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Book Review – Project Azorian: The CIA and the Raising of K-129

by Norman Polmar and Michael White; Naval Institute Press; ISBN/SKU 978-1-59114-668-1; Paperback; 264 pages; $18.95

On March 8, 1968, a Soviet missile submarine, the Project 628/Golf II-class K-129, suffered a series of internal explosions and sank in the North Pacific, with the loss of all hands. U.S. acoustic sensors detected the event. The subsequent search for the wreck, and the recovery of a portion of the submarine, is one of the most remarkable technical stories of the Cold War. It is a story that has been surrounded by dense clouds of official secrecy, disinformation, and bizarre conspiracy theories. In Project Azorian, Norman Polmar, the leading Western authority on Russian submarines, and Michael White, a documentary filmmaker resident in Europe, shine a bright light into this dark corner of Cold War history.

Project Azorian book cover

Project Azorian: The CIA and the Raising of the K-129
by Norman Polmar and Michael White; Naval Institute Press; ISBN/SKU 978-1-59114-668-1; Paperback; 264 pages; $18.95

In August 1968, the wreck site, at a depth of 16,000 feet, was located and photographed with tethered cameras towed above the sea floor by the special mission submarine USS Halibut (SSN 587). For this challenging covert mission, Halibut was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation “for exceptional meritorious service on support of National Research and Development efforts.” In response to the discovery, CIA officials conceived a complex and ambitious plan to recover the forward section of K-129, containing at least one intact R-21/SS-N-5 Sark/Serb ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead, possible cryptographic materials, and other artifacts of potential intelligence value. The aft section, containing the diesel-electric propulsion plant, broke off as the sub sank and shattered when it smashed into the sea floor.

Under an elaborate cover story involving eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes mining the deep ocean floor for valuable metal deposits (“manganese nodules”) a custom-designed ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, was built in only two years. The critical component was a 2,000-ton grappling device (built by Lockheed) that would be lowered at the end of a 3-mile-long pipe string. An enormous enclosed submersible barge was built so that this “capture vehicle” could be covertly assembled and transferred to Hughes Glomar Explorer. Use of the term “claw” was forbidden for reasons of operational security. Eventually, parts of the capture device broke as the wreck was being raised, with most of the “target object” falling back to the sea floor. Only a small section of the K-129 was recovered, including some damaged nuclear torpedo components and the remains of several Russian sailors. The respectful burial at sea of these remains was filmed, and a copy of the film was eventually given to Russian officials.

What caused the loss of K-129? What did the Soviet Navy know, and when did they know it? How did the capture device fail? What did the CIA actually recover? What became of it? What did it all cost? and Was the payoff worth it? A reviewer should not be a spoiler – so buy the book! Project Azorian will be of great interest to veteran Cold Warriors, actual or wannabe submariners, intelligence analysts, ocean engineers, and most readers who just love great sea stories. Polmar and White have told this complex story with admirable clarity, meticulous attention to detail, and impeccable scholarship. The Naval Institute Press should be congratulated for publishing research that elements of the intelligence community might have wished to suppress. Of particular interest are the excellent illustrations and diagrams, many in color, including computer graphic images of the exotic hardware. In February 2011, a documentary film based on this work was also released on DVD. It is a most worthy companion to an outstanding book on one of the Cold War’s most amazing and intriguing stories.