Red Star Rogue: Red Star Rogue, Part II -- a Book Review

WHAT DO WE KNOW? On March 8, 1968, Soviet submarine K-129 surfaced about 350 miles northwest of the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. The vessel opened the hatch above the missile tube farthest to the rear of the submarine’s sail. Shortly thereafter, the missile exploded in its tube and the submarine sank. Was it a mechanical malfunction that led to a catastrophic explosion? Or was there something far more sinister at work?

This is where Red Star Rogue adds to the details. K-129 surfaced at the exact point on the Earth where several LORAN, or international long-range navigation beacons, happen to converge. This location, at the intersection of LORAN beacons, is no mere accident of navigation. Of all the spots on the surface of the high seas for a submarine to come up for air, this particular spot would have made for the most accurate place to calculate a firing equation and targeting solution for the onboard missiles.


In addition to achieving accuracy in targeting, by surfacing to fire its missile or missiles, the Golf II-class submarine minimized any complications of an underwater launch. On the best of days, it is no mean technological feat to flood a missile tube with seawater, light off a rocket, and propel it to the surface where its engines ignite and carry it to some far distant point. And it just so happened that Chinese Golf I-class submarines did not possess the capability to launch from underwater. Thus, a surface launch from a Golf-type vessel could have offered a measure of confusion as to which nation’s navy, Soviet or Red Chinese, fired the shot.

After surfacing, the submarine’s launch hatch was opened over the most rearward missile tube. A countdown occurred, culminating in a firing signal being sent to the missile. But instead of the missile launching from its tube, the conventional explosive surrounding the warhead’s plutonium “physics package” detonated. There was no nuclear yield, but instead a conventional explosion that shattered the warhead and spread plutonium dust all over the nearby Pacific waters.

The attempt to launch a nuclear missile had failed. Unbeknownst to the crew on the submarine, or perhaps unbeknownst to the 11 strangers who showed up and joined the crew just before sailing, the Soviet High Command had made arrangements that fail-safe devices be installed in their nuclear warheads. The purpose of the fail-safe devices was to prevent exactly this type of operation, namely an independent launch decision by members of the crew of a deployed submarine. That is, without the correct launch codes, which could only have come from decoding a unique type of radio signal sent by the Soviet High Command, the nuclear missiles were designed to blow up in the tubes instead of launching.

The exploding warhead caused the missile’s fuel tanks to rupture. Almost instantaneously, the fuel mixed and ignited in a massive fireball that was observed by an orbiting U.S. satellite. The explosion in the rear missile tube caused the rocket fuel in the middle missile tube to cook off as well. Thus, there was another fireball, also visible from orbit. The combined explosions were picked up by U.S. underwater acoustic sensors, which recorded the sound transients and sent the signals to Ford Island. The force of the blasts blew the bottom out of the submarine and broke the keel of the vessel. The Soviet K-129 rapidly took on water, flooded, and sank, with the loss of all onboard. A few moments later, the large sections of the submarine’s broken hull struck the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, causing the recorded seismic event.

K-129 was nowhere near its assigned patrol box. The ship had sailed hundreds of miles southeast of where it was supposed to be. But while the Soviets searched in vain for their missing boat, U.S. intelligence was able to pinpoint the site of the disaster.

U.S. Navy analysts and other intelligence personnel from other agencies still did not know quite what to make of the evidence. Within weeks, however, an American nuclear submarine, USS Halibut, was dispatched to the area. Using novel technology and techniques, and entirely unobserved while submerged under hundreds of feet of water, Halibut lowered equipment many thousands of feet to the ocean floor. Over a period of time in late 1968, Halibut made an extensive survey of the site of the wrecked Soviet submarine. Halibut may also have recovered a number of smaller items from the debris field at the bottom of the dark sea.

Red Star Rogue: Salvage and Recovery

The administration of Richard Milhous Nixon took office on Jan. 20, 1969. He and certain key members of his staff were briefed on the K-129 matter during the transition from the Johnson administration. On his second day on the job, the newly sworn-in President Nixon asked for and received an extensive brief on the intelligence effort to locate and photograph the sunken Soviet submarine K-129. Nixon, perhaps recalling the political use that the Soviets had made of an American U-2 surveillance aircraft that was downed over the Soviet Union in the 1950s, ordered the U.S. Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency to launch a clandestine project to recover the sunken vessel. This effort, which eventually cost over half a billion dollars of 1968-era funds, was named Project Jennifer.

The U.S. government obtained the cooperation of the reclusive and somewhat quirky billionaire Howard Hughes as a cover for the operation. U.S. intelligence services began to construct the necessary equipment to reach down almost three miles below the surface of the sea and to grab and recover a sunken submarine that was as long as a football field.

A key component to the recovery was to construct what was ostensibly a deep-sea “mining ship” called the Glomar Explorer. The nominal purpose of the effort was for a Hughes-owned mining company to recover manganese nodules from the sea floor. The story was pumped up with the added financial incentive that these nodules are sometimes found to contain additional volumes of gold, silver, and other precious metals. It sounded good, unless, of course, you knew anything about deep-sea mining or manganese nodules.

Upon completion, the Glomar Explorer was almost the size of a World War II-era battleship. It had a massive derrick structure located in the middle and an immense bay deep within the bowels of its hull. The ship had clamshell trap doors on the bottom, which could be opened and closed like the bomb bay doors of a large bomber. Glomar Explorer had the ability to lower a grasping device to the sea floor, built around a frame attached to lengths of drilling pipe, to grab and lift large components into the lower bay of the ship. Characteristic of the times, perhaps, it was all right out of a James Bond movie.

According to the details provided in Red Star Rogue, and contrary to years of deliberately misleading reports, the recovery operation was a great success. Glomar Explorer stayed on station in the Pacific for a length of time sufficient for its undersea equipment to make several round trips to the ocean bottom, and to recover large segments of something on each journey. The authors of the book claim that almost all major components of the sunken hulk of the Golf II-class submarine were recovered by the Glomar Explorer.

The Glomar Explorer then sailed around the Pacific Ocean for another period of time, simply to confuse any Soviet surveillance ships, if not the crew on board. Eventually, the recovery ship returned to the West Coast of the United States, where it docked at a remote location and discharged many truckloads of crated materials, mostly at night. The crew members on the recovery expedition, who were exceedingly well paid for their efforts, all signed agreements of confidentiality. When asked later about what they did while on the Glomar Explorer, most would simply say that the food was good and they exercised a lot in the ship’s gym.

Red Star Rogue: The Tale Becomes Tangled

But as is so often the case, no project of such a scope can remain secret forever. When the project eventually became public knowledge, U.S. intelligence agencies went to great lengths to claim that only the forward torpedo compartment was recovered from the ocean floor. There was a rather elaborate explanation as to how the Glomar Explorer’s grasping arm broke, at one point, during a lift. The story went on that the control room and missile compartment of the Golf II-class submarine plummeted back down to the bottom of the sea. Even allowing for this version of the story, it means that the United States recovered the two nuclear-tipped torpedoes from the submarine’s forward compartment. In and of itself, recovering these two Soviet nuclear weapons would have been an intelligence bonanza.

But the authors of Red Star Rogue raise a contradiction to the claim by official U.S. sources that the control room and missile compartments were lost. It seems that the ceremonial brass bell of K-129, which was mounted firmly to a steel fixture in the submarine’s sail, was recovered intact. During the 1990s, and as a gesture of good will, the U.S. government actually returned the bell to the government of the Russian Federation. The heart of the contradiction is that the sail of the submarine is located directly above the control room and directly forward of the three missile tubes. In order to obtain the brass bell, you have to possess the sail, and, by inference, the adjacent control room and missile compartment.

The significance of the control room has to do with recovering the equipment, and perhaps the code books, with which the submarine communicated with its headquarters. U.S. intelligence services routinely intercepted and recorded Soviet signals, but to the extent that the signals were encrypted, they were gibberish. But if America recovered the actual encoding and decoding equipment, and the associated code books, it would have been possible to go back and reconstruct many years worth of Soviet naval message traffic. In addition, it would have lent insight into the mathematical basis of the Soviet approach to writing codes. This would have been more than an intelligence bonanza: It would have been the mother lode of understanding the opponent. This type of information was beyond priceless.

The broken submarine had plunged to such a depth that the water at the seafloor was just at the point of freezing. In addition, in that part of the Pacific Ocean, the deep waters hold almost no dissolved oxygen, and thus, there is a paucity of biota. Almost all organic matter within the wreckage was preserved, to include the papers in the control room and most of the bodies of the crew. There are reports that the salvage effort recovered all manner of charts, documents, handbooks, diaries, and service records of the crew of the submarine.

As for the bodies, the preservation in the cold, oxygen-poor environment was such that it was relatively easy to identify personnel simply from their physical appearances. U.S. personnel onboard the Glomar Explorer conducted a highly respectful funeral service for the dead Russian sailors recovered from the hulk, including playing the Soviet national anthem and commending the bodies to the sea from beneath a Soviet naval flag. U.S. personnel videotaped the service. But it was not until the 1990s that the U.S. government turned over to the government of the Russian Federation a copy of the videotape as a gesture of good will in the days of thaw that followed the end of the Cold War.

At the same time, recovering the missile compartment meant the possibility of recovering the third missile that did not explode in its tube. Naturally, the people who work in intelligence collection and exploitation will tell you that even if they recovered the missile, which they deny doing, this particular type of intercontinental missile was outdated. The missile design and components were of an early generation. Its metallurgy and structural elements were primitive. Its guidance and control systems were relatively well-known technology. Its re-entry heat shield was practically out of the Stone Age. Even the plutonium core of the thermonuclear warhead, and the associated arming and detonation devices, were nothing particularly special. Really, no self-respecting spook would cross the street to recover the components of such a missile. So why dive three miles into the Pacific Ocean to do so? Yes, of course. I always believe what the spooks tell me. It all makes such perfect sense.

Red Star Rogue: There are Things that We Will Never Know

The theme of Red Star Rogue is that submarine K-129 was part of a plot by an inner cabal within the highest levels of Soviet government, with the hard-line Communists Mikhail Suslov and Yuri Andropov at the center. Their scheme, hidden from then Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, was to have submarine K-129 emulate a Chinese Golf I-class ship and fire one or two nuclear missiles at Pearl Harbor. The underlying purpose was to precipitate a nuclear exchange between the United States and China, thus removing China as a strategic competitor, let alone a military threat to the Soviet Union. The resulting geopolitical shift would have left the Soviets in a far stronger position in the world. Call K-129 a “rogue submarine,” but this was also a carefully planned operation that, had it succeeded, would have had devastating consequences.

Red Star Rogue examines the nature and implications of the long-term effort to keep secret the sinking of K-129 and the ensuing recovery project. The Soviets, of course, knew that they had lost a nuclear-armed submarine. But the U.S. intelligence community believed it was essential to keep secret its own technical abilities to locate the lost vessel, as well as its capability to dive to the deep-sea floor and recover things. Still, it was not long before the Soviets strongly suspected that America had located and at least photographed the sunken submarine. After that, one could argue that it was only the American people who were being kept in the dark. Or does this simplify things too much?

In 1968, the Soviets thought, and many Russians still believe today, that their submarine K-129 was sunk in a collision with a U.S. submarine then on patrol in the Pacific, the USS Swordfish. The indisputable fact that the Swordfish was near Japan and over 2,000 miles away from K-129 at its time of sinking has not served to allay these Russian suspicions.

And there were and are many within the U.S. military and intelligence communities who believe that the submarine USS Scorpion, which was lost in the Atlantic Ocean in the spring of 1968, was intentionally sunk by the Soviets. In other words, there is a view of the Soviets along the lines that if they believed that a U.S. submarine sank one of theirs, then they would sink one of ours. Was this the case? For almost 20 years, no one on the U.S. side really knew, but many had their strong suspicions.

Over the past several decades, the U.S. Navy has gone to great lengths to locate and inspect the wreckage of the lost USS Scorpion. For example, the oceanographer (and former U.S. Navy officer) Robert Ballard located and photographed the wreckage of the USS Scorpion in 1986, just before taking the Navy-funded equipment to another part of the Atlantic Ocean and locating the lost RMS Titanic. (The Titanic expedition was, in its own way, a “coming-out party” for the U.S. Navy, in which it showcased a critical element of its technological abilities to locate lost items on the deep ocean floor.) As to the USS Scorpion, the best evidence is that the Scorpion was destroyed by an internal explosion, most likely by a torpedo that accidentally armed and detonated in the forward compartment. But no one really knew that for 18 years. And then again, there was a Soviet submarine not far from the scene when Scorpion went down. So the suspicious minds will always wonder.

What would have been the implications in the late 1960s and 1970s of the American people, let alone the members of the world community, knowing that a Soviet rogue ship had almost fired a nuclear missile and destroyed Pearl Harbor and the adjacent city of Honolulu? What would have been the reaction in the Soviet Union if the state propaganda machine had blamed the loss of a nuclear-armed submarine on a U.S. vessel ramming its ship? What would have been the U.S. public reaction to the perceived later sinking of a U.S. nuclear submarine in mistaken retaliation? Things could have gotten complicated in a hurry.

Would the American people have panicked or remained governable in a traditional Constitutional sense? What about the Soviet people? What would have been the world reaction to another “missile crisis” without the diplomacy that accompanied the one near Cuba in 1963? What would the nuclear-armed Chinese have thought had they known that the Russians were setting them up for nuclear destruction by the Americans? Would some segments of the U.S. and Chinese societies have demanded a military response? Would the Soviets have just gone for broke and hit the Chinese with everything they had? Would people have demanded other avenues of diplomacy and military preparedness, or a forceful response?

What would Clausewitz have said? He would probably have warned about the danger of not knowing enough facts, and the friction of events and fog of war. He would have counseled caution, I believe. And somehow or another, cool heads prevailed and we are all still here to discuss it. When you look at it in perspective, perhaps some things are better kept in the closet for several decades, at least until personalities pass from the world stage and emotions cool down.


Red Star Rogue: What Does it Take to Change the World?

Along these lines, let me digress. One nuclear explosion is, of course, a short-term disaster in the affected area. Casualties are horrific, as anyone who has ever seen the results can attest. But knowledge of the destruction of a nuclear weapon is, in its own way, a method to ensure against the use of such devices. Unless, of course, you are dealing with someone with a different world view. No less a political philosopher than Mao Zedong once said, “It is all right if China loses 200 or 300 million people in a nuclear war. The sun will still rise. Trees will grow. Women will still have babies.”

Mao apparently understood (and not to be callous) that a nuclear detonation is not the end of the world. Japan absorbed two nuclear blasts in 1945 and survived as a nation. Also, the atomic testing of many nations between the 1940s-1990s led to the detonation of hundreds of nuclear blasts, in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under the sea. When visible tests went out of style, there were many more explosions in underground blast chambers from Nevada to Semipalatinsk to Lop Nor, and more recently in isolated spots of India and Pakistan. Some of the blasts were in the range of many megatons. None of these blasts improved local real estate prices. Many blasts caused dangerous levels of fallout that led to downwind deaths and injuries. But neither did these blasts, either individually or collectively, cause life on Earth as we know it to come to an end. (For that, we will have to wait for the results of Peak Oil to hit home.)

Think of this in terms of what almost happened in 1968. What if the plan had worked? What would President Johnson have done with a gigantic blast crater where Pearl Harbor used to be? What tools of diplomacy and military power are available to a political leader to respond to a sudden nuclear strike that occurs quite out of the blue? (We are still asking that question today, in this post-Sept. 11 world.)

Under the circumstances in 1968, would we even have known who fired the missile? And getting back to our own world’s reality, and to what really happened on March 8 of that year, what tools are available to a political leader to respond to an incident that “almost” occurred? And complicate the equation with the fact that the details of the incident that almost occurred did not become clear for many months, if not years?

Red Star Rogue: The Product of Quiet Diplomacy

President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, made their own use of the intelligence gathered from the sunken K-129. Someone in Washington, D.C., “arranged” for a package of top-secret photos of the lost submarine to be left at the front door of the Soviet Embassy. As the old saying goes, “There are no accidents, comrade.” The photos clearly showed the blast damage to the rear missile tube of K-129. There was no mistaking or misinterpreting the clear evidence that the submarine had blown up while attempting to launch a missile.

The Soviets conducted their own internal investigation, and the result was that Premier Brezhnev was able to reduce the power of his political rivals Suslov and Andropov. Within a short time, these two conspiratorial individuals and their associates went missing from the Soviet May Day parade. It is a wonder they were not both taken out and shot, but there was a certain element of logic to the way the Soviets did things. (Andropov made a brief comeback in the early 1980s, during a period of Soviet fear of their own caricature of U.S. President Reagan.) Also, under Nixon, the process of “detente” commenced, and there was remarkable progress in the arena of negotiating effective arms control agreements between the Soviets and Americans.

As to a certain other important country, there is an expression that “only Nixon could go to China.” The context is that only Nixon, an ardent crusader in the American anti-Communist cause during the 1940s and 1950s, had the political credibility within the States to arrange for a diplomatic opening with China. In other words, only Nixon could shake the hand of Mao without worry of being figuratively stabbed in the back by domestic political enemies. But another way to phrase the point is to ask why the Chinese wanted to host a man like Nixon. It may have had something to do with Henry Kissinger, on a secret mission to China early in the Nixon presidency, showing photos and explaining to the Chinese the details of the sinking of K-129. The enemy of an enemy becomes something of a friend.

Whatever the truth within the secretive halls of nuclear diplomacy, it is a fact that U.S. relations rapidly thawed with China during the 1970s. By the time Mao died, in 1976, the political faction led by Deng Xiaoping was waiting in the wings to open China to the outside world and to break out of the self-imposed political and economic isolation of the Mao era. Absent the U.S. negotiating leverage provided by the K-129 incident, one must wonder if China would have been at all cooperative with the United States in the 1970s and if Deng would have otherwise prevailed. Of Nixon, we can only look back and note that he played the hand of cards that he was dealt by fate.

As to the Glomar Explorer, that technological marvel of deep-sea fishing and its cover story of mining the ocean floor for manganese nodules, there is more. The perception that so-called rich nations would simply build technology and stake out claims to the wealth of the oceans led directly to a group of smaller, poorer nations banding together and insisting on a treaty to cover deep-sea mining. Thus, out of a clandestine search for a sunken submarine full of nuclear secrets and its fanciful cover about a billionaire sponsor came the Law of the Sea Treaty. This treaty will, in all likelihood, govern the exploitation of undersea minerals, oil and gas, and fisheries, as well as maritime navigation, well into the 21st century.

So with all of this in mind, perhaps you can understand why when I pick up a good book about submarines, I have a hard time putting it down.

Byron W. King
January 24, 2006