Ever since the birth of radio, the military quickly recognized its importance for their operations. Soviet Army had extensively used radio technologies for their purposes and today we can find many large radio based installations in Russia and ex-Soviet states. One of the most mysterious and forgotten Soviet military objects was the Skrunda Radar station in Latvia. A top-secret project a part of collective Soviet anti-rocket protection system and spying. The station was left unfinished after the fall of the Soviet Union and destroyed by incompetent Latvian government. This article tells the story about the rise and demise of the Skrunda Radar station.
As the nuclear rocket technologies became more advanced a early warning radar system was needed. A construction of net of radar stations were built all around the Soviet Union. In Latvia a small town called Skrunda was chosen as site for such radar. The site for construction was valley filled with forests 7 km from Skrunda. The information about this object was so top-secret, that even military builders had no idea what was to be placed in that building. They received extra pay for working in this object called as “Skrunda 1”, the bus stop near the site was simply called “Complex”. The official name was RLS “Dnepr”that was top-secret.
On the oddly shaped building 250 meter tall “wings” a transmitter antennas and receiver antennas were placed. Two power lines with power of 110 KV were added to power the radar. The object was started in 1955 and finished in 1967. The secrecy of the object was so successful that only few knew what was going on that valley.
However, the secrecy was soon blown because of the interference for local radio and TV receivers caused by the high energy that was transmitted from the radar. Radio stations became jammed by blasting screeching noise and TV viewing became interrupted by lines on the TV screens. In other places in Latvia where radar stations were placed similar things happened. That made many to think that there is a high power radar station near Skrunda.
In 1971 second Dnepr type radar station was placed causing even more interference. However, because of the enormous time wasted on such complex building it turned out that it is already outdated. So in 1985 the construction of a new type “Darjal – UM” begun. It was supposed to be finished in 1994.
In 1992 the Soviet Union had collapsed. Latvian government begun talks of withdrawing all Soviet forces from Latvia. Russians insisted on keeping the Skrunda radar station for their use for unlimited time. However, Latvians did not back down and demanded to leave all the Soviet military objects. In 1992 the representatives of the Office for controlling the withdrawal of the Russian forces, accompanied by journalists visited the radar site. Now it was officially known that two early warning radars are working in the site known as “complex”. They are required for monitoring the space communications and works as part of the early warning system. Radars together with satellites informs the Soviet government and military command about the NATO rocket launch and measures its flight and fall path.
Skrunda RLS was a so-called “Dnepr” type station. It was composed of two separate sectors (i.e. stations), each consisting of two “wings” (i.e. radars). Each radar wing consisted of a pair of long (250m x 17m) antennas. Antennas were fixed and the operational control was electronic (frequency scanning mode).
Officially, the power of the station was held to be 1,25 – 1,8 MW, but it could be increased up to 3 MW and more. The mean power of each transmitter (all together 16 radars) – 50 kW. Frequency range 156-162 Mhz (which was TV frequency in 70ties/80ties); peak duration – 0.8 ms. The distance of surveillance was >6000 km, altitude up to 3000 km. Radars viewed a 186° angle sector in the north-west direction.
The powerful radar of Skrunda RLS alongside with its ‘regular’ transmissions (on frequency range 156-162 Mhz) was transmitting a specific impulse type signal due to which Skrunda radar – as well as other similar Soviet stations build around USSR borders – was known by the international military as a “henhouse” radar. Is it the same as “woodpecker” signal, detected in the West by radioamateurs on short-waves? Both signals made a little pecking noise about ten times per second. It is extremely low frequency. Signals of this nature are ‘blamed’ for affecting the way the people behave – they can effect the ability to be calm, the ability to rationalize. After having interviewed Skrunda researchers, it became clear, that Soviets (at least in Skrunda case) were more interested in developing ‘cold war’ weapons and espionage tools, and not in mind-controling experiments.So, this could be most likely the solution.
The signal pulse carried a sophisticated code in order to detect approaching object with extremely high accuracy. Thus it resulted into the over-the-horizon-radar system, which could see incoming objects many times further and more precisely than any ordinary radar of the same power at the same distance (even if they are totally out of line or sight). In order to be able to observe space over long distance (that is to have the signal bouncing off ionosphere) – and to stop all TV and radio broadcasting in the world for about 7 minutes, a radar needs to be extremely powerful. So was Skrunda RLS – when working at maximum of the power. And although it couldn’t destroy ‘cosmic objects’ (i.e. ballistic missiles flying in Earth orbit), it could damage radio facilities of the satellites – which was confirmed by the Skrunda main designer himself.
The unfinished “Darjal – UM” radar in 1992 was already 18 story high. Similar stations were placed in Murmansk, Pechora, Irkutsk, Balhash and Mingenchaur. The very goal was to protect Soviet Union from the possible NATO missile launch. Soviets used a large amount power to many for standard radar causing enormous flow of electromagnetic radiance. In 1988 the Latvian Soviet Council of Ministers send a notice to Soviet Ministry of Defense to inspect the amount of radio radiance around radar stations in Latvia. In 1989 it turned out that in Vaiņode radar the amount of allowable radiance was exceeded 23 times. Soviet authorities promised to fix this, but nothing was done.
After the fall of the USSR the hysteria about adverse health effects caused by the Skrunda radar station begun. Rumors about cow infertility, low birthrate, birth disorders and sickness around the radar stations were widespread. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was not so long ago and fear of the Soviet military installations was growing. However, the scientific inspections were made around the radar site that concluded the intensity of the radiance made by the working radar was not above international level. Also no clear signs of adverse effects caused by radar waves on humans and animals were not found. Until today no clear proof of health damage caused by radio frequencies have not been found. Its more a psychological fear from radio antennas, also the low living standard around the Soviet secret objects that caused the sicknesses. Only real evidence of damage caused by the radar was the drop of amount wood increase in nearby territories. But, Latvian scientists had no proper methods or equipment to measure the possible damage made by the radar. Even now when ever the Latvian army or NATO attempts to place a radar or radio antenna the locals rise up against them, by the fear of the health damage caused by the radio waves. In reality nobody can really see the radio waves nor fully comprehend the effects made by them. As scientists are always uncertain and cannot give concrete conclusions, people talking that they have even seen the radar rays will keep on spreading the ignorance about the radio communications.
In 1992 the talks between Latvian and Russian delegations were all about the withdrawal of the Russian troops. Russians wanted to keep the Skrunda Radar, The Space Espionage center in Irbene, the Liepāja War Port. Latvian delegation did not back down and Russians accepted to leave Skrunda if Latvians would dissemble the radar themselves. Latvian government agreed to destroy the unfinished Darjal -UM radar, for the cost of 8 million dollars. For the luck of the Latvian government some friends from US and Europe decided to help.
In 4 May 1995 an unneeded expensive show was set up at the Skrunda. The US company “Controlled Demolitions Inc” for a contract of 8 million dollars destroyed the “Darjal – UM” radar building. With the presence of Latvian government and even with some pagan ritual the building was turn up in most expensive debris. The prime minister Valdis Birkavs ignored all proposals of using the radar for civil means and put its destruction as a political question.
The older working radar stations were still operational until 4 September 1998, when last Russian operatives left the scene leaving abandoned buildings. All working personnel lived in secret closed town. Now the city resembles the city of Pripyat – completely abandoned and looted. Local government could not find a proper way of how to maintain the city and in 2010 the town was auctioned Russian firm Alekseevskoye-Serviss for 1.55 million (2.2 million Euro). However, nothing was done by the winners and in the town was reauctioned in June 2010 for only 170,000 Lats. On January 2015 after series of unsuccessful auctions the town was bought by the Skrunda municipality. As the private investors showed no initiative in maintaining the town, the municipality will have to do it by their own resources. It’s still stands abandoned as we speak.
The Latvian government was wrong about destroying and leaving the Skrunda radar stations. Even if after complete withdrawal of the Russian army, the site could have been used either for tourist of scientific purposes. The Alūksne nuclear base is good tourist attraction and the Space Espionage Base at Irbene is an important science base for students and scientists. Even if the Russians removed all the valuable equipment the example of the Irbene Radio Telescopes show that even with limited funds the abandoned object could have a new life. Next time we will follow the story of no less mysterious radio station at Irbene, that still works and can be visited.
Upmalis, Ilgonis.(2012) Latvia – USSR military base : 1939-1998: materials and documents on the Soviet army’s presence in and withdrawal from Latvia. Riga : Zelta Grauds.
Upmalis, Ilgonis, Tiglass, Ēriks, Stankēvičs, Ēriks. (2011) Latvija padomjumilitāristu varā : 1939-1999.Rīga: Latvijas okupācijas izpētes biedrība