I am flabbergasted, stunned really, that an air and space museum, such as the USS Midway in San Diego, has not snapped up the legendary Hughes Mining Barge (HMB-1) and the Lockheed Sea Shadow (IX-529) from the US Navy for a one of a kind and logistically simple to execute display attraction. Both of these ships are incredibly unique and were very secret at one time, and there is nothing people love more than once secret black vehicles… Well maybe manned spaceflight platforms take the historical cake, but still blackbirds and retired stealth airplanes and the like are huge draws for aviation and science museums around the US. Further, when you combine the “hiding in plain sight” mystique of the HMB-1 with the “as sinister as possible” looks of the Sea Shadow hidden within, you have both an alluring subject and a intriguing stage for which to showcase it to draw in throngs of viewers.
The Hughes Mining Barge was developed in the 1970’s as part of the CIA’s “Project Jennifer/Azorian,” an elaborate and risky attempt at raising the wreckage of the Soviet Submarine K-129 from the seabed some 1500 miles off the coast of Hawaii, and 15000′ below the water’s surface. The project basically evolved from the CIA’s interest in trying to retrieve the K-129 wreckage in the hopes of finding classified materials such as logbooks, codes, and launch systems, and to study Russian nuclear technology firsthand. The stakes were incredibly high, and so was the price-tag. To my recollection (and it’s not always perfect folks) this was the most expensive and elaborate espionage mission of the Cold War, costing literally billions of dollars to execute.
It was the mid 1970’s and the plan was to sail a highly modified drilling ship, the Hughes “Glomar Explorer,” over the wreckage site, then use a massive grappling claw like rectangular structure to literally pick the doomed sub up of the seafloor and and winch it into the bay of the ship. Howard Hughes, no stranger to US secret projects, lent his high-profile name to the whole operation to give it a commercial cover. In the end it is not exactly clear just how successful the operation was. A decade or so ago some regarded it as a failure as it is said that the massive claw that was used to lift the broken K-129 fractured during the operation and only a portion of the submarine was retrieved. Although recently is seems that the operation was in fact a huge success, with nuclear torpedoes and/or missiles, intelligence data, sonar components and other invaluable materials supposedly retrieved relatively intact. Also, during the operation a handful of bodies of Russian sailors who perished in the still mysterious accident that crippled the submarine originally, were found in the wreckage and buried at sea honorably by American officials and contractors at the scene. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a video, now in the public domain and posted below, was given to Russian officials by the then CIA director, and recently Defense Secretary Robert Gates, of the burial. The footage was said to be filmed aboard the Hughes Barge itself. To this day the whole endeavor remains highly classified, which would point to it being more of a game changing success than what was originally admitted.
So exactly how does the Hughes Mining Barge fit into this James Bond like tale? It was actually an integral and clandestine part of the whole project. HMB-1 delivered the massive grappling claw structure, known affectionately as “Clementine,” to the Glomar Explorer for the operation, then after the operation was complete, the HMB-1 took “Clementine” and its lost and found payload, grasped in its massive claws, back to America for exploitation and analysis. This was made possible because HMB-1 is more than just a mobile barge, it literally is a transformer. It has a massive retractable roof and can be totally submerged to float under large objects, such as its Glomar Explorer mother-ship, and it can do so in a nondescript, “hiding in plain sight,” kind of way. This capability was totally key, as the operation’s true goals could not seem apparent to prying Russian reconnaissance flights and ships operating in the area. The Glomar Explorer was publicized by the Hughes Mining Corporation to be doing exploratory scientific mining of an exotic nature in that area of the Pacific, and hence the name of its surrogate, the “Hughes Mining Barge.” In reality the HMB-1 was not built for mining at all, unless you considering harvesting broken Soviet nuclear submarines mining. The HMB-1, although homely as it may look, was really a high-performance espionage product of the Cold War.
I know what you are asking yourself: “Wait a second, where in the heck does a stealth catamaran fit in to all of this?” Well, the HMB-1’s unique capabilities were called back into service in the Early 1980’s. This time around instead of housing the broken remnants of a Russian nuclear armed submarine, it would give birth to and house a sleek, ultra high-tech, and very secret stealth ship, built by the famed Lockheed Skunkworks, to prove technologies that would hopefully make other Russian ships fall to the seafloor in the event that the Cold War became hot.
The IX-529 “Sea Shadow” was designed to test emerging stealth aerospace technologies that were pioneered by the Skunkwork’s “Hopeless Diamond,” “Have Blue,” and F-117 “Nighthawk” aircraft programs and adapted for surface combatant use. Further, Sea Shadow would not only test low observable ship design and exterior coatings, but it would also pioneer the use of small crews, new building materials and construction techniques, computerized automation, and a cutting edge stabilized catamaran design known as a small waterplane area twin-hull (SWATH) configuration. The IX-529 was built in 1984 in total secrecy at Lockheed’s Redwood City complex. How do you build such a large and sensitive machine in a high-profile area and get it out to sea without people calling 9/11 claiming that they are seeing a floating alien spaceship or without the Russians identifying the design via satellite surveillance? You build it in a huge submersible dry dock with a massive sliding roof. And it just so happened that the perfect vessel for such a unique mission was sitting idle for years, almost a decade after its last secret project was completed. That vessel being the Hughes HMB-1 of-course. From the Sea Shadow’s inception to today, the angular craft called the HMB-1 home for almost 30 years. Utilizing the HMB-1 in an almost marsupial fashion allowed the secret ship that looked more like Darth Vader’s personal yacht than a US Navy test vessel to be constructed in total secrecy, the roof being closed when Soviet spy satellites flew over, and to travel to different operating locations during broad daylight without anyone being the wiser as to the barge’s sinister contents. Further the HMB-1 offered Sea Shadow a dry and protected birth under its steel cocoon of secrecy for almost a decade of regular nighttime test runs.
The Sea Shadow program came “out of the black” in 1993, both figuratively and literally. After she was introduced to the public the PMB-1 no longer had to be towed out to sea before launching the Sea Shadow. Instead she could make daylight runs out of various locales without being so dependent on her mobile dry-dock for physical cover. By the mid 1990’s she was put out of service, but then she was brought back into testing in the late 1990’s to prove and demonstrate technologies that were associated with the next generation destroyer project known at the time as the DD(X), and known today as the DDG-1000 “Zumwalt” class destroyer, which is still in development (scary I know isn’t it!). She was finally put out of service some time in the early 2000s and by 2006 she was taken off the Navy register. Now, almost 30 years after Sea Shadow’s construction began, we can see the fruits of her labor live on in many front-line naval vessels, especially in the areas of nautical low radar signature structural shaping and infra-red and wake signature suppression. Yet one place where Sea-Shadow’s pioneering level of automation, small crew size, speed, small draft, use of non-traditional construction materials, as well as its aforementioned stealthy attributes can be seen is in the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) and the USS Sea Fighter that bridged the evolutionary gap between the Sea Shadow and the LCS design.
The LCS concept centers around multi-role ships that are designed to operate close to shore, and are fast, stealthy, and maneuverable. Further, the LCS concept focuses on a small crew footprint though extreme automation for inexpensive operation, modular mission systems, and the ships are built of modern materials, many of which were pioneered by Sea Shadow and its younger Sea Fighter cousin. In many ways the Sea Shadow would appear to be the LCS’s progenitor, proving over years of testing and validation many of the LCS’s core philosophies long before they were even defined.
In a fantastic piece by Matt Weiser of the Sacremento Bee (linked at the bottom of this post), the test director for the Sea Shadow program during its thriving years had some fascinating insights into the incredible capabilities of the strange craft:
The ship is coated with radar-absorbent materials, the details of which remain classified, said S.K. Gupta, a retired Lockheed engineer who was Sea Shadow’s test director from 1988 to 1995. “We operated with impunity,” said Gupta, who lives in Pleasanton. “We could take anybody down at night.” The ship, of course, was not truly invisible to the naked eye. But it was difficult to see at a distance even in daytime because of its low profile. At night, its flat-black paint made a visual sighting nearly impossible, and its shape and surface coating made it, indeed, invisible to radar.
Gupta described one night exercise where Sea Shadow was able to sneak up on an aircraft carrier, pop one of its flush-fitting deck hatches, and fire three flares at the heavily defended carrier. Until the hatch opened, Sea Shadow went undetected. “They could barely see where the flares came from, but by the time we had closed the hatch, we disappeared again,” he said. In another test, engineers placed a common aluminum soda can atop Sea Shadow’s narrow black deck. The “enemy” radar in the exercise could pick up the soda can, but not Sea Shadow, Gupta said.
After decades of service, and still quite possibly holding the mantle as the coolest looking ship to ever grace the high-seas (it starred in the James Bond movie “Tomorrow Never Dies” for goodness sake!), the Sea Shadow was offered up for donation to a museum that would showcase her and her equally as famous mother-ship barge in an acceptable fashion. Unbelievably there was no takers. I honestly cannot fathom how this is possible as museums were being offered one of the most striking machines ever created. A vessel steeped in stealth history, and a barge that basically was the CIA’s ultimate espionage tool. Imagine the visuals for paying tour groups entering the nondescript Hughes Mining Barge’s cavernous belly after learning about Operation Azorian and its beyond fascinating Cold War past, then turning a corner and seeing the sinister Sea Shadow looming over them under semi-spooky LED lighting, a scene replete with a big American flag draped from the HMB-1’s rafters, high above Sea Shadow’s imposing trapezoid structure. The visuals are “pure Hollywood” and such an experience can now only be had by watching a fictional Michael Bay movie!
I truly believe air and science museums around the US are becoming less creative with their displays, even though the “imagineering” precedents are abundant in theme parks and attractions around the globe. Sure it takes money, but would it really be that tough to raise funds for such and exciting project? For an existing museum in decent economic standing, I would think not. I mean they don’t even have to build a building to showcase Sea Shadow, the ship comes with its own equally as famous showcase hull! This exhibit would be right at home sitting next to the USS Midway in San Diego, or even being put on display right here, along the banks of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon as part of the Oregon Museum Of Science & Industry’s eclectic collection of static attractions.
The symbiotic story of the Hughes Mining Barge and the Sea Shadow is so outlandish and so incredible that you would only believe it if it were written in a far-fetched espionage novel or a Marvel comic-book. Both unique machines appear more as blockbuster movie props and sets than as real-world vehicles. Sadly, because the Sea Shadow has not been adopted by a loving new owner it is now up for auction by the Federal Government to be scrapped at its current resting place, amongst the USN’s rusting reserve ghost fleet located at Suisan Bay in California. It is a travesty that two incredibly unique vessels, both an integral part of America’s Cold War past and our Naval future would be turned over to the scrapper’s torch because of a giant lack of imagination and drive by those who have a means and the motive to preserve the clandestine pair for future generations to enjoy. I mean what kid would not beg their tourist parents to go see the black stealth ship in its secret lair?
Time is almost up for the Sea Shadow and the Hughes Mining Barge. Sadly if a miracle does not come to pass immedietly these relics of American ingenuity will be turned into rebar and Pepsi cans very soon…
UPDATE & PICTURES: Sea Shadow gets scrapped!
More on Project Azorian/Jennifer:
Link to the burial film shot aboard the Hughes Mining Barge:
An incredible virtual tour inside of Sea Shadow and the HMB-1:
Screen capture of government auction of Sea Shadow and the Hughes Mining Barge:
Sacremento Bee Article Of Sea Shadow:
The Hughes Mining Barge & Sea Shadow are in remarkably good condition: