Project Azorian was the codename given to an American attempt during the Cold War to raise a sunken Soviet submarine. Project Azorian was approved in 1972 by the then US President, Richard Nixon, and remained secret for over thirty years. It was only after a Freedom of Information application in 2010 that the CIA released any information on Project Azorian.
Nuclear submarine supremacy was paramount during the later years of the Cold War. To a degree by the 1970’s, ICBM’s had become ‘old hat’ in the sense that it was assumed that both sides in the Cold War knew where ICBM bases were and could launch pre-emptive strikes against these bases when Cold War moved to Warm/Hot War. The era of the moveable Soviet SS-20 was yet to come, as was Ronald Reagan’s unfulfilled dream of an underground missile base where missiles were constantly moved along underground railways so that their position could never be traced by the Soviet Union. However, nuclear submarines were a different proposition as they could stay on the bottom of the seabed undetected and could launch a nuclear attack, which would only be detected after the missiles had been launched. It was generally believed that there was nothing that could be done against a nuclear missile launched from a submerged submarine. Therefore knowledge of what the ‘other side’ had in terms of submarine technology was considered vital. This was the rationale behind Project Azorian.
US Intelligence knew that a Soviet Golf-II submarine (K-129) had sunk in the Pacific, 1,560 miles northwest of Hawaii, in 1968. A US Naval listening base on the Californian coastline used its records to track an explosion in the area to March 8th 1968 and the whole area had seen a large Soviet naval presence over several weeks after the explosion, which the CIA concluded was a task force trying to pin down where K-129 had sunk.
No one knew why the submarine had sunk but it was known that there were three nuclear-armed ballistic missiles on board and two nuclear-armed torpedoes. Knowledge of the guidance system in these missiles and the composition of the missiles would have been a huge coup to US Intelligence. Likewise any readable codebooks found would have been invaluable.
In 1972 Richard Nixon gave the go-ahead for Project Azorian – the attempt to bring K-129 to the surface – and the actual salvage operation started in 1974. The project was helped by a shipping and maritime mining company owned by Howard Hughes who already had a number of US defence contracts. In today’s money the salvage operation would have cost over $1 billion. Senior military figures and government defence advisors were against the idea simply because the submarine was three miles down and the general opinion was that such an operation was impossible.
However, the project has to be viewed against the background of the Cold War and US foreign policy experiences in the early 1970’s. The US withdrawal from South Vietnam had been a national humiliation. The gloss put on ‘Vietnamisation’ could not disguise the fact that a rag-tag army of communists had defeated the powerful US military – as some areas of the US media had portrayed the victorious NVA and Viet Cong. The boost this whole episode gave to the Soviet propaganda machine was all but priceless and was thoroughly exploited.
What Nixon needed was something that would boost the US intelligence community’s morale and raising K-129 served this purpose. Also as a technical achievement – raising a submarine from three miles down – it would have ranked very highly; in fact, it was the deepest salvage operation ever carried out at the time. As a national achievement – and a blow to the Soviet Union – it would also have ranked very highly.
In essence Project Azorian failed. Despite the use of Howard Hughes’ ‘Glomar Explorer’ only a portion of the submarine was brought to the surface in August 1974. However, because of the covert nature of the operation (‘Glomar Explorer’ was a ‘deep sea mining vessel’ for the duration of its time in the Pacific) Nixon could not even exploit this as a national success. Even today, no one outside of the US Intelligence community is quite sure what exactly was brought to the surface by ‘Glomar Explorer’ as the documents that have been released to the public in February 2010 has had much redacted. However, it has been assumed by some that what was brought to the surface was of limited importance (the CIA called it “intangibly beneficial”). Others have concluded that if what was brought to the surface was of little importance why has it remained so secretive after all these years especially as the Golf-II submarine must now be considered something of a veteran in the world of submarines? Also if what was brought up was of little importance, why have areas of the now released documents been redacted? In later years a member of the crew of ‘Global Explorer’, David Sharp, wrote a book about his experiences during Project Azorian. However, over one-third of the book was not published on the advice, according to Sharp, of the CIA.
In the era of Cold War frenzy any good news by either side was heavily exploited. However, Project Azorian was buried. The media did report it in 1975 when a journalist from the ‘New York Times’ broke the story. However, the tale was officially sold as ‘Operation Jennifer’ to deflect attention away from ‘Project Azorian’. It is also thought that the then President, Gerald Ford, put a gag on all references to the project and despite a few mentions to it over the years the matter was seemingly closed. However, a Freedom of Information application has brought at least some of what happened during Project Azorian to the surface.
What did Project Azorian achieve? From an intelligence point of view, not many can answer that. However, the project did do a lot to boost knowledge in maritime heavy lifting technology and apparently, it did a lot to boost the morale in the US intelligence communities after a number of difficult years.