First the Glomar Response ! It's an American slang with origin in the American ship 'Hughes Glomar Explorer' which hauled up the 2,000-ton sunk Russian submarine K-129 resting 17,000 feet below on the seabed of the Pacific Ocean off the Hawaii Islands.
At the end of it all, after six years, and in the seventh year – ( and the facts would read stranger than fiction as this column rolls on) – when the story leaked to the press that the mission was a failure opposed to the Secretary of Defense, James R. Schlesinger claim that “this episode has been a major American accomplishment. The operation is a marvel – technically and with maintaining secrecy.”
That was on March 19, 1975. The media would simply not stomach it. The very next day 'Los Angeles Times' published a 4-page story by Jack Nelson headlined: 'Administration Won't Talk About the Sub Raised by CIA'. It was followed by an interpretative story by the 'Time' magazine ( also a similar court filing by Felice D. Cohen and Morton H. Halperin on behalf of the Military Audit Project suggesting that the raising the submarine could be a mask for a secret mission involving 1) tapping of undersea communication cables, 2) Installation of an underwater silo for missiles, 3) setting up a repair and surveillance system for submarines in the Pacific besides many missions under the wraps.
Further on, noted journalist Seymour Hersh's expose in the New York Times debunking the project as a 'complete failure' and a massive waste of tax payer's money, rattled the White House.
More news tickled in on how the CIA had beseeched editors and journalists on the job to delay their write-ups in national interest. And now a journalist Harriet Ann Phillippi filed a 'Freedom of Information Act' request ( equivalent to India's 'Right to Information (RTI) Act' ) with the CIA for all records, if any, of the Agency's interaction with the media to suppress the news. The CIA refused to either confirm or deny the very existence of such documents. This kind of non-responsive reply or at worst no reply has since been the slang: “Glomar Response” or “Glomarisation”.
Moving on to the 'USSR lost and US found' submarine story: On March 1, 1968, a Soviet Golf II submarine , the K-129, pendant number -722, carrying three SS-N-4 Sark nuclear-armed ballistic missiles set sail from the naval base at Petropavlovsk ( Kamchatka Peninsula ) for peacetime patrol, northeast of Hawaii, and just in case if America and Russia go to war, it would fire the three missiles – each with a one-megaton nuclear warhead – on targets in the west coast of US. In mid march, there was a catastrophic explosion in the submarine and it went down with a crew of 98.
But the CIA has its lips sealed till date on the 1) cause of the explosion, 2) how it came to know that the submarine has sunk, and more intriguing, 3) how it came to know of its exact resting place 16,500 ft below the Pacific surface. However, information on this has leaked out as well. The media, some books too, have credited the US Navy's SOSUS: underwater sonar system. Interestingly, the Soviets had failed in their search, and only after they had given it up, the Americans coordinated acoustic data.
Operation Sand Dollar
SOSUS – nick named: Sea Spider; hydrophone network in north Pacific was asked to re-run its recordings to pick up sonic beep on its LOFAR ( Low Frequency Array ) indicative of implosion (inside the sub ) or an explosion (outside ) it. Finally, an acoustic 'event' was isolated by NAVFAC ( Naval facility ) at Point Sur as well as by NAVFAC at US West Coast. Five lines-of-bearing ( as in an ECG ) on a graph, localised the wreck of K-129 sub to be in the vicinity of 40.1 latitude and 179.9 E longitude. To reconfirm its find, and for a closer look of it, the US Navy launched 'Operation Sand Dollar' deploying ship 'USS Halibut' from Pearl Harbour. 'Halibut' was the then only submarine in the active US inventory equipped for such an “operation' with deep submergence tools, know how and technology. The same 'Halibut' had taken five months in 1968 to locate a sunken nuclear powered US sub 'Scorpion' in the Atlantic. This time around, it took three weeks with robotic remote controlled cameras. SOCUS had already limited the area to 1,200 square miles and pinpointed that the wreck was 3 miles ( 4.8 km ) deep down on the Pacific floor.
'Halibut's' photography was exceptional. It spent weeks circumnavigating the wreck and clicked about 20,000 high resolution close-up shots. So impressed was the then President Lyndon B. Johnson that the 'Halibut' was conferred a special classified Presidential Unit Citation in 1968. The photo stock went under the microscope for two years. Finally, the then Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and the National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger came up with a plan to get at the wreckage to decode Soviet missile technology and lay hand on its cryptography.
Project 'Azorian' was to be the 'most complex, expensive and secretive Intelligence operations of the Cold War at a cost of $ 800 which would be $ 3.8 billion today. Scene shifted to Philadelphia. Billionaire businessmen, Howard Hughes was approached. His companies already were contractors of classified US weaponry, aircraft and satellite components. The brief: A pioneer in deepwater offshore drilling operations, he was to design, built and operate 'Hughes Glomar Explorer' at the Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock near Philadelphia but was to mask the ship as one which would mine manganese nodules from the Pacific seabed. On the drawing board, the ship weighed 63,000 short ton and was 619 ft long with a 115 feet beam: too large to transit the Panama Canal.
Thus, on June 21, 1974, six years after its keel was laid, it took off for its targeted voyage to the Pacific going around South America.
Twenty days later on July 4, it anchored itself exactly above the wreck and as it was lowering the capture vehicle, a Soviet Missile Range Instrumentation Ship 'Chazma' with a Kamov Ka-25 helicopter anchored nearby. Soon a Russian naval tug 'SB 10' sailed in close. The 'Glomar' deck was soon made inhospitable for any Russian helicopter attempt to land, with crates strewn about.
The Russians watched as the 'Capture Vehicle' was lowered. The mechanical claws, either side to grab the mid-part of the submarine, were slipped down through a number of 60 foot steel pipes strung together, which were to operate on the usual derrick principle. Once the claws had secured the wreck, the steel pipes would move up in reverse, and would be removed one by one till the wreck has been pulled up into the 'moon pool' at the belly of the 'Capture Vehicle', disengaged. And the hydraulic doors shut.
The claws – nicknamed 'Clementine' started well. But, as US Major General Roland Lajoie were to recall later the CIA briefing to him 'that while lifting the wreck the two claws gave in, were fractured and two-thirds of the raised portion of the K-129 broke off and sank back to the Pacific floor'. The 'Capture Vehicle' was at about 6,700 ft deep in sea, when it was left with a bare 38 feet of the sub wreck in the two claws. Employees of both Lockheed ( the company which made the claws and riveted them ) and Hughes Global Marine put the blame on the quality of steel with which the claws were cast. It was maraging steel, the engineers lamented which though strong was not as ductile as other varieties of steel.
The recovered 38 feet of the wreck had two nuclear torpedoes, code books, hatch covers, instruments and sonar equipment. And the sub's bell ( the last as shown in Michael White's documentary ) and was, thus, not a complete failure in CIA terms. Bodies of only six crewmen were found, given a memorial service with military honours followed by a sea burial in an anti-radiation metal casket. Though the whole salvage operation was filmed by a CIA crew but was 'Glomarised' when asked about it. Nevertheless, a short clip was culled out from the videography showing the recovery of the six bodies and their sea burial, and passed on to the Soviets. In 1998, these select scenes were telecast in the 'Discovery Channel'.
The Mystery Persists
What all sank back to the ocean floor included the conning tower, missile compartment, control room, radio shack and engine room. And to the CIA's dismay the intact ( SS-N-4 ) nuclear missile too went down along with its codebooks, decoding machines and the burst transmitters. Falling back on seabed, all were fragmented into small pieces which ruled out any second attempt to retrieve what was left. The fate of nuclear missile remains a mystery till this day.
But the CIA still wanted the rest of the vessel that had re-sunk to the seabed. In 1974, and 'Operation Matador' was readied for a second run. The news leaked out and was front paged in all US dailies. A furious Soviet Ambassador to the US demanded an explanation from the then US President Gerald Ford. The Secretary of the State Henry Kissinger did confirm that an 'Operation Matador' was, indeed, there but refused to comment on what it was about. Later, the 'Operation' was quietly scrapped fearing Russian response and ridicule. Already 'Operation Azorian' had rubbed the Russians on the wrong side, had left them red faced and furious.
Mission over, the 'Hughes Glomar Explorer' saw few takers mainly because of its phenomenal cost. From March to June 1976, business proposals were sought for leasing the ship. Only seven bids came in. One was from a Nebraska College student, Lincoln for $2 million; another was from an unnamed man for $1.98 million: He planned a government contract to salvage the nuclear reactors of two sunken American submarines. The Lockheed Missile and Space Company offered a $3 million two year lease. Eventually, it ended up with the US Navy which decommissioned it after 21 yeas of service in 1997. Later on, rechristened the 'GSF Explorer' it was retrofitted for oil drilling and exploration but with the prices of oil falling world wide, the then owner company 'TransOcean' ( TO ) decided in 2015 to scrap it in a ship breaking yard in East China. The brave bold ship which became a part of international intrigue exists in photographs and periodic write ups.