Submarine intelligence on Able Archer

Parche left for the Barents shortly after yet another diplomatic scuffle, in which the Soviets boycotted the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, answering the U.S. boycott of the games in Moscow four years earlier. When she returned, it was clear that she had brought home far more than the most optimistic intelligence officials had hoped for. The taps had been recording all through the alert spiked by Able Archer and had captured a detailed look at the Soviet Navy’s nuclear strategy. This was an ear to the Soviet Navy’s nuclear command-and-control structure as it was placing some of its missile submarines on high alert, rehearsing for war. Some former intelligence officials say this information simply confirmed the picture that had been emerging from the taps about how the Soviets planned to use their missile subs. But other former CIA, NSA, and Navy officials say that Parche’s take from this mission was so critical to their understanding of the Soviets that it qualified as “the big casino,” or “the crown jewels.”

Sontag, Sherry and Christopher Drew. Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage. PublicAffairs; New York. 1998. p. 245 (hardcover)

Shadowing Soviet subs during the cold war

When the Yankee subs were the best the Soviet Union had, nearly every one sent within range of the United States had been in the line of fire of U.S. subs shadowing behind. If war had broken out, those subs could have sunk the Soviet boomers before they ever fired. Then, if both sides ever launched their land-based ICBMs, only the United States would have been left with a second-strike capability tucked away in the oceans. This was the edge that the Navy had been preparing for ever since Whitey Mach first rode bronc on the Lapon. But the strategy relied on three things: that the Soviet subs remained relatively noisy; that they never realized how often they were being followed; and that they continued to patrol in open seas where they could be trailed in the first place.

Still, any strategy that allowed for even a few missile subs to fire at U.S. targets was a far cry from the days when most of the Soviet Yankees traveled the seas with unknown and lethal shadows that could prevent them from shooting at all. And for intelligence officials, it was a huge relief to realize that the Soviets were not readying to use their improved position [in 1984] to start a war.

Sontag, Sherry and Christopher Drew. Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage. PublicAffairs; New York. 1998. p. 210, 247 (hardcover)

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)

The 1979 Vela Incident

There are some historical events where it may be impossible for ordinary people to learn the truth. For example, there are situations where more than one nation state has a good reason to circulate a false history — complete with credible-seeming historical documents.

One such case may be the 1979 Vela incident, in which an American satellite may have detected a clandestine nuclear test in the Indian Ocean. Some analyses have concluded that no nuclear explosion took place and that the satellite malfunctioned. Historian Richard Rhodes, who has written a series of excellent books about the history of nuclear weapons, thinks that it was a joint Israeli-South African nuclear test.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently published a long discussion of the issue.

“Sanctuary” dedication

At Massey College today a magnificent new sculpture was unveiled in the quad: a bronze cast of birch branches made by Camilla Geary-Martin.

The artwork is dedicated in part to Ursula Franklin — a remarkable Senior Fellow of the College — as well as the late Boris Stoicheff.

Out in the Edgeworth–Kuiper belt

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has been returning some exciting data, after a long flight through the solar system:

This documentary provides illuminating background on the mission: The Year of Pluto.

It is much to be hoped that the New Horizons craft will be able to observe other Kuiper belt objects.

Burke on the “first industrial revolution”

The first industrial revolution, centered in Flanders, happened almost entirely because of the arrival from the Arab world of a new, horizontal loom, equipped with foot pedals to lift the warps. This innovation left the weaver’s hands free to throw the shuttle back and forth, which made weaving much faster and more profitable and, above all, made possible the production of long pieces of cloth. Because of their centuries of experience in working wool, the Flemish were the best weavers in thirteenth-century Europe. Flemish cloth was sold everywhere in the known world, and its manufacturers went from the East Indies to the Baltic to obtain their dyes, and to the mines of the Middle East for the alum which was used to fix the dye so as to make their colors fast.

Burke, James. The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible. 1996. p.80 (paperback)