sewell, Kenneth (2005). Red Star Rogue: The untold story of a Soviet submarine's nuclear strike attempt on the U.S.. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-6112-7. 
  20. ^ "Espionage: The Great Submarine Snatch". Time Magazine. 1975-03-31.,8816,879453,00.html. 
  21. ^ "656 F.2d 724; 211 U.S.App.D.C. 135, 7 Media L. Rep. 1708: MILITARY AUDIT PROJECT, Felice D. Cohen, Morton H. Halperin, Appellants, v. William CASEY, Director of Central Intelligence, et al.; No. 80-1110.". United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit.. 1981. 
  22. ^ William Wingate. Fireplay. Arrow. 1979. ISBN 0099178303
  23. ^ James Follett. Ice. Mandarin. 1989. ISBN 0749301104
  24. ^


  • Craven, John (2001). "The Hunt for Red September: A Tale of Two Submarines". The Silent War: The Cold War Battle Beneath the Sea. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 198–222. ISBN 0-684-87213-7. 
  • Sontag, Sherry (1998). Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage. Harper. ISBN 0-06-103004-X. 
  • Presidential Unit Citation - USS Halibut - 1968
  • Roger C. Dunham "Spy Sub - Top Secret Mission To The Bottom Of The Pacific;" Penguin Books, USA; New York, NY; 1996 ISBN 0-451-40797-0
  • Roy Varner and Wayne Collier "A Matter of Risk: The Incredible Inside Story of the CIA's Hughes Glomar Explorer Mission to Raise a Russian Submarine", 1978
  • W. Craig Reed "Red November: Inside the Secret U.S. - Soviet Submarine War," William Morrow (HarperCollins), May 2010, ISBN 0061806766
  • Norman Polmar and Michael White "Project AZORIAN: The CIA And The Raising of the K-129," Naval Institute Press, Oct. 2010, ISBN 978-159114-690-2

External links

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