Nuclear submarine USS Halibut (SSGN-587)
The Cold War gave the world several decades of confrontation between the two superpowers, which obtained intelligence information by any available means, including with the involvement of reconnaissance and specialized submarines. One of these operations ended very successfully for the Americans. For eight years, the American military listened to negotiations between the bases of the Pacific Fleet of the USSR in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and Vilyuchinsk and the headquarters of the fleet in Vladivostok.
A successful reconnaissance operation for the Americans with the search and connection to the submarine cable of the fleet laid along the bottom of the Sea of Okhotsk was carried out with the involvement of the Halibut nuclear submarine, designed for special operations. The intelligence operation itself was called Ivy Bells (“Ivy Flowers”) and lasted from October 1971 to 1980, until NSA officer Ronald Pelton transmitted information about the operation to KGB residents working in the United States.
The beginning of the sea confrontation
The Americans began to make the first attempts to obtain intelligence information about the USSR using submarines already in the late 1940s. True, the trip of two American combat diesel-electric submarines USS “Cochino” (SS-345) and USS “Tusk” (SS-426) to the coast of the Kola Peninsula in 1949 ended in complete failure. The boats, which received modern electronic intelligence equipment on board, were unable to obtain at least some valuable information, and a fire broke out on board the Cochino submarine. The submarine “Tusk” managed to come to the rescue of the damaged boat, which removed part of the crew from the “Cochino” and began to tow it to Norwegian ports. However, the boat “Cochino” was not destined to reach Norway, an explosion thundered on board the submarine, and she sank. Seven sailors were killed and dozens were injured.
Despite the obvious failure, the American sailors and the US intelligence community did not abandon their ideas. Subsequently, American boats regularly approached the coast of the Soviet Union with reconnaissance missions both in the Kola Peninsula and in the Far East, including in the Kamchatka region. Often American submariners entered Soviet territorial waters. But such operations did not always take place with impunity. For example, in the summer of 1957 near Vladivostok, Soviet anti-submarine defense ships discovered and forced the American special reconnaissance boat USS “Gudgeon” to surface. At the same time, Soviet sailors did not hesitate to use depth charges.
Submarine USS “Cochino” (SS-345), July 1949
The situation really began to change with the massive appearance of atomic submarines, which had much greater autonomy and did not need to rise to the surface during the campaign. The construction of reconnaissance submarines with a nuclear power plant on board opened up new opportunities. One of these submarines was the USS Halibut (SSGN-587), launched in January 1959 and accepted into the fleet on January 4, 1960.
Nuclear submarine Halibut (SSGN-587) was the only ship of this type. The name of the submarine is translated into Russian as “Halibut”. USS Halibut was originally created as a submarine designed to perform special operations. But for a long time it was used for test launches of guided missiles, and also managed to serve as a multipurpose nuclear submarine with missile weapons on board. At the same time, in 1968, the submarine was seriously modernized and reequipped for the solution of modern reconnaissance tasks.
By modern standards, this is a small nuclear submarine with a surface displacement of more than 3600 tons and an underwater one of about 5000 tons. The longest boat was 106.7 meters. The nuclear reactor installed on board the boat transferred the generated energy to two propellers, the maximum power of the power plant reached 7,500 hp. The maximum surface speed did not exceed 15 knots, and the underwater speed did not exceed 20 knots. At the same time, 97 crew members could be accommodated on board the boat.
Nuclear submarine USS Halibut (SSGN-587)
In 1968, the submarine began to modernize at the Mare Island shipyard, located in California. The boat returned to the base at Pearl Harbor only in 1970. During this time, side thrusters, near and far side sonar, a towed underwater vehicle with a winch, photo and video equipment on board, and a diving camera were installed on the submarine. Also on board the submarine appeared powerful and at that time modern computer equipment, as well as a set of various oceanographic equipment. It was in this reconnaissance performance that the boat went many times to the Sea of Okhotsk, carrying out reconnaissance activities, including in Soviet territorial waters.
Operation Ivy Bells
In early 1970, the American military became aware of the existence of a wire communication line laid along the bottom of the Sea of Okhotsk between the Pacific Fleet bases in Kamchatka and the main headquarters of the fleet in Vladivostok. Information was received from agents, and the very fact of such a connection was confirmed by satellite reconnaissance, which recorded work in some areas of the coast. At the same time, the Soviet Union declared the Sea of Okhotsk its territorial waters and introduced a ban on the navigation of foreign ships. Patrols were regularly carried out at sea, as well as exercises of the ships of the Pacific Fleet, special acoustic sensors were placed at the bottom. Despite these circumstances, the command of the US Navy, the CIA and the NSA decided to conduct a secret intelligence operation Ivy Bells. The temptation to eavesdrop on underwater communication lines and obtain information about the Soviet strategic nuclear submarines located at the base in Vilyuchinsk was great.
The modernized Halibut submarine equipped with modern reconnaissance equipment was used specifically for the operation. The boat had to find a submarine cable and install a specially created eavesdropping device above it, which received the designation “Cocoon”. The device contained all the achievements of radio-electronic technologies available at that time to the Americans. Externally, the device, placed directly above the sea cable, was an impressive seven-meter cylindrical container with a diameter of about one meter. In its tail section was a small plutonium power source, in fact, a miniature nuclear reactor. It was necessary for the operation of equipment installed on board, including tape recorders, which were used to record conversations.
The same “Cocoon”, which was placed above the submarine cable
In October 1971, the Halibut submarine successfully penetrated the Sea of Okhotsk and after a while managed to find the required underwater communication cable at great depths (different sources indicate from 65 to 120 meters). Previously, it was already spotted by American submarines using electromagnetic radiation. In a given area, a deep-sea guided vehicle was launched from a reconnaissance boat, and then divers worked on the spot and installed the Cocon over the cable. This device regularly recorded all the information that came from the bases of the Pacific Fleet in Kamchatka to Vladivostok.
Let’s not forget about the level of technology of those years: wiretapping was not conducted online. The device did not have the ability to transfer data, all information was recorded and stored on magnetic media. Therefore, once a month, the American submariners had to return to the device for the divers to retrieve and collect the records, installing new magnetic tapes on the Cocoon. Subsequently, the information received was read, deciphered and comprehensively studied. An analysis of the recordings quickly showed that the USSR was confident in the reliability and impossibility of wiretapping the cable, so many messages were transmitted in clear text without encryption.
Thanks to reconnaissance equipment and the use of specialized nuclear submarines, the American fleet for many years gained access to classified information that directly related to the security of the USSR and the United States. The US military gained access to information about the main base of the strategic submarines of the Pacific Fleet.
Ivy Bells reconnaissance failure
Despite the fact that Operation Ivy Bells was one of the most successful intelligence operations of the US Navy, CIA and NSA during the Cold War, it ended in failure. After more than eight years of listening to the communications of Soviet sailors in the Far East, information about the reconnaissance equipment connected to the underwater cable became known to the KGB. An NSA officer gave information on the Ivy Bells operation to the Soviet residency in the United States.
Ronald Pelton during his arrest in 1985
It was Ronald William Pelton, who failed a polygraph test in October 1979 when asked about drug use. The test was carried out as part of the next certification and affected the career of Pelton, who was demoted, deprived of access to classified information, at the same time, the monthly salary of an NSA employee was cut by half. Ronald Pelton did not want to put up with this state of affairs and already in January 1980 turned to the Soviet embassy in Washington.
Pelton, who has worked at the NSA for 15 years, has shared valuable information that he had access to throughout his career. Among other things, he talked about the Ivy Bells operation. The information received allowed the Soviet sailors in the last days of April 1980 to find and raise to the surface American reconnaissance equipment, the very “Cocoon”. The Ivy Bells reconnaissance operation was officially given up. It is curious that for valuable information Pelton received 35 thousand dollars from the Soviet Union, this amount cannot be compared with the costs of the American budget for a reconnaissance operation in the Sea of Okhotsk. True, the information received by the American command for many years was truly invaluable.