The history of this Cyclopean monument to Cold War megalomania (referred to at various times as «The Arc», “Steelyard”, “Russian Woodpecker” and “brain burner”) began in 1946 when Soviet engineer N.I. Kabanov initially proposed the idea of the developing a system for the early detection of enemy aircraft. The first experimental success was achieved in 1949, and in 1950 a prototype of an over-the-horizon radar was built, tracking rocket launches from the Baikonur launch facility. With the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles in the 1960s, it became necessary to monitor launches from the USA territory. NIIDAR (Research Studies Institute for Long-haul Radio Communication) was tasked to develop an over-the-horizon radar system employing high-power shortwave radio signals. In 1970, the first experimental radio-locating station of this type was built near the city of Nikolaev (Ukraine) under the personal direction of Franz Kuzminskiy, chief engineer at NIIDAR.
The operating principle of the station is as follows. The transmitting antenna launches a radio signal in the shortwave radio frequency spectrum, which, when reflected from the ionosphere, identifies ballistic missile plumes. Detected signals are then fixed by a receiving antenna. Given that it took a missile approximately 25-30 minutes to fly from the US to the USSR, the radar could detect them in very early in flight—within 2-3 minutes of launch.
Even before the successful testing of the experimental station at Nikolayev in 1969 was complete, it was agreed that a larger over-the-horizon radar, DUGA-1, would be built in Chernobyl-2, a settlement close to the (then only planned) nuclear power plant of the same name. The choice of location was not coincidental: the radar station consumed an enormous amount of power, as the power of some transmitters was estimated to be as high as 10 MW EIRP. Major construction work was completed in 1977, and the facility was tested by tracking Trident missile launch exercises in the Caribbean, NASA shuttle launches from Cape Canaveral and even meteorites.
The dimensions of the receiver radar antenna were enormous: 150 m in height, 750m total length, and a total area equivalent to 7 football fields. The station was served by a garrison of 1,000 men under the command of Colonel Vladimir Musiyets. The transmitting antenna, built some 60 kilometres from Chernobyl-2, could send a short-wave returning radio signal (at frequencies between 3.26 and 17.54 Mhz) over Northern Europe and Greenland to the United States. An analogous radio station, DUGA-2, was concurrently built in the Far East in Bol’shaya Cartel settlement (near Komsomol’sk-na-Amure). This meant that the entire US territory could be scanned.
However, during the course of the testing, it became evident that the system severely interfered with global radio communications, giving rise to a persistent clicking sound across a range of frequencies that caused it to be dubbed "The Russian Woodpecker" by radio amateurs. In protest, radio enthusiasts in the United States organised the Russian Woodpecker Hunting Club, distributing a bullseye target with the image of a woodpecker, and urging members to send the bullet-perforated target to the address of Leonid Brezhnev. At the same time, it was discovered that the radio signal could itself receive significant distortion when passing through the polar ionosphere, meaning that theoretically the Woodpecker could miss a volley of missiles aimed at Soviet territory. A NIIDAR research group was urgently established and tasked with eliminating loopholes in Soviet anti-missile defence. The cause of the distortion was identified in 1982, and a decision was taken to modernise and technically upgrade the DUGA-1 station.
In an irony of fate, work on modernising the radar station was completed in early 1986, a few short months before the infamous explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986. The “DUGA” garrison took part in frantic efforts to mitigate the consequences of the accident, heroically trying to save the station equipment and keep it in working condition. A bunker was specially equipped to host 300 people who worked over the following weeks to protect the station from nuclear contamination. The voice of the Russian Woodpecker trailed off, and the great over-the-horizon radar system was never fully put into service by the Ministry of Defence of USSR.