Project Azorian: cutting-edge underwater optics and a real-life CIA spy thriller

30 June 2023
Jeff Hecht
The Soviet Union's K-129 submarine. Photo credit: Josh Dean

The last thing Captain First Rank Vladimir Kobzar likely heard was the explosion that sent him, his crew, and their submarine, the K-129, to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. With the sub in silent mode, the Soviet Union’s navy knew nothing of its fate until Kobzar failed to call in on schedule on 8 March 1968.

While the Soviet fleet searched in vain for the sub, the US Navy’s network of hydrophones had actually recorded the explosion and was able to pinpoint the location of the wreck in the vast Pacific. Sensing opportunity, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) decided to recover the ship by staging a covert salvage operation right out of the pages of a spy novel. Their secretive mastermind—known in the spy agency as “Mr. P”—conspired with eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes to do just that. It was an amazing exploit, using a Hughes undersea mining operation as cover, that fooled both the Soviets and the US public for years.

Still, “it wouldn’t have happened” but for the sharing of information on ocean optics at early SPIE meetings, recalls former Society President Joe Houston, who was involved with the top-secret CIA operation. But it was also his work in the early 1970s, in a Massachusetts cranberry bog, that finally gave the agency the optics it needed for a vital boost in image clarity that allowed salvagers to see and partially recover the lost vessel.

It remains unknown exactly what happened to Kobzar or the K-129 on that fateful day in March more than 50 years ago, but it likely was quick. The part of the sub that was eventually recovered, thanks to technical experts like Houston, included the body of an officer in his bunk probably asleep when the end came. The US hydrophone recording indicates the explosion was near but not above the surface. An explosion there would have opened the sub to let water in and drowned the crew. If it had sunk with its doors sealed shut, it would have eventually imploded under the immense pressure of the more than 1,000 feet of water above.

An image of the K-129 obtained from multiple camera positions with imaging equipment especially designed for Project Azorian. Photo credit: Joe Houston

The US Navy had largely ignored the ocean depths and what they might find there until the Cold War and the introduction of submarine-launched nuclear missiles. In 1960, the US Office of Naval Research (ONR) sent two men in a bathyscaphe seven miles down to the bottom of the Challenger Deep—the deepest known point of the seabed anywhere on Earth—where they stayed for 20 minutes before returning safely to the surface. Yet top Navy brass prioritized building the nuclear Navy championed by Admiral Hyman Rickover.

Then, on 10 April 1963, the loss of the USS Thresher and all 129 men aboard changed those priorities. Thresher, the first in a new series of fast and quiet nuclear attack subs, sank during a shakedown cruise to its test depth of 1,300 feet. Yet investigators found the Navy had no rescue vehicle able to go below 850 feet. That didn’t look good, and it led to two separate projects for rescuing submariners as well as recovering from the ocean floor Soviet military equipment like dummy warheads and guidance systems.

In 1965, an intelligence officer briefed Navy Chief Scientist John Craven on those projects, and he went looking for suitable equipment. Craven found an outdated and awkward-looking 1959-vintage nuclear sub called the Halibut. On the surface it seemed suitable. A $70 million makeover allowed the sub to house a two-ton robotic “fish” loaded with the latest in cameras, strobes, radar, and sonar to explore the open depths.

SPIE held its first Underwater Photo Optics Conference in January 1966, but the roots of the optics in the Halibut came from discussions at earlier SPIE meetings among a group of designers of undersea optics: Houston; Bob Shannon from the University Arizona; another former Society President, Bob Fischer; and former SPIE Executive Director Joe Yaver had all shared unclassified information on the design of undersea optics.

Several miles of cable tethered “the fish” to the Halibut, allowing the robot to swim from the ship to take photographs at depth. Unfortunately, its first test in the Pacific suffered computer and mechanical failures and the Navy nearly lost its robot. After a second unsuccessful test, the Halibut returned to Pearl Harbor in early March 1968, the same time that the Navy spotted unusual Soviet activity in the central Pacific. The second superpower of the Cold War seemed to be looking for a missing sub—the fated K-129.

Eventually, the Soviets appeared to abandon their search. US Naval intelligence quickly realized the wreck might yield valuable insight into Soviet nuclear missiles, security codes, and other military equipment. Their data indicated the submarine might have exploded about 1,560 miles northwest of the Hawaiian Island, Oahu.

The Halibut left Pearl Harbor with a new mission on 15 July. Only a handful of technical specialists and the ship’s officers knew they were searching for the K-129. The rest of the crew knew only that they were pursuing a “special project.”

After reaching the target area where they thought the K-129 might be located, the search team laid out a grid and sent the Halibut’s robotic fish to scan the area. Sonar provided rough guidance, but strobes and cameras did the real searching. Periodically, film was collected and delivered to the Halibut where a photo technician developed and examined it. The photo technician wasn’t told what to look for; the only instructions he received were to call the captain if he saw anything unusual.

The first seven weeks yielded nothing, so Halibut returned to base for supplies, servicing, and fresh uranium fuel for the next round of searching. They saw nothing interesting after another four and a half weeks at sea. Then, the ship’s photo technician looked at newly developed film and knew he had seen the “something unusual” he was supposed to look for. The first picture showed part of a sub with four extended periscopes. Other photos showed the vessel had broken into two pieces, along with other damage, and a chilling view of a partial human skeleton. He called the captain to say they had found what they were seeking.

The detail in the photos wowed then-President Lyndon Johnson and Pentagon officials. Intelligence officers were eager to attempt recovery. But in the middle of a heated election year, Johnson deferred the decision to the next administration. So, it was then-President Richard Nixon who handed the task to the CIA, which in mid-1969 assigned John Parangosky (a.k.a. Mr. P), highly regarded for managing technology development of the Corona spy satellite, to head recovery of the K-129.

Ocean mining by the Hughes Glomar Explorer was part of the deep cover for the CIA’s Project Azorian. Photo credit: Bettmann

Being the CIA, the agency project needed a code name, and someone pulled a card saying “Azorian” from a registry of names. It means something connected to the Azores islands in the Atlantic Ocean, but no known connection to stealing a submarine. In his fascinating history of the project, The Taking of K-129, Josh Dean writes “no one connected to the program knows or can recall exactly why a word referring to the Azores Island chain was chosen—other than that it was available.” 

Mr. P and the CIA technology task force decided to build a capture vehicle that would be lowered from the surface to reach under the sub, grasp and secure the wreck, and then lift it up and into the bottom of a specially built surface ship where it would be placed in a hidden containment area. The recovery process would be hidden from people outside the surface ship, but at twice the length of a football field, the ship itself was too big to hide. No matter. Mr. P would invent a cover story to fool the Soviets and the rest of the world.

The CIA hired a ship-building company, Global Marine, to design the boat, and defense contractor Lockheed to build the capture vessel. But in September 1970, engineers realized they needed more information on the precise orientation of the sub and the details on the site.

The Halibut equipment “was real state of the art for the time,” says Houston. He praised the crew’s skill at finding the sub, remotely operating the optical system on the sea floor, and assembling the images that showed the condition of wreck. “The problem was the images didn’t show what the sub really looked like in three dimensions,” he says. And that information was crucial for designing the capture vehicle to grapple with the wreckage, lift it up from the sea floor, and place it inside the recovery ship.

The job required the absolute cutting edge in imaging optics. Mr. P knew who could supply that equipment: Itek, a Lexington, Massachusetts, company that supplied optics for Corona. Itek’s director of special projects, John Wolfe, called Houston—then an ambitious young engineer with experience in cutting-edge periscopes and submarine optics—to meet with him for lunch in Itek’s executive offices. 

Houston was tired that morning, having spent the previous day working on a submarine optics project in Connecticut. The CIA had “contained” the Azorian Project, so Wolfe could not describe details even to people with a clearance.  That left his description of the project for Houston rather vague.

“He said it would involve taking photographs in the deep ocean, and we were going for millimeter resolution, three-dimensional images, and no shadows,” recalls Houston. “Trying to be very careful, I started asking questions about how big the field was.” Wolfe, waffling, said it was about the size of a football field. Houston asked if he meant a submarine, noting that he had just been on one the day before, so he knew just what that size meant.

Wolfe grew pale. He realized the question had crossed a threshold that could blow project security. “He was a very large man, and it looked like he was going to have a heart attack,” Houston recalled. Wolfe recovered his presence and said “We have to sign a paper” before the discussion could go any further.

When the paper was signed, Houston learned the deadline for the design was six months, but the CIA wanted it sooner. He knew ocean optics, but he also knew the goal would not be easy. Seawater is turbid, and seeing clearly through a turbid fluid is very tricky.

Though overwhelmed, in just six days Houston was able to present a plan to the CIA and top Itek managers. He said lighting was the key issue, and they had to develop an array of lights that would fully illuminate an area larger than the beams. His solution was to use multiple lights for illumination and multiple cameras to focus the light onto film. Very fast strobes would freeze the motion of the turbulent water. They would need a very special type of light  available from only one source—Hydro Systems, a small San Diego maker of undersea lights and television cameras whose products the Navy had already used for missions, including searching for the remains of the USS Thresher.

Mr. P offered the help of two top CIA engineers and set an ambitious target of six months to both demonstrate the concept and build the system. The Agency’s priorities moved the project into a world different from usual corporate work. The CIA did not want lots of documentation. When Houston wrote a one-page request for the special lamps, he said he needed them as soon as possible. The CIA sent someone to collect the lamps from the manufacturer in California, who then flew to Boston with the lamps, and delivered them to Houston the next morning.

Back at his home in Massachusetts, Houston and his teenage son set up one strobe in a cranberry bog near the Sudbury River and an array of multiple white panels to characterize a single source supposed to uniformly illuminate a 90-degree field. Nature provided the darkness needed for the experiment, and the river supplied flowing water and wildlife. Houston climbed a large tree branch overhanging the bog carrying a 35-mm camera and photographed flashes while his son triggered the strobe.

(Left) The CIA's mysterious "Mr. P." Photo credit: Josh Dean

“A strobe light at night in Sudbury was not covert,” Houston says. “The bright flashes lit up the countryside brilliantly when they went off, but nobody knew what we were doing. It was the full Doc Edgerton,” he added, citing the MIT professor famed for inventions in high-speed photography. “Turns out that the actual shape of the beam was 60 degrees with the edge ‘falling off’ following the classical scatter and absorption effects.”

A few days later, a CIA team pored over the images in a darkened room at Itek. Mr. P examined them carefully through a magnifier and praised their quality. Then he asked, “But where did all the catfish come from?” The design was quickly dubbed “the catfish solution.”

“The results were then modeled at full scale to optimize the number of strobes required to fill the target field. Then the proper locations of specially designed underwater cameras. All that hardware had to survive pressures upwards of 8,000 pounds per square inch, a tough goal for lenses, lens seats, and housings,” says Houston.

CIA engineers worked quickly. By late October 1970, the finished optics were in Honolulu on a ship from Global Marine. Its stated mission: ocean mining research. Its secret goal, however, was taking new photos and collecting samples of the sea bottom at the wreck of the K-129 to help engineers design the recovery vehicle and the ship that would carry it. November saw the photos on their way to the mainland, although the sediment samples could not be collected.

Meanwhile, the CIA had prepared a cover story to explain the mysterious marine activity. At a December press conference in Honolulu, Raymond Holliday, a top executive at Hughes Tool Company, announced that his boss, Howard Hughes, was paying Global Marine to develop mining of manganese nodules from the ocean floor.

It was a stroke of genius. Hughes was famous for his wealth, reclusiveness, and eccentricity. Mining groups were studying ways to extract manganese modules from the ocean floor. The public would have little doubt that Hughes could afford such an investment. As the sole owner of the Hughes Tool Company, he could spend what he wanted. He had links in high places and was willing to cooperate with government projects. The ship was named the Hughes Glomar Explorer.

Hughes himself was far more evasive than any of the CIA spooks, which was entirely in character at that point in his life. Supposedly his employees explained the deal and he approved it.

The catfish solution photos revealed the K-129 was tilted more than expected, which required redesigning and rebuilding both the capture vehicle and the Glomar Explorer. The changes took time, and the ship did not reach the site until 4 July 1974. The recovery team succeeded in capturing the largest part of the sub and lifting it from the bottom. However, as they were doing so, a large chunk broke off and fell back down to the ocean floor. Exactly what the CIA learned from Project Azorian remains unknown, but the Agency’s museum nonetheless calls the operation “one of the greatest intelligence coups of the Cold War.”

Jeff Hecht is an SPIE Member and freelancer who writes about science and technology.


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