How to Steal a Submarine: Call the CIA and Howard Hughes

CIA flag
The seal of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). (Image credit: CIA)

Ever have a hankering to steal a submarine — maybe a sunken Soviet model loaded with nuclear warheads — but you just weren't sure how to do it?

Well, you're not alone. After a Soviet Golf II submarine carrying four-megaton nuclear warheads and a crew of 70 sank in the Pacific Ocean in 1968, the Soviet Navy failed to locate the vessel despite several months of searching.

That's when the U.S. government, keen on getting classified information from the sub, started its own search. But to cover its tracks, the government first enlisted the help of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, according to recently declassified CIA documents. [7 Technologies That Transformed Warfare]

At that point, the story of the missing submarine starts to sound like the plot of a James Bond film. In fact, the tale did inspire a 007 movie, 1977's "The Spy Who Loved Me," according to the Houston Chronicle.

Declassified CIA documents

The declassified Cold War-era documents from the CIA detail the history of the sub expedition. The secretive search and attempted salvage of the sub was given the code name "Project AZORIAN."

Shortly after the Soviets abandoned their search effort, the U.S. military found the sunken submarine resting on the ocean floor more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) beneath the waves, in a remote area about 1,500 miles (2,300 km) northeast of Hawaii.

But how to retrieve the sub? After extensive research, CIA engineers and scientists decided to build a huge mechanical claw, tethered to a gigantic ship through a trap door in the hull. The claw was designed to plunge to the ocean's floor, snag the nuclear submarine and bring it to the surface.

It gets weirder: Once snagged and lifted toward the surface, the sub would be captured by a mammoth barge with a retractable roof. Devised to be submersible, the barge could capture and hold the sub beneath the waves to avoid detection by enemy spies.

There was just one problem with Project AZORIAN: It's not easy to hide an enormous floating recovery operation, and any obvious salvage efforts in the area would arouse the suspicions of the Soviets, who had an obvious interest in keeping their nuclear secrets locked in a watery grave.

Hughes to the rescue

Enter Howard Hughes: The United States selected the oddball industrialist and engineering wunderkind to front the effort and deflect any suspicions that the government was involved.

As explained in a 1974 memo to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: "Mr. Howard Hughes … is recognized as a pioneering entrepreneur with a wide variety of business interests; he has the necessary financial resources; he habitually operates in secrecy; and his personal eccentricities are such that news media reporting and speculation about his activities frequently range from the truth to utter fiction."

Sure enough, the gambit worked: Breathless news reports about the ship, dubbed the "Hughes Glomar Explorer" (or HGE), enthused about the operation, which was reportedly an effort at deep-sea mining, according to io9.

"The race is on to exploit mineral riches that lie in the deep," The Economist magazine gushed, according to io9.

And in 1974, the HGE succeeded in retrieving a chunk of the Soviet submarine, but the remainder of the vessel broke away when the giant hook failed to operate as planned.

News is leaked

Things got even worse for Project AZORIAN when rumors began to swirl about what was going on in the Pacific, and investigative journalists started asking questions about the project — and the government's involvement.

Finally, in 1975, the Los Angeles Times and other major news outlets published stories about the operation after a break-in at a Hughes subsidiary in Los Angeles, during which several boxes of classified documents were stolen, including those describing the sub salvage.

Kissinger soon recommended scrubbing the operation: "It is now clear that the Soviets have no intention of allowing us to conduct a second mission without interference," he wrote in a memo to President Gerald Ford. "A Soviet ocean-going tug has been on station at the target site since 28 March, and there is every indication that the Soviets intend to maintain a watch there."

With that, after several years and $800 million, Project AZORIAN was abandoned. The HGE was sold to a drilling company, and by all reports, the Soviet sub still sits quietly at the bottom of the ocean.

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Marc Lallanilla
Live Science Contributor
Marc Lallanilla has been a science writer and health editor at and a producer with His freelance writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Marc has a Master's degree in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin.