May 2013

Project Azorian

Covert Cold War Ops disguised as deep-sea mining

By Correy Baldwin

It was April 1968, and something fishy was happening in the North Pacific Ocean. The U.S. navy had been monitoring a large deployment of Soviet ships that appeared to be conducting search operations over a known patrol route frequented by Soviet submarines.

When the Soviet activity died down, the Americans sent out their own submarine from Pearl Harbor to look for wreckage. Zeroing in on readings of a possible explosion in the area earlier that March, the Americans eventually located the sunken Soviet submarine K-129 on the ocean floor, nearly 3,000 kilometres northwest of Hawaii.

This was the middle of the Cold War, and a sunken Soviet submarine was a considerable asset to American intelligence – K-129 undoubtedly contained nuclear torpedoes, equipment and Soviet code books and coding machines. The problem was how to salvage the submarine without attracting the Red Bear’s attention.

The solution came in the form of a commercial deep-sea mining operation, dubbed Project Azorian.

The project began with the CIA approaching industrial magnate Howard Hughes, who agreed to provide his name as a cover for the operation. Hughes owned a deepwater offshore drilling company called Global Marine, which the CIA contracted to design, build and operate a high-tech recovery ship. From the outside, the ship would simply appear to be a deepwater mining vessel and would therefore not arouse Soviet suspicions. Defence contractor Lockheed was brought in to construct the necessary equipment.

Work on the ship – the Hughes Glomar Explorer – began in late-1972. Hughes casually informed the media of his latest project: mining polymetallic nodules in the Pacific Ocean.

The idea was genius. It was well-known that the Pacific seabed contained polymetallic nodules at the same depths (roughly 4,000 to 5,000 metres) at which the K-129 wreck lay. There was also growing interest in the small nuggets – which contain manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth elements – although mining them had, to that point, appeared too great a challenge. Only an eccentric entrepreneur like Hughes would fund such an outlandish operation.

Mining polymetallic nodules would technically involve lowering and raising a bucket using a string of steel pipes from a mining platform, and the Hughes Glomar Explorer would appear to be doing just that. Instead of a bucket, though, the recovery ship would be equipped with a large, heavy-lift grappling claw that could grab hold of the submarine and raise it directly into a massive compartment in the middle of the ship.

At a cost of $200 million, the project was one of the most expensive intelligence operations of the Cold War. It was also, at 4,900 metres, quite possibly the deepest salvage operation ever attempted.

The Hughes Glomar Explorer was completed in 1974 and it arrived at the recovery site that summer. When the claw was lowered, it latched on to a 138-metre section of the wreck that the CIA was especially interested in. Despite meticulous planning, the operation did not go smoothly. The mechanical claw malfunctioned during the lift, causing the submarine section to break apart and much of it to sink back to the ocean floor. Still, 38 metres of the submarine made it into the ship’s hold.

What was actually recovered is not entirely known. The CIA has long acknowledged the covert operation but still refuses to comment on its success. It did recover the bodies of six Soviet crewmen, who were buried at sea in metal caskets due to radioactivity concerns.

The Hughes Glomar Explorer fell into disuse for decades but has recently found new life as a deep-sea drilling vessel. In 1997, Global Marine Drilling leased it from the U.S. navy and modified it for its new, legitimately commercial life on the open ocean.

Mining polymetallic nodules remained economically unfeasible until recently. Lockheed Martin is now using the data obtained during Project Azorian to begin deep-sea mining exploration, this time off Mexico’s Pacific Coast. That is, if we are to believe the official story.

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