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Friday, November 5, 2010

K-129

A Soviet Golf-II-class submarine that was lost in the Pacific inMarch 1968 and was later the object of a July 1974 Central Intelligence Agency plan, code-named JENIFER, to raise the hull at a cost of $400 million. The submarine had been carrying three nuclear missiles and ten 21-inch atomic-tipped torpedoes while on patrol, and the CIA conducted a clandestine effort to lift it to the surface with the Glomar Explorer, a ship purpose-built by Howard Hughes to recover the cipher equipment, the three Serb missiles, and the SS-N-5 warheads.
Precisely how the K-129 came to sink is unknown, but it is possible that the captain, Vladimir Kobzah, decided to make an unauthorized attack on Pearl Harbor. The K-129 sank 300 miles from where a Soviet search fleet believed it to have been. The Americans had recorded the loss of the K-129 using the SOSUS array of underwater sonar hydrophones on 7 March 1968, but had been mystified by the fact that the submarine had only suffered one detonation—on the surface—and not a series of explosions associated with watertight compartments imploding under pressure as the hull plunged three miles to the ocean floor. Unusually, this meant the vessel had reached the bottom virtually intact, which was later confirmed by thousands of underwater photographs taken by the U.S. submarine Halibut, which found the wreck on 20 August 1968. The pictures revealed that a hole 10 feet wide had been blown out of the deck, just behind the conning tower, and one of the three missile silos was empty. They also depicted the skeletal remains of a single sailor dressed in boots and foul weather gear, which confirmed that the K-129 had been on the surface when she suffered a catastrophic incident that had prevented the crew from closing the watertight hatches or transmitting a distress signal.
Impressed by the photographs, but appalled by the implication that a submarine commander would attempt to circumvent the fail-safe security precautions and accomplish an unauthorized launch, President Richard Nixon sanctioned the CIA’s covert operation to lift the 2,350-ton K-129 an unprecedented 16,500 feet and bring it ashore to a secure base at Redwood City, California. The project was abandoned when only part of the hull was recovered, and news of the operation leaked to the New York Times.
For years, intelligence experts have been baffled by the vast expenditure devoted to this high-risk scheme, plundering the site where 85 Soviet seamen and 15 officers died. The Soviet naval codes were changed as soon as the Red Banner’s Far East Fleet headquarters  in Vladivostok lost contact with the K-129, one of 13 elderly Golf submarines to be converted to carry the solid-fuel missiles with a 1,242-mile range that could be launched while partially submerged.
The submarine was unlikely to be carrying any crucial information, which has left a mystery surrounding the exact circumstances of the K-129’s loss, which most submariners have attributed to a buildup of highly volatile hydrogen gas while charging the submarine’s massive 450-ton batteries.