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Acoustic Detections of the Loss of the GOLF II Class Soviet SSB K-129

By Bruce Rule - June 30, 2013



When the GOLF II Class Soviet SSB K-129 was lost in the northwest Pacific on 11 March 1968, the event produced a series of acoustic signals detected by US Air Force Technical Applica- tions Center (AFTAC) sea-floor sensors (hydrophones) located at geographically dispersed positions in the central and western Pacific.

As discussed by CNO ltr ser 0051P32 of 21 May 1968 (now open source), AFTAC had, by May 1968, compared the detection times of the K-129 acoustic signals by those sensors to determine the event occurred near 40-06N, 179-57E. That position provided the basis for the successful search for the K-129 wreck by USS HALIBUT (SSN 587) and the eventual recovery of the 38-foot bow section of the submarine on 6 August 1974 by the CIA salvage ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer (HGE).

That recovery operation was observed—but not recognized as such—by two Soviet surface ships whose position for the HGE during the recovery was reported by the newspaper Petropavlovsk- Kamchatskiy KRASNAYA ZVEZDA (Red Star), issue 5-7 Aug 1991, to have been 40-04-05N 179-57-03E. That position is 2.00 nautical miles (nm), bearing 180 degreesfrom the AFTAC position, and 1593 nm from Pearl Harbor. As discussed by S.G. Kolesnikov in "Strategicheskoye raketno-yadernoye oruzhiye" published by Arsenal Press, 1996, the maximum range of the R- 21/D4 missile carried by the K-129 was reported to have been 756 nm.

Analysis of the AFTAC acoustic data obtained from public domain sources in 2008 established—for the first time—that the K-129 was lost because three explosions occurred within the pressure hull immediately prior to an apparent dual R-21/D4 missile launch training event scheduled for 12:00:00Z on 11 March 1968, hereafter referred to as T-0.Those explosions allowed that trainingevent to become the firing to fuel exhaustion of two R-21/D4 missilewithin their closed—but subsequently breached—launch tubes. The AFTAC data confirms these R-21/D4 firing events and launch support system activity occurred over an eight minutes and 36 second period following ignition of the first missile. That launch support activity, apparently directed by a programmed launch sequence control system, remained at least partially operational despite the almost certain death of the crew from the first internal explosive that occurred 62 seconds before ignition of the first missile (T-62 seconds).

This article examines the possibility the K-129 had a dead man launch capability to insure the launch of at least one missile even had the platform been successfully attacked immediately prior to launch. The continued partial functioning of a pro- grammed launch control system for such an extended period after the probable death of the crew and extreme internal damage, including a breaching of the pressure hull, suggests that if modern Russian SSBNs have a similar capability, they may be able to launch all 16 missiles in 105 seconds (open source data) or, in the case of TYPHOON, all 20 missiles in about 135 seconds even after attack (impact) by multiple conventional weapons.



As discussed in Chapter SIX of Why the USS SCORPION (SSN-589) Was Lost (hereafter: WHY), reviewed in the Winter 2012 issue of this publication, the SCORPION crew was killed or functionally disabled (rendered unconscious) by two explosions associated with the main storage battery. Those explosions occurred 21 minutes and 50 seconds before the SCORPION pressure-hull collapsed at 18:42:34Z on 22 May 1968 at a depth of 1530 feet.

To support that assessment, Chapter SIX of WHY provides discussions of the 2008 analysis of the AFTAC acoustic detections of the loss of the K-129. As discussed above, the initiating events responsible for the K-129 disaster were three internal explosions that—like SCORPION events—were contained within the K-129 pressure hull. These events are discussed below.


The first explosive event contained within the K-129 pressure hull occurred at T-62 seconds (11:58:58Z on 11 March 1968) or 62 seconds before ignition of the first R-21/D4 missile at T-0 (12:00:00Z). The T-62 event had a duration (signal level above ambient sea noise at the sensor) of 1.5 seconds and an estimated energy yield—based on signal amplitude - of about 10 pounds of TNT. A nearly constant signal level was sustained for the duration of the acoustic event.

As stated in Chapter SIX of WHY, the assessment that the K- 129 crew was killed by the first internal explosion is based, in part, on a crew member who apparently had been reading a torpedo manual and who was found still in the remains of his bunk in the bow section of the K-129 recovered by the HGE. Had the crew member been conscious, he almost certainly would not have remained in his bunk between the first explosive event at T-62 secondsand the second explosive event 45 seconds later at 11:58:43Z), 17 seconds before the first R-21 ignited. Further, examination (not autopsies) of the remains of the crew members found in the bow section indicated they died from burning explosive force before their bodies were subjected to the crushing hydrostatic (sea) pressure. Finally, the crew took no effective action to prevent what appeared to have been a simulated dual launch training event scheduled for exactly midnight local (12:00:00Z) from becoming the actual firing of both missiles within their closed launch tubes.


The second explosive event contained within the K-129 pres- sure hull, which occurred 45 seconds later, at T-17seconds (11:59:43Z), had a duration of 2.4 seconds with a relatively constant signal level for the initial 1.5 seconds followed by a high amplitude pulse with a duration of less than 0.2 seconds and an estimated energy yield of about 20 pounds of TNT. The sugges- tion is a relatively low-level thermal event that triggered a high Q exothermic event (explosion) with an energy level equal to the internal events that immediately followed ignition of the first R-21/D4 missile (see below).


The third explosive event contained within the pressure hull occurred four seconds after the second event, or at T-13 seconds (11:59:47Z), had a duration of 0.7 seconds and an estimated energy yield of about five pounds of TNT.


Thirteen seconds after the third internal explosive event, the first R-21/D4 missile ignited at exactly 12:00:00Z(T-0), developed full thrust in 1.3 seconds and fired at full thrust for 95.2 seconds still within its closed launch tube. At T+5 seconds (12:00:05Z), an acoustic event occurred onboard the K-129 which is assessed to have been burn-through of that launch tube. (Open source Soviet data indicates a thickness of 0.88 inches for the QT28 nickel-steel alloy pressure hull and a thickness of 0.38 inches for the launch tubes where they were internal to the pressure hull which included at least the lower half of the tube).

Five additional high amplitude acoustic signals (internal explosions) with peak energy levels for less than 0.2 seconds occurred in the 22 second period following the assessed launch tube burn-through (12:00:05Z-12:00:27Z). Based on the extreme damage within the recovered first compartment of the K-129, it appears the 5000 degree (F) missile exhaust plume expanded almost instantly throughout the K-129 after the launch tube was breached. This conclusion is consistent with the destruction of documents and equipment Project AZORIAN was intended to recover from the 100 foot mid-ships section of the K-129 had that section not been lost as it was being raised by the HGE, i.e., such material and equipment were exposed to the 5000 degree missile exhaust plumes for a total (both missiles) of 190 seconds.

At T+77.5 seconds ((12:01:17.5Z), 77.5 seconds after ignition of the first R-21/D4)), a major acoustic event with a peak energy level for 4.9 seconds occurred when, under normal circumstances, the R-21/D4 would already have been ejected from its launch tube about 75 seconds earlier. Exactly 77.5 seconds later (at T+155.0 seconds), another major acoustic event with a peak energy level for 5.2 seconds occurred. The timing of these events, 77.5 after ignition and 155.0 seconds (2 X 77.5) after ignition strongly suggest programmed launch support activity that occurred even though there already had been extreme internal damage and the pressure-hull appears to have been breached in the area below the launch tube as shown by images of the wreck.


At 12:06:01Z, six minutes and one second after ignition of the first R-21/D4 missile, a second missile in an adjacent launch tube ignited and burned at full thrust for 95.4 seconds. Major acoustic events also occurred at exactly 77.5 (peak energy for 3.4 seconds) and 155.0 seconds (peak energy level for 4.3 seconds) after ignition of the second R-21/D4 missile. The precise repeatability of the timing of those events from the first missile launch sequence to the secondmissile launch sequence provides additional support for the conclusion that an automated launch support system was at least still partially functioning in the K-129 despite the damaged and flooded condition. Although some components of this system remained operational, the launch tubes had not been opened because it was a simulated launch: a training event. The ignition of both missiles occurred as it would have during an actual launch, possibly because of the three earlier internal explosive events or because that operation required intervention by the now-dead crew as part of the training event that had to be taken to prevent what actually occurred, ignition within closed launch tubes. Analysis of the acoustic data does not resolve this issue.

Based on the duration of the signals that occurred at ignition plus 77.5 and 155.0 seconds for both R-21/D4 missiles compared to the duration of the internal explosive events that occurred immediately after launch tube burn-through, and the fact that the signals at 77.5 and 155.0 seconds obviously were scheduled events, the source of these four signals is assessed to have been bubble-pulse energy associated with programmed (scheduled) deballasting (purging) of what, subsequent to a normal R-21/D4 launch, would have been flooded launch tubes.Bubble-pulse acoustic energy is produced by the pressure induced oscillations (alternate expansion/contraction cycles) of an air cavity (bubble) created, in this case, by the escape of high-pressure air from the deballasting events through the ruptured launch tubes and pressure hull. The at least partial functioning of the launch control system for more than eight minutes after ignition of the first R-21/D4 missile suggests the location of this control system and its air supply could have been external to the pressure hull.

Subsequent to the end of the second missile launch support sequence at12:08:36Z (155 seconds after ignition), only one relatively low level acoustic event was detected by the AFTAC sensors. That event occurred on the K-129 at 12:09:01Z. No acoustic signals produced by structural collapse events were detected at any time indicating the K-129 pressure hull and all internal compartments were fully flooded before the submarine reached collapse depth.


Page 164 of "AZORIAN. The CIA and the Raising of the K- 129" by Norman Polmar and Michael White, which is based on the documentary film “Azorian: The Raising of the K-129” by Michael White, shows the time versus amplitude AFTAC acoustic data display from which the above timeline of events onboard the K-129 was derived. Both the book and the film provide extensive discussions of the development and execution of the AZORIAN recovery effort with video images of the K-129 wreck and computer-generaged images (cgi) based on the video data. The cgi povided with this article is based on an outline of the K-129 wreck


The above K-129 event timeline, first derived from the AFTAC acoustic data in 2008, confirms that some components of an automated (programmed) missile launch support system continued to operate despite the probable death of the crew one minute before the first missile fired at 12:00:00Z. The system was still partially functioning in a flooding pressure hull one minute after the second R-21/D4 had fired to fuel exhaustion at 12:07:36Z.

As noted in the book AZORIAN, a Russian source confirmed thatthe R-21/D4 missile burn time to maximum range (fuel exhaustion) was (quote) about 94 seconds and six minutes between ignition events had been demonstrated during one of the first test launches from a GOLF-II SSB. (end quote) As discussed above, the values derived from analysis of the AFTAC acoustic data were 95.2 and 95.4 seconds for the R-21/D4 firing times at full thrust and six minutes and one second for the firing interval. The agreement of these values with known R-21/D4 missile system parameters confirms the conclusions discussed above. This assessment of the K-129 missile launch support system suggests that if current Russian SSBNs have a similarly robust launch system survival capability, they may, as discussed above in BACKGROUND, be capable of ripple-firing all missiles even if the crew has been killed or incapacitated and the platform has sustained significant battle damage. Further, the stand-off distance provided by Russian double-hull construction, adds significantly to the problem of making a successful mission-ending attack on currently operational Russian SSBNs with conventional weapons.

In the case of TYPHOON Class Russian SSBN, the twin main pressure hull configuration—with the missile launch tubes located between the 7.2m (23.6 foot) diameter pressure hulls (open source)—provides a stand-off distance of at least 27 feet for the missile tubes against a midline beam weapon impact. This configuration, in combination with a reserve buoyancy in excess of 40 percent, further complicates an already difficult situation by making the outcome (success) of an attack on a TYPHOON very problematic, even with multiple conventional weapons. The reported design parameters of the new DOLGORUKY Class Russian SSBN (24,000 tons submerged displacement) are relevant to this issue.


In 2008, the writer discussed the reported PACSOSUS detections of the loss of the K-129 with a member of PACEC team that concluded such a detection had occurred. The involved individual described the detection as a series of semi-discrete low frequency signals that repeatedly ramped up in frequency over an extended time period. Unfortunately, his description was a perfect match for the Bonin Island Volcanic Center which had been intermittently detected by many west coast sites since the first arrays were installed in 1957 and may still be going on. The source of that energy is black smokers. Suggest goggling "black smoker acoustics."

Without doubt many (all?) PAC arrays detected the loss of the K-129; however, the very short duration of those transient signals precluded recognition: no ne knew what to look for.

The above analysis, previously published in the SPRING 2012 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW, is a classic example of "the more carefully you measure something, the more you find out about many other things." And finally, the above analysis debunks the wild conjecture in RED STAR ROGUE that the K-129 was lost while trying to "nuc" Pearl Harbor to trigger a Sino-American war. That book and several others which claim the Soviets sank SCORPION are fodder for the gullible.