In recent months, the American THAAD missile defense system has garnered a great deal of attention, as its powerful radar array and kinetic projectiles are said to be capable of successfully defending an area the size of New Jersey from incoming ballistic missiles. The United States has had a particular interest in intercepting inbound nukes since the cold war, but with Kim Jong Un’s North Korean regime inching closer and closer toward developing the capacity to accurately deliver a nuclear strike in the nations near its borders, America and her allies have a renewed interest in technology aimed at preventing such a strike before it can reach landfall.
But the U.S. isn’t the only nation with a long-standing interest in keeping track of missile launches. For decades, the United States and the Soviet Union participated in a staring contest that included developing ever more powerful nuclear weapons, and ever more capable means of delivering them. The possibility of all-out nuclear war between the two super powers was real, and as such, both nations wanted to ensure they had the earliest possible warning if their enemy were to launch a pre-emptive strike. These concerns would lead to the development of the “nuclear triad” (or three independent nuclear delivery methods) and the concept of mutually assured destruction. In effect, our fear of nuking one another prompted both sides to develop the capability to completely decimate our opponent, even if they got the first strike in, making the use of a single nuke all it would take to end the world as we know it.
With the stakes so high, both nations invested huge amounts of money into the means to detect missile launches on the other side of the globe. Even with modern technology, that can be a difficult task, but in the 1970s, it required a legitimately massive effort.
Enter the Soviet Duga radar installation, located within what is now the radiated exclusion zone near the infamous Chernobyl power plant in modern day Ukraine. Duga loosely translates to “Over the Horizon,” and that’s exactly where this giant steel and wire wall was designed to peer. Using a huge amount of power (as much as 10 megawatts or 10 million watts at times) the massive radar array would transmit in shortwave radio bands that caused confusion and complaints all over the globe.
In 1976, when the Duga system was brought online, HAM radio operators and shortwave radio enthusiasts throughout the world were met with a sudden and pronounced tapping sound. Efforts to triangulate the source of this new interference placed it somewhere behind the Soviet’s iron curtain… but did little to explain what it was.
Of course, the Soviet Union, not often keen to announce their defensive capabilities to the outside world, remained tight-lipped as to what the cause, or intent, of these radio bursts were – prompting conspiracy theorists around the planet to come to their own conclusions ranging from mind control to weather manipulation (like the HAARP project employed by the United States in later years). The sharp clicking sounds the Duga installation produced came to be known among radio professionals and amateur enthusiasts as the “Russian Woodpecker,” and the mysterious issue was so prominent for a time that some equipment was designed and marketed specifically to filter out these intrusive blasts of radio emissions.
Of course, many in the American defense community were able to pretty confidently guess that these insistent clicks were a part of a huge radar array, but they did not confirm that theory publicly until many years later. Within the American intelligence community, the massive facility was dubbed the “Steel Yard,” or in some instances the “Steel Works.”
By 1989, the “Russian Woodpecker” had gone silent – but still without so much as an explanation from the soon-defunct Soviet government. Of course, in hindsight, it’s easy to appreciate how the changing geopolitical environment dictated the end of the project, and the closure of the facility located not only within the borders of what was to become a separate nation, but within miles of one of the largest nuclear mishaps in human history.
Today, the massive Duga installation can be visited by tourists who receive approval before hand, but still requires an arduous journey through the irradiated forests of Chernobyl where it stands as a silent relic of Soviet military prowess and a time when the world was closer than ever to succumbing to a man-made doomsday. The most advanced computers available to the Soviet Union at the time now litter the grounds in a scene that more closely resembles apocalyptic video games like Fallout than a Siberian forest.
It’s ironic, in a way, that this mammoth radar facility designed to provide the Soviet Union with advanced warning of nuclear annihilation from the U.S. now sits irradiated and desolate only miles from what would be the most dangerous nuclear threat to the Soviets of all: their own failed safety standards and hubris in the face of atomic energy.
Images courtesy of Ingmar Runge/WikiCommons/Luke Spencer & Atlas Obscura