Project Azorian, the CIA and
the Raising of the K-129
by Norman Polmar and Michael White
(U.S. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland 2010, 238 pages)
In 1974, the United States attempted to raise a sunken Soviet submarine from a depth of 16,000 feet, in the Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii. The submarine had been lost in March 1968. The operation to do this was camouflaged as
an ocean bottom mining operation carried out by the Hughes
Glomar Explorer, specially constructed for that purpose. As
the Soviet general staff later admitted, the deception was
excellent. They did not believe recovery from such a depth
could be accomplished.
In thoroughly describing this ambitious effort, the book
begins with the story of how the news media, specifically
the Los Angeles Times, published an article describing U.S.
attempts to raise a Russian submarine, the K-129, from a
depth of 16,000 feet. This publication compromised the operation, at least partially. The authors then describe the role of
the USS Halibut, which found and localized the K-129. By
coincidence, the Halibut also was a strategic-missile-launching
submarine as was the K-129. The Halibut’s missiles were the
Regulus, an air-breathing platform launched from the surfaced submarine.
The K-129’s missiles were of the “Serb” designation, under-water-launched ballistic missiles, three in the sail aft, with
thermonuclear warheads. The Halibut, with its large spaces
available for Regulus missiles, had ample room for cameras
and other sensors with the missiles removed. These sensors
were deployed while submerged in the search for the K-129.
After describing how the Halibut was able to find the K-129,
the authors recount how the recovery operation took shape.
First comes a detailed description of the construction of the
Hughes Glomar Explorer, the recovery ship. The authors then
recount the addition of the underwater docking array used
to retrieve and store the captured submarine, after which
they describe the recovery procedures. During the course of
the recovery, the system suffered a material failure, and the
remaining undamaged missile and the after end of the submarine fell back to the ocean floor.
The mission was not a complete technical success, but as an
intelligence operation, it was superb. It was imaginative, and
the material that could have been recovered was of great value.
The submarine carried an H-bomb warhead, and Department
of Energy laboratory directors were anxious to see how Russian scientists solved certain design problems. The crypto gear
also would have been of great interest.
Looking at the evidence gleaned in the recovery, the authors
speculate that the K-129 was snorkeling and carrying out a
missile launch drill concurrently when it sank. This is because
there was no evidence of a hull collapse as observed in the
losses of the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion submarines.
It is hard to say how it could be determined that the K-129
was snorkeling. In an actual missile launch, the sub would
not be snorkeling, as that would make the sub very noisy. So,
to simulate actual launch conditions, the sub would be sub-
merged on the battery.
Dr. R. Norris Keeler, SIGNAL Magazine’s technical adviser,
was a part of the Regulus Program from 1952-1957. As
director of naval technology from 1974-1978, he had access
to the Azorian program.