From the Depths: 8 of the Most Daring Submarine Missions of the 20th Century

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Submarines continue to be one of the most valuable parts of a country’s Navy. Even today massive submarines with unparalleled technology are being built in such a way that they could spend decades beneath the surface if need be. During the cold war, they were unmatched in their ability to carry out spy missions or take out targets without ever being seen. As airplanes rule the sky, there is little doubt that submarines rule the sea.

Operation Barmaid

The HMS Conqueror was a nuclear-powered fleet submarine that served in the British Navy from 1971 until 1990. She became famous for being the only nuclear-powered submarine to have sunk an enemy ship with torpedoes, bringing down the General Belgrano during the Falklands War. She was built as a response to the Soviet threat at sea and was meant to not only attack other ships but carry out spy missions on Soviet submarine movements.

It was one of the HMS Conqueror’s most daring missions that was finally revealed in 2012. Just weeks after sinking the General Belgrano, the submarine would be given a mission that was much riskier and more difficult. In August of 1982, the HMS Conqueror was sent to the border of Russia’s territorial waters, sailing as close to the border was legally allowed. Though at times the submarine might have been even closer to the Russia than what was permitted.

Captain Wreford-Brown had been sent to find a spy trawler or AGI (Army General Intelligence). These ships were known to be filled with interception and detection equipment and would often tail NATO exercises or lurk around Naval bases. The ship that the HMS Conqueror was after on this mission was even more than just a spy trawler, it was pulled a two-mile string of hydrophones that was known as a towed array sonar. This sonar was the best in Soviet submarine detection technology and the HMS Conqueror was on a mission to steal it.

Stealing a two-mile long cable that is three inches thick, attached to a ship and made to detect submarines is not as easy as it sounds. The HMS Conqueror was fitted with two electronic pincers (provided by the Americans) in order to cut through the cable. The submarine would have to come up from below the array’s blind spot and edge toward the cutting point that was only a few yards from the tow ship. The TV cameras used to operate the pincers would not be able to see anything until a few inches from the target since the water was so black, so the rest had to be done with mental arithmetic.

The mission was a success, though some believe it took place in Soviet waters just three miles from the coast. Once a safe distance away the HMS Conqueror surfaced and pulled the severed array on board.

Project Azorian

Project Azorian was also called “Jennifer” by the CIA due to the top-secret nature of the project. In 1974 the CIA wanted to recover the Soviet submarine K-129 from the floor of the Pacific Ocean. K-129 was sunk in 1968 and fell to the ocean floor 1,560 nautical miles northwest of Hawaii. It was a project that was not only very secretive but also one of the most expensive covert operations ever attempted by the CIA.

After the K-129 sank the Soviets spent weeks trying to find the sub but never succeeded. The gave up and in July 1968, the United States Navy began Operation Sand Dollar which was their own mission to find the sunken sub and photograph it. The USS Halibut was able to locate the K-129 in three weeks using robotic remote cameras. They spent several weeks taking more than 20,000 photos of the top secret Soviet submarine. It was based on these photographs that in 1970, that Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger decided to attempt to recover the sub.

The cost of the project was $800 million in 1974 or $3.9 billion in 2016 dollars. Part of the reason why the mission was so expensive was due to the fact that a ship had to be built for the specific purpose of bringing the large submarine up from the depths. The Hughes Glomar Explorer was built with the cover story of the ship being built to mine manganese nodules from the bottom of the ocean. The K-129 rested at a depth of 16,000 feet and would therefore be the deepest salvage operation ever attempted.

The Hughes Glomar Explorer was built with a large mechanical claw known as “Clementine” which was meant to grab the targeted nuclear portion of the submarine and bring it to the surface. However, during the mission the “Clementine” suffered catastrophic failure an only part of the submarine was recovered. The recovered portion had two nuclear torpedoes and there were rumors of code books and other relevant materials being recovered that kept the mission from being a complete failure. The bodies of crew members were also found and given military burials at sea in metal caskets (due to radioactivity concerns).

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