On Operation Ivy Bells

Finally the men were ready to crawl out the outer hatch. In the control room, McNish could see them walking what seemed a space walk. Only barely lit by their handheld lights, they cut a ghostly path through the murky water to the [Soviet] communications cable [in the Sea of Okhotsk]. Once there, they began using pneumatic airguns to blow debris and sand away from the wire. As soon as it was clear, the men started to attach the tap, a device about three feet long that held a recorder filled with big rolls of tape. Off the main box was a cylinder that contained a lithium-powered battery. A separate connector wrapped around the cable and would draw out the words and data that ran through. The tap worked through induction. There would be no cutting into the cable, no risk of an electrical short from seeping seawater.

Bradley saw the next step, and he saw it clearly. He wanted to tap as many of the lines as possible, and he wanted to plant a device that could record for several months or even a year, a device that would keep working in Okhotsk even when Halibut was docked at Mare Island. His staff contacted Bell Laboratories, whose engineers were familiar with undersea phone cables and began designing a much larger trap pod. Just like the smaller recorder Halibut carried on her first trip, this new device worked through induction, but this tap pod was huge. Nearly 20 feet long and more than 3 feet wide, it weighed about 6 tons and utilized a form of nuclear power. [Probably a radioisotope thermal generator.] It would be able to pick up electronic frequencies from dozens of lines for months at a time. Halibut could plant the tap one year, then go back and retrieve it the next.

When the new tap was finished, it looked like a giant tube that had been squashed some from the top and welded shut at the ends. The device was crammed with miniature electronic circuits and had the capacity to record for weeks at a time.

Sontag, Sherry and Christopher Drew. Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage. PublicAffairs; New York. 1998. p. 171-2, 174-5, 175 (hardcover)

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

2 thoughts on “On Operation Ivy Bells”

  1. Russia has revealed a fire onboard a top-secret navy submersible has left 14 sailors dead in a rare public incident involving one of the country’s most shadowy military projects.

    The Russian defence ministry did not identify the submersible by name, simply calling it a “deep-sea research vessel”. Several independent Russian media outlets, including RBC and Novaya Gazeta, identified the vessel as the Losharik, citing sources.

    The Losharik spy submarine is believed to be nuclear powered, capable of diving to extreme depths and possibly involved in the tapping and severing of underwater communications cables.

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