How the CIA Stole a Sunken Soviet Submarine from the Sea Floor

A view of a Soviet Golf II class K-129 ballistic missile submarine. Credit: Unknown
A view of a Soviet Golf II class K-129 ballistic missile submarine. Credit: Unknown

In the summer of 1974, an unusual looking ship left Long Beach, California. It’s destination? The middle of the Pacific Ocean. Equipped with a giant crane and experimental drilling equipment, the purpose built ship would open up a new frontier in mining, excavating the wealth of the ocean floor. But, the whole expedition was a cover.

Six years earlier, the Russian nuclear submarine K-129 was conducting exercises in the Pacific with 98 crew onboard when it vanished. The USSR immediately launched a massive search by plane, boat and submarine. After searching more than 1.3 million square kilometres of ocean, the Soviets found nothing. They called off the search and returned home. But, the United States had other plans. They were going to find and recover the sunken sub. 

Stealing a Sunken Submarine

For the CIA, a sunken Soviet sub was an intelligence goldmine. Onboard the submarine was the latest cryptography gear, sonar systems and other military technology which would give the U.S an edge over their Cold War adversary. But the crown jewels were three state-of-the-art ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. If they could get their hands on the missiles and reverse engineer them, they would be able to detect and defend against an attack from the USSR.

While the Soviets had come up short in their search, the Americans had something they didn’t. The U.S Navy had recently installed a network of underwater listening beacons, and used them to detect the sound and position of the explosion that had sunk the sub. Almost 2,500 kilometres off the coast of Hawaii, and five kilometres beneath the surface sat the greatest prize of the Cold War. 

At the time, the deepest salvage of a submarine was from a depth of just 90 metres. The K-129 was more than 50 times deeper, and much larger. If the CIA wanted to salvage the 1,400 tonne submarine, they would have to do it in complete secret, without arousing suspicion from the Soviets or the American press. The recovery would have to take place without the sub being seen by other ships, planes, or satellites. Hundreds of proposals were considered, including pumping gas beneath the sub to bring it to the surface. In the end, the CIA decided to build a giant claw to pick up the submarine, pull it up into the belly of a huge ship and take it home. The odds of success were less than 10%

The Hughes Glomar Explorer. Credit: U.S. Government/Wikipedia
The Hughes Glomar Explorer. Credit: U.S. Government/Wikipedia

The Ultimate Cover Story

The project would take six years, cost hundreds of millions and involve thousands of people. To avoid suspicion, the CIA needed to come up with a cover story bigger than the project itself. They would mine the ocean floor, creating an entirely new industry. For the cover story to work, the CIA’s fingerprints couldn’t be anywhere near the operation. Billionaire tycoon, Howard Hughes, was the perfect frontman for the role. Rich and eccentric, his background was in mining. He also had a track record of doing things that didn't make sense, most famously the Spruce Goose. At the time, the reclusive billionaire hadn’t been seen in public for years. He lived in isolation on the top floor of his Las Vegas casino. With the Hughes Tool Company fronting the project, the CIA also hired experts to write scientific papers for mining and shipping publications. The press and more importantly, the Russians, all bought the story.

Setting Sail Onboard the Hughes Glomar Explorer

The colassial ship that began to emerge was like none ever built before. Everything had to be designed and custom built from scratch. Named the Hughes Glomar Explorer, the ship had a hull with enormous doors that could swing open and swallow the Soviet sub without anyone noticing. On deck, there was a “darkroom, a decontamination room, an area for drying and preserving documents, a unit for waste handling, and a refrigerated morgue” for storing human remains found on the K-129. Built just south of Philadelphia, it was too wide to pass through the Panama Canal. Instead it had to sail around South America before it could begin its mission. After a champagne christening which the press were invited to witness, the Hughes Glomar Explorer set sail for a very precise spot in the Pacific, 2,500 kilometres off Hawaii’s northeastern coast.

But it wasn't alone. Every movement was watched by the Soviets who sent two ships and helicopters to antagonise and monitor the Hughes Glomar Explorer. Crew members stacked crates on the helicopter pad to prevent any attempts by Soviet helicopters to land there. Secret compartments were built on the ship where classified documents could be hidden if Soviets did manage to board.  

After almost a month at sea, the steel claw reached the ocean floor. Over the next week, it slowly and painstakingly bought the submarine to the surface. Then disaster struck. Midway up, several of the claws fingers snapped, and a large part of the sub slipped back to the seafloor. The recovered section included two nuclear torpedoes, code books and other materials. Not much more is known about what was onboard, as most of the documents are still classified today. The remains of six crewmen were recovered alongside the sub. Because of radioactivity, all were given military service and buried at sea in metal caskets. 

A developed photo from a camera recovered from the sunken submarine in 1974. Credit: U.S. Government
A developed photo from a camera recovered from the sunken submarine in 1974. Credit: U.S. Government

Can Neither Confirm nor Deny

The plan was to go back and recover the rest of the sub the following year. Before the CIA could do that, the cover was blown. The project was leaked to the press and soon the Soviets and the American public knew all about the top secret mission to steal a sunken Soviet sub. The U.S. government refused to acknowledge or deny the project, using the words "can neither confirm nor deny" which soon became a part of popular culture. 

Like the space race, the naval race beneath the ocean during the Cold War had a profound impact on other industries. The technology developed to salvage the K-129 led to the creation of the deep sea mining industry. The dynamic positioning technology which kept the Glomar Explorer stable and in position over a specific drill point became standard practice in offshore oil drilling. The men and women that built the Hughes Glomar Explorer pulled off one of the most complicated and extraordinary feats of naval engineering in human history. The brazen and daring mission was Cold War deception on a staggering scale, something that the Soviets couldn’t match. But, the Soviet’s do outpace the USA when it comes to propaganda. Shop our propaganda posters below or explore the collection here.

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