The BR/75 weapons programme is remembered as one of the most spectacularly ill-fated in the history of military procurement: it was conceived to face up to a strategic threat that later turned out not to exist, and was not cancelled until it was 13 years over deadline and two billion dollars over budget. By which time it had not delivered one single usable weapons system to either of the military branches that had in turn been its putative beneficiary.
The story begins in winter 1959 on the shores of Lake Baikal, a few dozen kilometres from Irkutsk, where an East German holidaymaker meets a Russian-Mongolian businessman in the corridor of a carriage on the Trans-Siberian railway. But the tourist just happens to be a secret agent, and a Colonel in the dreaded Stasi, who does occasional work for the benefit of his Swiss bank account, with the assistance of his friends in the CIA. Unbeknownst to him, the businessman has some Chinese friends in the Ministry of State Security, who have further friends in the CIA. And now they would like the CIA to hear about some of the activities of their Russian neighbours and former friends.
The information takes the route it was intended to take, via Berlin to Virginia, and leads to the close inspection of some ambiguous satellite photographs (some of the first in history), whose ambiguity evaporates in the face of further intelligence that has made its way a little more slowly from Pekin through Ventiane and across the Pacific Ocean.
The conclusions drawn are worrying in the extreme: the Soviet Union has at least a five-year lead over the United States in an area of military technology that has more or less fallen off the US radar since the Russian Nuclear Programme started soaking up the Kremlin's resources and attention. Deep in the Stygian depths of the world's biggest reservoir of fresh water, the USSR is working on to assure itself future domination of the oceans.
In response to the threat of an adversary with fully-developed benthic frottage capability, the Defense Department avails itself of all the resources it can appropriate and redirect. In the biggest mobilisation of scientific and engineering talent since the Manhattan Project, the BF/50 (where the '50' stands for 5 thousand feet) is born. For obvious reasons, the Navy takes the lead in defining specifications and in oversight of the project. The objective is ambitious: to develop the capacity to counter and neutralise Soviet OMBOG resources wherever they may be deployed within five years. Known Soviet capacity would only require deployment down to 3000 feet, but the aim is to pre-empt any conceivable improvement.
Five years later, the budget had ballooned to twice its original size, and the programme was no nearer to delivering than when it had started. The scientists had had to start from scratch, the intelligence available providing as good as nothing in the way of detailed technical guidance. And without that technical guidance they were unable to come close to duplicating the known capacities of the OMBOG systems. Then the bombshell landed: on St. Valentine's Day of 1964 the Russian defector Yuri Nosenko arrived on United States soil. He was suspected of being a false agent sent by the Kremlin to undermine the credibility of the prior defector Anatoli Golitsin, and was kept in solitary confinement in a continuously lighted inadequately heated cell for 1,277 days in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade him to revise his story. Although he did not recant, he did inadvertently let slip an interesting piece of information: the OMBOG programme had been resurrected four years before in response to intelligence concerning the US programme. Had he known the firestorm this incidental comment would cause, he might have bargained for a better price for this information.
Within a few months intense targeted intelligence gathering had confirmed that the Russian programme was younger than the American one intended to respond to it. It too was absorbing impressive resources for no visible result. Suddenly some of the best minds in the Intelligence community had but one though on their mind: how to save their blighted careers. Those who could think furthest began to ask the right question: cui bono? Who would benefit from enormous resources being squandered by the two superpowers on a technology that now appeared to be beyond the current capabilities of science? Once again, once the question had been asked, it did not take too long to acquire the answer. While the best minds in benthics in the USA and the USSR had been co-opted into a fool's errand, China, with a fraction of the budget, had been making real progress on realistically dimensioned pelagic interdiction systems that were now within two or three years of deployment: a horror scenario for the Taiwan Strait.
Three billion dollars had already been sunk into the BR/50. Although many called for the project to be terminated, the fateful attraction of bad money for good prevailed. The BR/50 programmed was renamed BR/75, in the rather touching hope that this would persuade the Russians of its increased ambitions, and was redirected to countering the newly-identified Chinese threat. Some clever maneuvering left the Marine Corps as the intended beneficiary of the project, which even made some kind of military sense, given its changed character. (A high-ranking Navy officer later spoke of 'rivers of blood' in the corridors of the defense department.)
Two years later the project had still made almost no progress. An unknown analyst suggested that what the Chinese had done once, they might do again. On September 17th 1966 a high-risk intelligence gathering operation, whose public face was an unexplained US incursion in Chinese airspace, provided circumstantial evidence indicating that the 'realistic' Chinese capability was probably as illusory as the Russian one. And indeed the US one. Nonetheless, the project still took another ten years to die: the core development team and the contractors involved spent most of those ten years predicting deployment within two. The final nail in its coffin was provided by the British military intelligence service MI6, who in 1978 passed on a dossier that had arrived in Hong Kong by an otherwise unspecified route. The British officer who passed on the files is said to have commented: "Dashed clever, these Chinese, what?"
It was long thought that nothing at all of any value came out of the BR/50 and BR/75 projects. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of the East German secret service archives it transpired that intelligence relating to it had been invaluable in developing the German Democratic Republic's deep sea trawling fleet.