The Russian Woodpecker was a notorious Soviet radio signal that could be sporadically heard on the shortwave radio bands worldwide between July 1976 and December 1989. It sounded like a sharp, repetitive tapping noise at 10 Hz, giving rise to the "Woodpecker" name. The random frequency hops disrupted legitimate broadcast, amateur radio, commercial aviation communications, utility transmissions, and resulted in thousands of complaints by many countries worldwide. Because of its extremely high power output (over 10 MW in some cases), the signal became such a nuisance that some receivers such as amateur radios and televisions actually began including 'Woodpecker Blankers' in their design.
The mysterious and unclaimed signal was a source for much speculation, giving rise to theories such as Soviet mind control and weather control. However, after careful study, many experts and amateur radio hobbyists long believed it to be that of an extremely powerful over-the-horizon radar (OTH) system. This theory was publicly confirmed after the fall of the Soviet Union, and is now known to be the Duga-3 (Russian: Дуга-3) system, part of the Soviet ABM early-warning network. NATO military intelligence had photographed the system and given it the NATO reporting name Steel Yard.
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Starting in 1976 a new and powerful radio signal was detected worldwide, and quickly dubbed the Woodpecker by amateur radio operators. Transmission power on some woodpecker transmitters was estimated to be as high as 10 MW equivalent isotropically radiated power.
Triangulation quickly revealed the signals came from Ukraine. Confusion due to small differences in the reports being made from various military sources led to the site being alternately located near Kiev, Minsk, Chernobyl, Gomel or Chernihiv. All of these reports were describing the same deployment, with the transmitter only a few kilometers southwest of Chernobyl (south of Minsk, northwest of Kiev) and the receiver about 50 km northeast of Chernobyl (just west of Chernihiv, south of Gomel). Unknown to civilian observers at the time, NATO was aware of the new installation, which they referred to as Steel Yard.
Even from the earliest reports it was suspected that the signals were tests of an over-the-horizon radar, and this remained the most popular hypothesis during the Cold War. Several other theories were floated as well, including everything from jamming western broadcasts to submarine communications. The broadcast jamming theory was debunked early on when a monitoring survey showed that Radio Moscow and other pro-Soviet stations were just as badly affected by woodpecker interference as Western stations.
As more information about the signal became available, its purpose as a radar signal became increasingly obvious. In particular, its signal contained a clearly recognizable structure in each pulse, which was eventually identified as a 31-bit pseudo-random binary sequence, with a bit-width of 100 μs resulting in a 3.1 ms pulse. This sequence is usable for a 100 μs chirped pulse amplification system, giving a resolution of 15 km (10 mi) (the distance light travels in 50 μs). When a second Woodpecker appeared, this one located in eastern Russia but also pointed toward the US and covering blank spots in the first system's pattern, this conclusion became inescapable.
In 1988, the Federal Communications Commission conducted a study on the Woodpecker signal. Data analysis showed an inter-pulse period of about 90 ms, a frequency range of 7 to 19 MHz, a bandwidth of 0.02 to 0.8 MHz, and typical transmission time of 7 minutes.
- The signal was observed using three repetition rates: 10 Hz, 16 Hz and 20 Hz.
- The most common rate was 10 Hz, while the 16 Hz and 20 Hz modes were rather rare.
- The pulses transmitted by the woodpecker had a wide bandwidth, typically 40 kHz.
One idea amateur radio operators used to combat this interference was to attempt to "jam" the signal by transmitting synchronized unmodulated continuous wave signals, at the same pulse rate as the offending signal. They formed a club called The Russian Woodpecker Hunting Club.
Starting in the late 1980s, even as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was publishing studies of the signal, the signals became less frequent, and in 1989 disappeared altogether. Although the reasons for the eventual shutdown of the Duga-3 systems have not been made public, the changing strategic balance with the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s likely had a major part to play. Another factor was the success of the US-KS early-warning satellites, which entered preliminary service in the early 1980s, and by this time had grown into a complete network. The satellite system provides immediate, direct and highly secure warnings, whereas any radar-based system is subject to jamming, and the effectiveness of OTH systems is also subject to atmospheric conditions.
According to some reports, the Komsomolsk-na-Amure installation in the Russian Far East was taken off combat alert duty in November 1989, and some of its equipment was subsequently scrapped. The original Duga-3 site lies within the 30 kilometer Zone of Alienation around the Chernobyl power plant. It appears to have been permanently deactivated, since their continued maintenance did not figure in the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine over the active Dnepr early warning radar systems at Mukachevo and Sevastopol. The antenna still stands, however, and has been used by amateurs as a transmission tower (using their own antennas) and has been extensively photographed.
Appearances in media
The Ukrainian-developed computer game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has a plot focused on the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the nuclear accident there. The game heavily features actual locations in the area, including the Duga-3 array. The array itself appears in STALKER: Clear Sky in the city of Limansk-13. While the 'Brain Scorcher' from STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl was inspired by theories that Duga-3 was used for mind control, it does not take the form of the real array.
On a BBC Horizon documentary, The Mysterious Mr. Tesla, doctor Andrew Michrowski of the Planetary Association for Clean Energy speculated that the Woodpecker could in fact be a Soviet mind-control transmitter, imposing on people's ability to think rationally and stay calm (original air date 20 December 1982). The programme's narrator (correctly) suggested the signal was over-the-horizon radar.
In Call of Duty: Black Ops, the Grid map is placed in Pripyat near the DUGA-3 array.
- David L. Wilson (Summer 1985). "The Russian Woodpecker... A Closer Look". Monitoring Times. Retrieved 2007-06-15.
- The Russian word "duga" means "arc" in English.
- "Mystery Soviet over-the-horizon tests". Wireless World: 53. February 1977. Retrieved 2007-06-15.
- J.P. Martinez (April 1982). "Letter from J. P. Martinez". Wireless World: 89. Retrieved 2007-06-15.
- Dave Finley (7 July 1982). "Radio hams do battle with 'Russian Woodpecker'". The Miami Herald. Retrieved 2007-06-15.
- Headrick, James M. (1 July 1990). "Looking over the horizon (HF radar)". IEEE Spectrum 27 (7): 36–39. doi:10.1109/6.58421.
- Headrick, James M.; Skolnik, Merrill I. (1 January 1974). "Over-the-Horizon radar in the HF band". Proceedings of the IEEE 62 (6): 664–673. doi:10.1109/PROC.1974.9506.
- Headrick, James M., Ch. 24: "HF over-the-horizon radar," in: Radar Handbook, 2nd ed., Merrill I. Skolnik, ed. [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990].
- Kosolov, A. A., ed. Fundamentals of Over-the-Horizon Radar (translated by W. F. Barton) [ Norton, Mass.: Artech House, 1987].
- Chernobyl-2. Secret Military Facility in the territory of exclusion zone. Text and photos 2008
- OTH-Radar "Chornobyl - 2" and Center of space-communication
- "Circle" is an auxiliary system for OTH-Radar "Chornobyl - 2"
- The Russian Woodpecker, Miami Herald, July 1982.
- Steel Yard OTH, globalsecurity.org
- Some pictures of Chernobyl-2
- 'Duga' photos at englishrussia.com