Nuclear blackmail, Nixon style
This is an older story that dates back to the 1970's, but it's a good example of how wrong the press can be. It's also good to know that our leaders, however much they may be criticized, occasionally do very smart things.
Some of us old timers may remember Project Jennifer. Back in the early 70's, the CIA funded a project, to the tune of half a billion dollars, to raise an old Soviet ballistic missile sub in the Pacific, where it had gone down in 1968. Built a ship called the Glomar Explorer to go fetch it from 20,000 feet of water, and they said they only got the front third of the sub, it broke apart while being raised. It was regarded to be a major government boondoggle and an example of waste. The press had a field day - all of that just to get some old missiles and codebooks.
They were completely wrong. Codebooks on submarines are printed on water soluble paper for obvious reasons - sub sinks, codes are gone. We didn't care about their missiles, we could find out what we wanted by observing their tests.
The reason we went after that sub relates to the reason we found it and the Soviets couldn't. It was four hundred miles off course, headed straight for Hawaii. We knew its authorized track because we could see where the Soviets were searching for it. We found it because our listening posts had detected a surface explosion right on the international date line. And our initial survey with a remote camera showed what sank the sub - a low order detonation of one of the warheads, which blew a ten foot hole in the sub. Most likely, that was a safeguard, nuclear warheads are designed to self destruct without a nuclear explosion if an unauthorized activation is attempted, by firing the TNT charges out of sequence. We also found that the sub was on the surface when the explosion occurred, which is where that old style submarine had to be in order to launch a missile.
For a ballistic missile sub to be that far off course, is a very serious issue. Just one of those subs could bring about the end of the world, so any nation who has them keeps them on a very tight leash. It was too far off course to have been a mistake. Couldn't have been a malfunction, the sub would have radio'd command and headed home.
Our conclusion: that submarine was a rogue, acting in grave disobedience to it's orders, and most likely the captain tried to launch a missile without proper authorization. He had moved the sub off of it's patrol track, to within range of Pearl Harbor when it went down.
So that's why we went after the sub: not for long gone codebooks or old missiles, but to find out why that sub tried to fire a missile at us, and who authorized its mission. This incident cast great doubt on the Soviet government's command and control of its military forces, as the nuclear force is the most tightly controlled. It is not an incident the Soviets would want to become public, it would make them look very weak and disorganized.
However, rather than blare this to the world, Nixon and Kissinger decided to craft it for maximum benefit. They sent a message to the Soviets: play ball on the strategic arms limitation talks, or we will raise that sub and tell the whole world what it was doing.
After the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks began, the Glomar Explorer left port and headed west of Hawaii. The Soviets knew what it was doing, and the sub was too deep for them to approach. When a major breakthrough was reached a month later, we kept our end of the bargain. We announced that most of the sub was lost in the recovery, and we said nothing about being 400 miles off course, or unauthorized missile launches.
The end result was fewer nuclear warheads, and the Soviet government considerably moderating its bellicose stance towards us. If you want more detail on this fascinating story, find a copy of The Silent War, by John Craven. He was chief scientist for the Navy, and designed the first sub launched missiles.
Every once in a while, our government does something right. Pity is, when this happens, it usually can't be made public.
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