View from Glen Hill: Audacity breeds success

The recent book, The Taking of K-129 by Josh Dean, describes the covert operation undertaken by the CIA in the late 1960s after a Russian Golf-II-class nuclear missile submarine had an explosion on the surface and sank largely intact in mid-Pacific with its nuclear warheads on board. It came to rest in 16,500 feet (over three miles) of water in one of the most challenging areas of the world to conduct surface operations, some 1,500 nautical miles northwest of Hawaii.

The 330-foot sub weighed almost 3,000 tons. The plan was to do what had never even remotely been tried before: build a ship able to stay precisely on station and with a closing bay amidships large enough to house an entire sub; then pull the sub up from the bottom using a string of pipe with a set of claw arms on the end large enough to grasp and hold the sub while the whole string of pipe was gradually pulled up to the surface using a giant derrick erected amidships over the bay — and keep the whole operation secret.

In terms of encouraging technological development through its black programs, the CIA had had a number of successes before then working with various defense contractors: first with the U-2 spy plane, then with the U-2’s replacement, the A-12, and later with various photographing satellites. These devices had given the U.S. the first, and thereafter continuing, visual intelligence about Soviet nuclear weapons and their siting when U.S. information on comparative arsenals was scant to nonexistent and fears ran high. They also caused the Soviets to expend vast sums trying to improve their anti-aircraft defenses, having a real effect on their economy and eventually running it into the ground.

The K-129 operation had some key elements going for it.

  • First, the objective appeared impossible to accomplish, and therefore the Soviets would suspect nothing, provided secrecy could be maintained.
  • Second, new technology using coordinated thrusters could enable a very large ship to stay exactly on station and therefore be a stable work platform.
  • Third, excitement about the commercial possibilities of exploitation of valuable underseas resources through drilling and mining was beginning to build.
  • Fourth, the Soviets had no idea where the sub was, but the U.S. did through advanced undersea-location-and-photographic devices developed by the CIA and the Navy and their contractors.
  • And fifth, the U.S. had Howard Hughes.

Hughes, then in full recluse mode, was nonetheless willing to allow his principal companies to be used as a front for this CIA project even though Hughes’ companies did no work on it. Everyone knew that Hughes loved (and could fund) incredible projects, and his companies were private and therefore had no public disclosure requirements. So the CIA crafted an elaborate, but entirely false, cover story focused on Hughes’ feasibility work for mining the ocean floor. The ruse worked successfully for five years from 1968 to 1973 and right through to the extraction of half of the sub containing a wealth of valuable information. It ended only when nationally prominent columnist Jack Anderson went public with part of the story as the second retrieval attempt (for the other half of the sub) was about to begin. With the Soviets thereby alerted, the extraction location was interdicted by Soviet warships.

In an interview following the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Russian admiral in charge of the fleet that had included K-129 said of this project, “The fact that the U.S. managed to build a ship of 60,000-tons displacement in two years, to install equipment to sustain such a load, to make provision for how to accommodate the submarine under the ship and finally to lift it up — it seemed to us something unreal, fantastic. I can compare it with a mission to the moon in regard to technology and invested money.”

The technology developed through this one project expanded knowledge enormously in everything from shipbuilding and off-shore drilling to electronics, metallurgy, and control devices — as have the space program and so many other government projects in both wartime and peacetime that have required the creation of technology having important commercial applications.

So whenever I hear someone bragging that his or her company built great things “from scratch,” I certainly commend the accomplishment but also acknowledge to myself that they were standing on the shoulders of giants who, with government funding (and often, as in this case, government initiative), from the time of our Civil War forward have built much of the technological and industrial base of America using our collective money and their collective imaginations.

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