OPENING THE GREAT DEPTHS: THE BATHYSCAPE TRIESTE AND PIONEERS OF UNDERSEA EXPLORATION

March 11, 2022
Posted by: CAPTAIN M. K. BARRITT RN

In 2021 an adventurer began his attempt to list descents into the great trenches in the ocean floor, rather like mountaineers with great peaks or more humble ‘Munros’. Tourist trips to view the Titanic were on offer on-line. At year’s end the press noted the location and recovery of HMS Queen Elizabeth’s ditched F-35 from ‘more than a mile’ down in the Mediterranean Sea. The book under review provides a timely reminder of how few decades have passed since such activity would have seemed as much in the realms of science fiction as walking on the moon.

After describing the conception and realisation of Auguste Piccard’s bathyscape project, and his inspiration of a rival programme in France – the land of Jules Verne, the focus turns to the USA. The successful operation of Trieste came to the attention of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) at a time when military oceanography was of utmost importance in Cold War maritime operations. After US scientists had commissioned Piccard to make successful observations including light penetration, acoustics, gravity and magnetics, the ONR secured the purchase of Trieste and placed it under the operational control of the Naval Electronics Laboratory (NEL). From the outset it was foreseen that the bathyscape might be available for emergencies. In January 1960 the system was proven with a descent to 37,800 feet below sea level in the Challenger Deep, which a 1951 survey by HMS Challenger had shown to be the most profound trench on the Earth’s surface.

Whilst Trieste undertook further geophysical observations and measurement of deep sea scattering layers, other more discreet defence applications were emerging, such as placement of seabed seismographs to detect weapon testing. Questions were also raised about recovery of objects from the seabed. This capability was demonstrated during Trieste’s dives during 1963 at the wreck-site of the SSN Thresher. Many lessons were learned and applied in two follow-up bathyscapes, now under USN operational control. In 1968 Trieste III (also known as DSV-1) recovered debris which revealed the cause of the loss of SSN Scorpion. The two episodes, which are covered in great depth, do high-light the advances in the period and the driving force of the USN and sister services. In 1963 the survey ships which eventually located the wreck-site juggled lines of position from Loran C, Decca and Omega. By 1968 the US Transit SATNAV system was being brought to bear.

In 1972 an operation cloaked in secrecy saw the recovery from the depths of the Pacific Ocean of a ditched Re-entry Vehicle from a satellite mission to obtain stereographic images of facilities in the USSR. Thereafter there was intermittent tasking to recover lost aircraft. Other technologies such as unmanned recovery systems in submarines, and rapid development of remotely operated vehicles in the commercial sector, were consigning the pioneering Trieste bathyscapes to history.

This is a very detailed text which seems targeted at the courageous players in the operations and their supporting cast, as reflected in lists in the Appendices and interspersed full-page biographies. It is worthy, however, of a place in the libraries of the staff colleges and will repay study. It illustrates how individuals had to match the vision and determination of Piccard the pioneer, and also add more than a little political cunning to derive full benefit from the project. It also shows the strength of the US system, alert for intelligence of emerging technology, willing to test potential, and able to secure investment for application and advancement of military capability. Does the UK have similar arrangements?