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5.0 out of 5 stars A Turning Point in History?, September 24, 2005
By Thomas J. Dougherty (Ayer, Ma. USA) - See all my reviews
"Red Star Rogue", written by Kenneth Sewell and Clint Richmond, examines one of the most intriguing incidents of the Cold War. This was the loss of the Soviet Golf II class ballistic missile submarine (SSB) K-129, and the subsequent examination and recovery of the wreck by the United States. Previous books that have examined this incident include Clyde Burleson's 1977 "The Jennifer Project", and the CIA sanctioned story of the recovery in the 1978 "A Matter of Risk" by Roy Varner and Wayne Collier. Additional information can be gleaned from chapters in the books "Blind Man's Bluff" (Sontag & Drews), Dr. Roger Dunham's "Spy Sub", and John P. Craven's "The Silent War". In this new book, Sewell and Richmond take advantage of the opportunity to conduct research within the former Soviet Union, and to interview those involved or affected on both sides of the story. However, they end up with a sensationalist scenario to explain the intense interest the American government took in an obsolete, sunken diesel powered ballistic missile submarine.
Sewell claims to have uncovered previously unknown facts about the rapid resupply and hasty departure of the K-129 from its base on the Kamchatka Pennisula, and "extra" last minute crew additions. The basic thesis of this book is that the submarine was part of a secret plot by an inner "cabal" within the highest levels of Soviet Government (centered around Mikhail Suslov and Yuri Andropov), hidden from Premier Leonid Brezhnev. The plot was to have K-129 emulate a Chinese Golf I submarine (an earlier transfer from the USSR before the split with China) and launch a one megaton nuclear missile toward Pearl Harbor. The purpose was to precipitate a nuclear exchange between the US and China, removing the China threat to the USSR and simultaneously permitting Soviet troops to move south into China, establishing a Soviet hegemony in Asia. The resulting geopolitical shift would have left the USSR in a much stronger position (and possibly promote leadership change to the hard liner Suslov circle).
The book describes the submarine's frantic last minute crew changes and probable steps along the way on the voyage towards Hawaii. The submarine apparently failed to broadcast scheduled mandatory radio checks, and ended up quite far from its assigned patrol area. The authors build a somewhat shaky case by piecing together seemingly disparate evidence that the K-129 was just 350 miles from Pearl Harbor and on the surface when it attempted missile launch. This profile would have simulated a Golf I submarine with the shorter range R-13 (NATO SS-N-4 Sark) missile with the earlier D-2 launch system, which required surface firing. In fact, the Golf II K-129 carried the longer range R-21 (NATO SS-N-5 Serb) and the D-4 system that permitted submerged missile firing. There would be no reason to be that close and on the surface if this were a sanctioned attack by the Soviet government. The authors speculate that a nuclear fail-safe system led to an aborted launch and missile explosion, resulting in the sinking of the K-129 in 16,400 feet of water. Unlike the CIA account, which had the submarine some 1800 miles northwest of Hawaii (well out of missile range for either system), the current book places the submarine dangerously close to Hawaii. Sewell is alone in making this claim, as previous authors, including John P. Craven in his 2001 book "Silent War" put the K-129 wreck at 40 latitude, 180 longitude, basically on the International Date Line. Declassified documents released in 2001 support the Craven location.
The subsequent detailed covert examination of the K-129 wreck by the Special Operations submarine USS Halibut is described. Earlier accounts (Burleson, Varner & Collier) did not include the highly successful work of Halibut as the details of its capabilities were classified until 1994. A desription of this operation is however provided in Sontag & Drew's "Blind Man's Bluff" None of the over 22,000 photos taken by the ROVS deployed by Halibut have ever been declassified, but the present authors did speak with some who have seen the photos. The thorough examination and possible recovery of small pieces of K-129 revealed almost all of the technical details of this older diesel powered SSB class. The submarine was not in a single piece as claimed by the CIA (A point made earlier by Burleson in his book), and the photos showed damage consistent, upon detailed technical analysis, with the possibility of an attempted failed missile launch. The analysts concluded that the most probable case might be that the submarine was "rogue", as the USSR was not on high alert nor were they other signs of other preparations for war on the date the K-129 had sunk. Additionally, it is alleged that when the Soviet Navy searched for the lost K-129 when it was overdue in reporting, the search was concentrated in the submarine's patrol area, well away from the actual wreck site. However, others have offered a more plausible alternative scenario in which the K-129 developed problems with the R-21 liquid fueled missile, leading to a somewhat similar accident as occurred with the Yankee class K-219 in the Atlantic in 1986.
According to Sewell, it was this "rogue" conclusion which stimulated the effort to build the Glomar Explorer and associated recovery equipment for the expressed purpose of recovery of the K-129, in order to examine and prove the supposition that it was in fact a "rogue" submarine. This proof would have been shared with the Soviet leadership. The construction and deployment of the Glomar Explorer, costing over $500 million (1970 dollars), in a remarkably short period of time during a time of rising inflation and the costs of the Vietnam War, underlines the apparent high priority given to examine and attempt to understand waht happened to the K-129. The remarkable technical details of the recovery of K-129 wreckage from over 16,000 feet of water (much deeper than the Titanic wreck) are reviewed, along with the argument that the Glomar Explorer was on station long enough to recover several large pieces of the submarine. However, many of the details of the actual recovery operation described by Sewell do not agree with widely published accounts of the actual operation of the Glomar Explorer and claw system equipment (e.g., Burleson; Collier & Varner), and the consistent claim by others has always been that the K-129 broke apart during the lifting operation, with only 38 feet of the bow recovered. Among the "new information" reported for the first time in this book are that the majority of the K-129 crew was jammed into forward compartments of the submarine, away from the command and control centers. Their speculation is that an Osnaz Special Operations unit, boarded at the last moment before sailing, seized control of the submarine as it neared its patrol area, confined the crew, diverted it to the firing position and attempted the missile launch. In fact, Sewell claims that a recent memorial ceremony for the lost crew members lists 99 men lost, well above the normal 83 man crew number for this submarine class. Another fact claimed herein is that the explosion which sank the K-129 was not in the battery compartment, as indicated in "Blind Man's Bluff", but instead was in a missile tube in the sail of the Golf II. The submarine wreckage, which was highly radioactive, was carefully dissected once on board the Glomar Explorer. Whether the missile launch guidance data was also recovered from the wreck is undisclosed; this would have been critical to proving the intent of K-129 to launch on Hawaii. Reasons for the disinformation and coverup to the American public about the K-129 and the Glomar Explorer operation are also discussed. Among these would have been the shear panic around how close we came to having Pearl Harbor and Honolulu destroyed in a large nuclear blast in March of 1968. There were repercussions within the Soviet Union as well, as apparently some of the recovered information from Halibut and the Glomar Explorer were shared with senior Soviet leaders and naval personnel. This was to underline the deep seriousness of this episode and the need for effective controls on nuclear weapons by the Soviets in the future. However, what is unclear is how Suslov & Andropov could have possibly "survived" such a reckless and dangerous plot, and continue to wield power in the Soviet Leadership.
In assembling the rather loose chain of "evidence" to build this story, the authors claim to have searched widely to present a plausible set of events. Much of the new material is said to come from conversations with former officials and naval personnel in Russia, which unfortunately are poorly referenced and documented in the book. This is another major weakness, as it relies on shadowy sources and innuendo, rather than on solid, documented facts. I doubt the writers are anywhere near correct. Among several weak points in the argument is why the proposed Osnaz operatives on board would not have been provided with the proper failsafe launch codes if the conspiracy included some members at the highest levels of the Communist leadership. Other "facts" in the book are also in error, as has been pointed out by several other reviewers. If true, the book's arguments and conclusions would be intriguing and deeply disturbing. This particular Cold War incident has recently become another touchstone for those interested in conspiracy theories and speculation. One might hope that these discussions will stimulate the US government to be forthcoming in the near future as to what really occurred to K-129 some 37 years ago in the Pacific, and what we learned from the investigation of the wreckage. This is a book that needs to be widely read and debated. If the authors are anywhere near the truth (which is highly questionable), the important lessons learned cannot afford to be held by a mere handful of people. If on the other hand they are not correct, it might also be an opportune time to release more facts & documentation to clarify why the US undertook such a venture.
2007 Addendum. In the two years since I have written the above review, I have been involved in a documentary film project attempting to discover the truth behind K-129 and the Glomar Explorer. Without going into details that will be part of the documentary, the research for the production has convinced me that the scenario presented in "Red Star Rogue" is absolutely wrong, and many claims made in the book, including that the location of the sunken submarine was near the Hawaiian islands, are erroneous. Please see Ray Feldman's review for a more accurate depiction of reality!