UNCOVERED: THE ‘RUSSIAN WOODPECKER’ RADAR IN THE CHERNOBYL EXCLUSION AREA

Duga 3

Originally published in News.com.au

The catastrophic events of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant blast in 1986 shook the world in many ways. Not only did it put the now ghost town of Pripyat on the map for all the wrong and devastating reasons, it also exposed the world to the ‘Russian Woodpecker.’ As if being in the 1,000 square mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone wasn’t eerie enough, standing in the shadows of this hellish and imposing top secret military Soviet-era creation was.

I had to bend my neck far back to take in this eyesore sight. Ironically, this largely forgotten Soviet-era landmark wouldn’t be easily obliterated from anyone’s mind. It stood for the extent of how the world was standing anxiously on knifes’ edge. All it would take was a positive detection of an incoming missile and a button pressed for this structure to play its role in triggering the Cold War to becoming a fully fledged one.

From its role to detect disruption, it now remains useless and un-kept.

A Soviet engineering and scientific feat of its time, the Russian Woodpecker was at the forefront of the ‘over the horizon’ radar system that was designed to provide early detection of an inter-continental ballistic missile attack.

Built in 1976, this monstrous steel-woven structure was designed to detect missiles within seconds. Standing taller than the Sydney Harbour Bridge at 146m and stretching 500m wide, it is hard to fathom how this radar was unknown to those beyond the Red Curtain despite it emitting a frequency of 10 Hz that could be heard from around the world. Air Traffic Controls, TV and radio broadcasters would be irked by the mysterious pecking noises it emitted, hence being dubbed the ‘Russian Woodpecker.’

Built just outside the city of Pripyat, it was completely off limits and unknown to outsiders. It was erected near Chernobyl due to its’ high power demands. On maps, it was marked as a summer camp for children hidden in the depths of the forest. Locals were told that the imposing skyscraper was a radio tower. It’s staff of technicians, scientists, military personal and their families lived nearby in a sealed section under extreme conditions of protecting Cold War secrecy.

Officially known as the Duga 3 Radar, this giant steel yard was the last of a trio of similar radar installations dotted around Ukraine. It was between the Chernobyl blast and the the fall of the Soviet Union that the missile detector was slowly decommissioned and ceased to operate. This also shone light on the source of the mysterious frequency that irritated many and, above all, revealed the structure’s true purpose for missile detection.

This colossal structure now remains derelict into in the depths of the Ukrainian forest.

The site of the Duga-3, known as Chernobyl 2, had remained closed off to visitors long after the Exclusion Zone was relaxed to allow tourists to get a glimpse of Ukraine’s melancholy and destructive past in 2002. Some daring BASE jumpers have taken inspiration from Spiderman by scaling to the top of the derelict web of steel and calling the radar detector ‘the best man-made object we had to jump’ before plummeting off the apocalyptic structure and hovering over the Ukrainian forest.

It is only in recent times the Ukrainian administrators relaxed admission into the site of the Duga-3 and now permits tourists to glance at what remains of its’ steel skeleton structure.

Upon closer inspection, it is quite an impressive architectural marvel. By no means is it pretty but one has to admire the engineering legwork to create such a structure of such epic proportions. Its steel framework features cage-like devices stacked on top of one another with a series of wires connecting each tower. It would not be so far-fetched to expect some Hollywood superhero villain to come climbing down from the antenna to question your intentions for being there.

This skyscraper is hardly one that would feature on a postcard but it does highlight an other side of Ukraine’s textured past. For those who like to feel out of their comfort zone, taking a trip to the infamous exclusion zone to take sight of the Russian Woodpecker will have you feeling just.