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Captain James Bradley and the USS Halibut: a story like no other

Here’s what you need to remember: cthe Halibut and other submarines began regular mail runs to install new tapes on tap while bringing the old tapes back for analysis by the NSA in what was called Operation Ivy Bells.

Since 2015, there have been reports of Russian submarines and spy ships trawling in the waters near submarine fiber-optic cables crossing the ocean, essential for transoceanic internet access. In fact, the reported activity of the Yartar spy ship off the US nuclear submarine base in King’s Bay, Georgia, is likely in search of secret military cables used exclusively by the Pentagon.

The Russians might be interested in hacking these cables because the US Navy achieved such a feat forty-six years earlier using a specially modified spy submarine, a nuclear-powered wiretap, and pumped-up aquanauts. helium.

the Halibut, Missile-Sub transformed into a spy submarine

Commissioned in 1960, the USS Halibut was a one-of-a-kind nuclear submarine designed to launch Regulus II nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. The 5,000-ton submarine housed two 17.5-meter-long Regulus II missiles in a grotesquely domed hangar on its foredeck. The missiles were launched as they surfaced from a hydraulically extending ramp to strike targets up to 1,150 miles.

However, by the time the Halibut Having entered service, the Navy had developed the Polaris, the first American submarine-launched ballistic missile, which could be fired from water into space to strike a target nearly 3,000 miles away. The obsolete Regulus II was canceled a year before the Halibut was commissioned in 1960, and the submarine spent four years lugging around five old Regulus I missiles on deterrent patrols before those were also withdrawn.

Still, the Navy saw useful potential in the Halibut unconventional layout, and in 1968 it received a unique overhaul. The domed missile hangar has been converted into the “Bat Cave” (inspired by the comic book character’s lair) filled with spy gear, including a 60s UNIVAC 24-bit computer, retractable sonar to seabed sweep and photo development lab. A well under the bat cave could deploy two 2-ton “Fish”, remote-controlled underwater spy vehicles. Halibut the lower hull had special thrusters and anchor winches to maintain its position on the seabed and then received four skids allowing it to land there safely.

An apparent mini-submarine was attached prominently on the Halibut aft deck, which the Navy publicly touted as a Deep Submerged Rescue Vehicle (DSRV) simulator. It was a hoax: the basket actually housed a special pressurized chamber for use by saturation divers, with an integrated dive chamber.

Deep-water divers are at risk of decompression sickness (“elbows”) caused by gas bubbles forming in the body during acclimatization to regular air pressure. Based on pioneering technology in SEALAB underwater habitats, the pressure chamber has been designed to provide divers with a long-term pressure-stable habitat so that they only need to depressurize once at sea. end of their mission. The divers used oxygen mixed with helium rather than heavier nitrogen to aid acclimatization. You can see an amazing diagram by HI Sutton from the Halibut and its gadgets here.

the Halibut The first mission was to locate the Soviet guided-missile submarine K-129, which on March 8, 1968, sank nearly 5,000 meters to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean under mysterious circumstances. The Soviet Navy searched for the K-129 for months, but it was the Halibut who finally found it with his “Fish” in August, after reducing the search radius to “just” 1,200 square miles using data from the Navy’s SOSUS hydrophone array.

In 1972, Captain James Bradley of the Office of Naval Intelligence considered a new use of the Halibut. The Soviet Navy maintained a large submarine base armed with nuclear missiles at Petropavlovsk, on the remote Kamchatka Peninsula. Bradley felt it was likely the base was maintaining an underwater communications cable to transmit messages directly across the Sea of ​​Okhotsk.

However, the presence of the cable has not even been confirmed, so how to locate it? Bradly was inspired one day remembering signs he had seen from the side of ships on the Mississippi River warning not to anchor in areas near submarine cables. (Anchors are still a common cause of damaged cables.)

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Thinking that the Soviets would use similar signs, he sent the Halibut off Kamchatka to look for them. the Halibut was not particularly quiet by the standards of modern submarines, and it was in danger of being attacked if discovered penetrating the perimeter formed by Soviet naval bases on the Kuril Islands seized from Japan at the end of the Second World War. In fact, the Halibuthad was a self-destruct device to ensure that she and her crew could not be captured.

After a week of poking around, the Halibut the crew eventually spotted beach signs in the Cyrillic ships warning not to drop anchor. Discreetly, Bat Cave technicians began scanning the seabed with their “Fish” and, within hours, spotted the cable 120 meters below the sea via a grainy video stream. The 5,000-ton submarine carefully settled down near the seabed, deploying its special anchors. Elite saturation divers in the pod swam up to the cable and wrapped a three-foot-long magnetic induction device around the cable. Rather than risk being damaged and detected by piercing the cables inside, the faucet recorded activity passing through the cable.

The operation was considered so secret that most Halibut The crew were told their mission was to recover fragments of a test P-500 “Sandbox” missile for analysis. The supersonic anti-ship missile was rumored to use an advanced infrared seeker. To strengthen coverage, after recording several hours of conversation, the Halibut sailed to the test site and his dovers recovered two million tiny P-500 missile fragments, which were reassembled as puzzles until it was discovered that Sandbox was only using radar guidance!

The brief tape was brought back to Pearl Harbor and turned out to be very promising. The Navy quickly ordered a new six-ton ​​wiretap device from Bell Laboratories called “the beast” (photo here) which used a nuclear power source and a huge tape recorder to record weeks of conversation on multiple lines at the same time.

the Halibut came back and installed this new device, and the submarine crew quickly listened to Soviet telephone conversations, celebrating their success by feasting on a spider crab picked up from the bottom of the sea.

Now the Halibut and other submarines began regular mail runs to install new tapes on tap while bringing the old tapes back for analysis by the NSA in what was called Operation Ivy Bells. the Halibut itself was decommissioned in 1975, and the courier was taken over by the USS Parche, Sea Wolf and Richard B. Russell.

The bugged cables provided the NSA with a treasure trove of intelligence: Between personal appeals to family and lovers were private conversations on sensitive political matters and detailed information about Soviet submarine operations. Much of Soviet traffic was unencrypted as cables were considered a highly secure form of communication.

This candid and unfiltered portrayal of the Soviet Navy’s state of mind towards the United States would have influenced American military leaders to defuse activities that threatened to panic Moscow, and would also have informed the negotiating position. of Washington for the SALT II treaty which limited the size of strategic nuclear forces.

Cheap betrayal

The cable tapping operation involved risks. In Sherry Sontag’s book Blind man’s Bluff, he describes how during a subsequent tape recovery mission, a storm at sea upset the Halibut back and forth until her anchors snap, causing her to start rising uncontrollably with divers trapped outside. the Halibut was at risk of exposure in Soviet territorial waters, and its captive divers were at risk of death from rapid decompression. Captain John McNish decided to flood the Halibut until it crashes to the seabed and brings divers back to their pressurized habitat. But now the Halibut was dangerously bogged down.

After completing the planned data collection, the Halibut attempted a dangerous emergency blow to break free from the sediment on the seabed, followed by an immediate dive to avoid piercing the surface. The submarine only had enough compressed air to attempt the maneuver once and luckily it worked.

In 1980, an incident also hit the USS sea ​​bass, which was only equipped with a nuclear reactor cooled by liquid metal. While on a tape recovery mission, a storm crashed it onto the seabed and got stuck, with mud and shellfish fouling it inside. Its captain considered scuttling the ship before successfully raising it to the surface during a noisy emergency eruption. After this incident, Soviet ships were observed heading towards the site of the cable outlet.

However, it was human fragility, and not sea storms or Soviet sonar, that ended the intelligence manna. When the Parché went to get the last tape, the tap was missing.

In July 1985, Soviet KGB defector Vitaly Yurchenko revealed that Ronald Pelton, a heavily indebted former NSA analyst, entered the Soviet embassy on January 14, 1980 and sold Ivy Bells’ secret for 5,000. $, with an additional $ 30,000 paid for future reference. This led to the removal of the tap by the Soviet divers, although it is possible that the Soviets may have sowed misleading information into the cable traffic before doing so.