Another race with Russia to the seafloor

Espionage has been described as the “second-oldest profession.” Clearly, ever since the earliest conflicts, man has come to value the need for such a skill so as not to be ultimately surprised later by an enemy’s capabilities upon the battlefield. It was a skill Gen. George Washington recognized and effectively used to defeat the British during the American Revolutionary War. It is an even more critical capability to maintain in today’s world due to the numerous technological advances being made with weaponry.

During the Cold War, when the U.S. and Russia suffered the accidental loss of advanced weaponry at sea, both sides raced to locate it and secretly undertake recovery operations – one side seeking to gain intelligence from doing so, the other trying to prevent it. Just such a race is underway today due to a U.S. military MQ-9 Reaper surveillance drone that crashed into the Black Sea on March 14.

The U.S. claims the drone was intercepted over international waters by two Su-27 Russian jets. Upon doing so, the jets recklessly flew around it, conducting unsafe maneuvers that included the dumping of fuel on the Reaper, eventually causing its propeller to become inoperable. U.S. controllers had to glide it down to the water where it is believed to have sunk to a depth of 5,000 feet.

Moscow denies the U.S. claim, suggesting it was the unmanned drone’s “sharp maneuvering” that was responsible for the crash. Video released by the Pentagon of the incident clearly supports the U.S. version of the facts. As the encounter lasted 30-40 minutes, it is believed this was not some random act by a rogue Russian pilot but rather an intentional one ordered by the Kremlin. Russia has accused the U.S. of entering into an area Moscow recently declared to be restricted; however, it is doubtful the US will respect any such declaration as recovery operations for the drone are mounted.

The debris from this technologically advanced surveillance platform is an intelligence prize Russia seeks to recover while the U.S. rushes to get to it first. It is believed, as controllers glided the Reaper into the water, they had sufficient time to undertake an important step – remotely erasing its very sensitive software; but, nonetheless, recovery of the aerial platform itself would still provide Moscow with an intelligence windfall. It is why the Russians immediately deployed ships and aircraft to the vicinity of the crash site in an effort to recover the $32 million drone.

The United States and Russia have a long history of attempting to recover one another’s technologically advanced weaponry lost at sea. While much of what has been done remains classified, details about two operations undertaken in 1976, eventually made public, are noteworthy.

That year, parts of an F-14 fighter aircraft were lost from the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier, along with an advanced AIM-54A air-to-air missile, which the Soviets were eager to recover and examine. Fortunately at that time, the U.S. had in service the NR-1 – a miniature nuclear submarine used for numerous classified missions. While the sub’s existence was long kept quiet, it had proven its worth on several occasions.

NR-1 entered into a circular search pattern from where it was believed the F-14 had come to rest on the ocean floor. The aircraft and its missile were eventually found, but with one most telling addition. The plane had netting around it – an indication the Soviets had apparently found it first and, while attempting to haul it up, had it break loose, once again sinking to the depths below.

One of the most audacious attempted recovery operations by the U.S. occurred that same year – eight years after the Soviet submarine K-129 had disappeared in the Pacific Ocean in 1968. Because the sub carried three of the Soviet Union’s R-21 nuclear-tipped submarine-launched ballistic missiles – the first missiles capable of being launched while the submarine was still submerged – it would be a major intelligence coup for the U.S. if recovered. At the time of K-129’s loss, despite extensive efforts, the Soviets failed to find her, eventually calling off their search months later.

Unknown to the Soviets, however, years earlier the U.S. had planted underwater listening devices at various locations on the seafloor to monitor Soviet submarines. These devices had picked up the sound of the K-129 imploding. Thus, our search for her was narrowed down to a five mile radius. After the Soviets ended their search, a U.S. sub was able to locate the K-129’s wreckage. By examining it, the CIA determined the K-129 was sufficiently intact despite its three mile deep plunge to justify a recovery attempt.

The CIA immediately began planning a recovery operation. It involved constructing a mission-specific recovery ship, Glomar Explorer, equipped with a giant claw, with which to haul the K-129 up. With the help of the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, the agency developed a cover story that the Glomar Explorer was being built by him to conduct underwater mining operations.

After six years, Glomar Explorer lay anchored over the sunken submarine and began hauling it up. While doing so, however, several hooks on the claw broke, sending most of the 300-foot sub – including the important missile silos – back down into the abyss. Only about a 40-foot section of it was ultimately recovered. A second recovery effort to be conducted later had to be aborted as the media went public with the story despite being asked by the CIA to await the sub’s full recovery. Although details were never disclosed, reportedly a wealth of intelligence was still obtained from the recovered section.

There have been numerous incidents involving the loss of technology at sea that have triggered a race to the ocean floor by the U.S. and Russia to achieve an intelligence coup by recovering it. However, until the loss of the Reaper, all of these shared a common trait – they were lost as the sole result of mishaps experienced by the nation owning them. Moscow’s egregious act of interfering with the Reaper’s flight and causing its loss, in violation of international law, takes such incidents to a whole new level of confrontation.

Since the days of the NR-1, there have been technological advances enhancing the ability to locate objects on the seafloor. While the search situs, near Crimea, favors Russia, let us hope the fact the Reaper lies deep below the surface favors U.S. search technology.

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This article was originally published by the WND News Center.

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