Project AZORIAN was a collaboration among the CIA and private firms to recover a sunken Soviet submarine from the the Pacific Ocean some 1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii. The ballistic missile submarine had sunk years before, killing all aboard in March 1968. It was diesel-powered, but US intelligence suspected the vessel was armed with nuclear weapons. If it was indeed carrying nuclear weapons the U.S. could learn a lot about Soviet capabilities by recovering the sub. Fortunately for the U.S. the Soviets did not know the submarine's location.
At the time of it sinking the sub was one of the Soviet navy’s most modern ballistic missile submarines and had sunk about 1,500 miles northwest of Oahu after an onboard explosion. Although it was believed that it contained valuable intelligence sources such as cryptographic equipment and nuclear technology, there was no way to recover a 1,750-ton sub that was more than three miles deep.
The CIA's solution was to have Howard Hughes' Glomar Explorer, which was equipped with a giant eight-fingered claw grab it and haul it to the surface. Global Marine Development, a Hughes company, agreed to conceal the ship's true mission using a cover story: the Glomar Explorer was a specially built ship to explore the then-new field of deep-water oil drilling.
For a cover story, the CIA turned to the eccentric multimillionaire defense contractor Howard Hughes and the ship's construction was passed off as an experiment for mining manganese nodules from the ocean floor. Since Hughes was known to be eccentric, secretive and to embrace odd projects, the CIA’s hope was that the project was be regarded as just another one strange undertaking from Howard Hughes. The ruse was so successful that several companies took the idea seriously and invested in nodule mining.
The project was questionable from the beginning. In 1972, Admiral Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a memo that recommended dropping the mission “because of decreased intelligence value of the target with the passage of time" and mounting costs. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kenneth Rush only estimated the project's chance of success at 20 to 30 percent.
Those recommendations notwithstanding, Richard Helms, Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms, was worried if the CIA backed out it would hurt the CIA's standing with contractors and jeopardize future projects. President Nixon finally gave the project a green-light.
With the design, cover story and CIA funding in place, the Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Chester, Pennsylvania started construction which was completed on June 1, 1973. The ship cost more than $350 million (about two billion in today's dollars). At 619 feet long the Explorer’s massively reinforced hull was larger than most Second World War battleships and aircraft carriers. Never formally commissioned into the U.S. Navy the ship was government property, the Hughes story notwithstanding.
The ship resembled an oil-drilling ship, but the sub was to be grabbed by a three mile long string of 30-foot long sections of pipe similar to that used in oil well drilling. The equipment itself weighed 4,000 tons. The forward half of the submarine, half buried in sediment at the ocean bottom, would be dragged free and hauled up to the surface, one length of drill pipe at a time.
In order for this to happen, much of the Explorer’s midsection was taken up with equipment custom-designed for the submarine recovery, including two towering gantries and a massive pyramidal derrick system with a capacity of 7,000 tons. All of this was stabilized in three dimensions on massive gimbals and a hydraulically operated compensator, designed to keep the rig vertical and at the same level despite the motion of the sea. The real secret was a 200-foot long “moon pool,” a dry-dock like space where the ship’s bottom would retract, allowing the sub to be hoisted up into the Explorer’s hull for examination.
One of the first problems encountered was that the ship was too wide to fit through the Panama so it had to sail around the southern tip of South America. When the ship docked at Valparaiso, Chile it was right in the middle of August Pinochet's violent coup on September 11th, 1973. Seven Americans technicians who had flown to Chile to join the mission and were meeting the ship were under virtual house-arrest for a few days before eventually being allowed to leave.
Then when it docked in Long Beach, California in November 1973, the ship landed on the bad side of about a hundred “strong-arm type” union picketers who were dissatisfied with Global Marine. For a week to ten days the ship's crew and shipboard workers were harassed, delivery trucks stopped, and special security measures had to be put into effect. The protest delayed the departure by a few weeks. And docked just a few hundred yards away were Soviet ships that didn't suspect the Glomar's true purpose.
Once reaching the location of the submarine, the Glomar was shadowed by the Soviet navy which on two occasions sent a helicopter to take pictures of the Glomar Explorer. Concerned that the Soviets may actually land a helicopter on their helipad, the unarmed crew put crates on the Glomar's helipad and made preparations to destroy their ship's intelligence-related equipment. On another occasion a British merchant vessel approached looking for help in treating a sick crew member.
When it came to the actual recovery of the Soviet sub which began on July 4, 1974) the ship itself have to be kept within a 40-foot radius, but the final positioning of the Clementine grapple had to be exact to within only two feet. That may seem like a lot, but at the bottom of the ocean on the end of three miles of wobbly drill pipe, it was extremely difficult.
The mission was only partly successful as most of the submarine broke off as it was being hauled up to the surface and p;lunged back to the ocean floor. In the part that was actually recovered, the Glomar's crew encountered three of the submarine crew's dead. It was later reported that 70 bodies were found and buried at sea. In the end the CIA didn't recover any useful material from the operation.
The story was revealed to the public after a series of leaks to the New York Times in 1975. That was at a time when the CIA was being scrutinized for a number of its nefarious undertakings. The CIA's response to Freedom of Information Act requests from the press said the government would “neither confirm nor deny” details because of potential harm to national security.
Its cover blown and too specialized and expensive to use for anything else, the Glomar Explorer spent the next twenty years in mothballs at the US Navy’s reserve storage facility at Suisun Bay, California, having sailed on exactly one operational voyage and completed exactly one mission. The HMB-1 was kept in storage for years before being sold to a shipyard for use as a floating dry dock for ship repairs.
After twenty years in mothballs, Global Marine Drilling (later part of Transocean) leased the Explorer and gave her a $180 million makeover to convert it into an oil drilling ship equiped with conventional modern drilling equipment. From 1998 through about 2013 the Explorer enjoyed a career as a deep sea drilling ship before being taken out of service, a victim of declining petroleum prices and competition from on-shore production. In April 2015 it was sold for scrap.