The Russian Woodpecker

As covered in a previous article about number stations, there are an untold number of oddities to be encountered over the airwaves. Sometimes it can be a nonsensical combination of numbers and names like the station UVB-76, or a continuous broadcast of strange noise like the Backwards Music Station. One station, known by several names but most commonly as the Russian Woodpecker, has become a memorable part of radio and Cold War history.

The DUGA-3 facility located near Chernobyl

It’s known as the Russian Woodpecker, DUGA-3, Chernobyl-2, and codenamed by NATO as “Steel Yard” or “Steel Works,” and is a large radar facility located near Chernobyl in Ukraine. It is a massive facility, with antennas that are supposedly one-hundred-fifty meters high and five-hundred meters long and weighing fourteen-thousand tons. Unlike normal radar however, DUGA-3 is designed to be an over-the-horizon radar, intended to be able to detect an incoming ballistic missile attack much farther than the average early warning radar. The over-the-horizon (OTH) technology had first been researched by the Soviets near the end of the 1950’s, and was first successfully tested in 1970 as “DUGA-2.” The facility had successfully detected Soviet missile launches carried out in the Far East, and the OTH radar was officially put into service in 1975-1976.

Supposedly by 1980 the Soviets were operating at least three OTH radar facilities with two located near the cities of Kiev and Minsk in Ukraine and Belarus respectively, and a third facility located in Siberia. There is also a fourth OTH facility related to the Steal Yard program built somewhere near the Sea of Japan, possibly on the Kamchatka Peninsula or near Vladivostok.

A photo of the interior of the DUGA-3 complex
A photo of the interior of the DUGA-3 complex

DUGA-3’s signal was not noticed until 1976, when radio operators began picking up interference caused by the radar’s powerful signal. According to an issue of the Miami Herald from 1982, one of the first individuals to notice DUGA-3 was a man named Andy Clark, who operated a communications station which maintained contact with commercial long-distance airlines through the use of short-wave radio. Clark, operating out of Miami Springs, Florida stated that the signal was powerful enough that they were unable to contact some of the airplanes. He even contacted his company’s headquarters in New York to see if they too were getting interference from the signal as well, who responded that they were indeed having trouble with the signal and contacting aircraft.

The iconic and repetitive signal produced by DUGA-3 led to its nickname, as Clark states “I named that d*** thing the woodpecker,” as the signal (which can be listened to here) is extremely powerful and aside from being picked up by amateur and commercial radio operators was also capable of interfering with international broadcasting stations. Numerous complaints were made by radio and commercial operators to the U.S. government, who in turn passed the complaints on to the Soviet government. In response, the Soviets denied that the signal belonged to them. This caused many radio operators to wage an undeclared war against DUGA-3, by sending out a return signal on the same frequency as DUGA-3. Since radar works like echolocation, this prevented the echos from returning to the DUGA-3 facility which forced Soviet operators to have to change frequencies. Apparently the radio operators had been successful, as DUGA-3 was forced to change frequencies multiple times. Certain telephones and televisions began to be produced with certain technology that could block out DUGA-3’s signal.

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Eventually DUGA-3 stopped broadcasting permanently on April 26th, 1986 as a result of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant meltdown. The former commander of DUGA-3, Vladimir Musiyets (who refers to the facility as Chernobyl-2) stated that within twenty kilometers of the facility there was also two other similar stations codenamed “Lyubech-1” and “Goncharovsk-1.” Musiyets also stated that the project was ended in August of 1988, two years after the Chernobyl disaster.

The effect of the Chernobyl disaster on DUGA-3/Chernobyl-2 is difficult to ascertain. For example, Musiyets claims that at 11o’clock on the morning of the reactor meltdown, he and an expert on chemicals Major Olga Shevchenko were ordered to the Chernobyl-2 facility which was located only less than ten kilometers from the reactor. Upon arrival, Musiyets stated that the electronics and computer technology had been destroyed and that following the disaster, Chernobyl-2 did not work anymore. However, there are many experts who believe that voltage, current or radiation spikes would have been unable to have any effect on Soviet electronic devices developed during the time period. There is also how the other OTH radar facilities operated by the Soviets have all been dismantled, except for Chernobyl-2.

The DUGA-3 facility, referred to as "Grid" in "Call of Duty: Black Ops"
The DUGA-3 facility, referred to as “Grid” in “Call of Duty: Black Ops”

The official existence of the Russian Woodpecker was not revealed until after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the signal was never admitted by the Soviets and the facility did not appear on any maps. Today, the facility still stands and is frequently explored and photographed by explorers. The facility has even begun to appear in certain video games, such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and as a multiplayer map on Call of Duty: Black Ops. Even though the signal is no longer broadcast, there are many recordings that still exist and serve as an interesting footnote in the history of the Cold War.


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