The Russian Woodpecker: Official Bird Of The Cold War Nests In Giant Antenna

On July 4th, 1976, as Americans celebrated the country’s bicentennial with beer and bottle rockets, a strong signal began disrupting shortwave, maritime, aeronautical, and telecommunications signals all over the world. The signal was a rapid 10 Hz tapping that sounded like a woodpecker or a helicopter thup-thupping on the roof. It had a wide bandwidth of 40 kHz and sometimes exceeded 10 MW.

This was during the Cold War, and plenty of people rushed to the conclusion that it was some sort of Soviet mind control scheme or weather control experiment. But amateur radio operators traced the mysterious signal to an over-the-horizon radar antenna near Chernobyl, Ukraine (then part of the USSR) and they named it the Russian Woodpecker. Here’s a clip of the sound.

The frequency-hopping Woodpecker signal was so strong that it made communication impossible on certain channels and could even be heard across telephone lines when conditions were right. Several countries filed official complaints with the USSR through the UN, but there was no stopping the Russian Woodpecker. Russia wouldn’t even own up to the signal’s existence, which has since been traced to an immense antenna structure that is nearly half a mile long and at 490 feet, stands slightly taller than the Great Pyramid at Giza.

This imposing steel structure stands within the irradiated forest near Pripyat, an idyllic town founded in 1970 to house the Chernobyl nuclear plant workers. Pictured above is the transmitter, also known as Duga-1, Chernobyl-2, or Duga-3 depending on who you ask. Located 30 miles northeast of Chernobyl, on old Soviet maps the area is simply labeled Boy Scout Camp. Today, it’s all within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

It was such a secret that the government denied it’s existence, yet was being heard all over the world. What was this mammoth installation used for?

Distant Early Warning

The Duga radar was one of two transmitter/receiver pairs built in response to the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line), a smattering of antennas that were built above the Arctic Circle in a joint effort between the US and Canada. Like any over-the-horizon radar, the theory behind Russia’s system was that Moscow would have about 25 minutes to respond to ICBMs in kind, rather than having a mere 10 minutes or so in which to duck and cover and kiss the world goodbye. To get a better idea of the scale of this thing, check out Tom Scott’s brief tour in the video embedded below.

The DEW, Mid-Canada, and Pinetree radar lines. Image via Wikipedia

Over-the-horizon radar relies on a similar phenomenon that delivers such great range for amateur radio — the signals bounce off the ionosphere and are thus able to overcome the curvature of the Earth, which allows it to detect launches much earlier than standard ground radar can.

In the 2015 documentary The Russian Woodpecker, a film crew led by an artist from Kyiv attempts to uncover the mysteries of the antenna. He believes that the nuclear incident at Chernobyl was orchestrated to divert attention away from the structure, which was due for an upcoming inspection that it was never going to pass.

According to the documentary, the Duga antenna cost twice as much as the Chernobyl plant itself — around 7 billion Rubles. Putting this cost in historical context is tricky. Using the Treasury Reporting Rates of Exchange as of June 30, 1976 we find the exchange rate at the time was 0.7550 Rubles to Dollars. That places the 1976 cost at about $9.27 billion. Inflation adjusted that’s $43.16 billion in 2021 value — a mind-boggling sum that makes us question the documentary’s cost assessment (and the accuracy of our own conversion process).

Some sources say the radar system never worked. Other sources claim that it did, and that they were able to detect every single Shuttle launch with it. And when the Woodpecker was reported to be interfering with Russian SOS signals, they altered the frequency. But after they did that, it stopped working because of interference from Aurora borealis.

Making Moscow Mufflers

Eventually, companies and individuals built blanker circuitry to tune out the incessant tapping. Conventional interference blanker circuits work by looking for short pulse duration with fast rise time, and generate a signal to shut off a gate in the signal path. But these would be useless to drown out the Woodpecker, because they don’t work on lower-amplitude pulses.

The Moscow Muffler WB-1. Image via QRZ Forums

The problem with blanking the Woodpecker’s signal was that it had a large bandwidth and inconsistent pulses. Ionospheric reflection would stretch the pulses and sometimes create echoes, turning it into a game of whack-a-mole. To make matters worse, they often looked like regular signals, making it even harder to isolate the Woodpecker from whatever the desired signal was.

The Datong SRB2 Woodpecker Blanker. Image via Radioworld

One popular device was the AEA Moscow Muffler (PDF), which worked by generating an internal signal of 10 or 16 Hz to blank out the Woodpecker. But if the ionosphere was stretching the pulses, the blanker’s pulse width had to be increased to compensate, which often meant losing the desired signal in the shuffle.

Another device, the Datong SRB2, was much more of a set-it-and-forget-it deal (PDF, page 39). The SRB2 worked much like the Moscow Muffler, by generating an internal clock and comparing it with the Woodpecker signal.

The nifty thing about the SRB2 is that it was automatic. Once it found a match, it tailored the blocking pulse to suit by dialing in the pulse width, the number of blanking pulses, and their ideal positions. Conversely, the Moscow Muffler used fixed-width pulses, so you had to keep messing with it in order to keep the signal blanked out.

Still Standing, Silent

The Russian Woodpecker interference stopped after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, around which time its existence was finally confirmed by the Soviet government. By then, the Russians had moved on to satellites for their early warning purposes.

In 2013, a similar signal started to terrorize the shortwaves, though not as strongly as the original. It is believed to come from a new Russian OTH radar system called Container, which looks to be nearly as big as Duga. If you want to check it out, tune to 14.270 on shortwave and let us know what you hear!

[Main image source: The Duga radar antenna, human for scale. Image by Corsairoz CC BY-SA 4.0]

44 thoughts on “The Russian Woodpecker: Official Bird Of The Cold War Nests In Giant Antenna

    1. Weird is the Saugatuck Mt. Baldhead station that is part of the SAGE line that seemed to disappear from the internet for the most part other than most noting the Village of Saugatuck owned after 1968;, where at one time there was a Wiki regarding noting the Joint Military and Civilian operations utility.

      Same goes with the FCC Training and Monitoring Investigation Station in Allegan which really didn’t have much I recall ever to begin with online. Then all the sudden the whole line…

      …and mass denial of capabilities to passively listen to signals causing “health attacks” when there are trillions of dollars in assets throughout the World very capable of. Talk about Active Denial of sound, body and mind control infrastructure.

      A moment of silence for Yeri Grigoriev:

      1. I have a Drake R7 receiver which came from the Allegan, MI monitoring office – including purchase paperwork signed by the Station Chief. The unit has an OEM-fitted buffer board for the last IF stage (an ex-Drake friend of mine confirmed the modification was in fact done by them). Would be interesting if that rig could tell stories about what it was used for,

  1. There was IIRC, a subculture of hams, who discovered that if they manually adjusted the dot rate on their automatic keyers to match the Woodpecker’s PRF, it would change its transmitting frequency. Technically illegal (interference with another broadcaster) but effective in clearing the Woodpecker out of the ham bands.

    1. It might have been more fun to transmit back on the doppler-shifted frequency to simulate an ICBM launch!
      Presumably we will be able to do that with the new version, and watch the sparks fly.

    2. Guess they’d have to admit to owning the Woodpecker to complain about it!

      As for the cost estimate, I have to wonder if that was the project’s official budget, or if it was just one of the shells that got moved around to hide that something else was over budget.

      1. My ham radio station was on the air, and equipped with a Morse code keyer in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The account above is accurate. I would hear the hammering BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG… and then in the background someone would be transmitting dit, dit, dit, dit, dit, dit, dit… If the timing was right, the Woodpecker would slide off that frequency and on to another one. I knew some guys who, when nothing else was going on, liked to spend an evening chasing the Woodpecker around the band.

        The reason this could work is because all you had to do was cover up the echo, not the main signal. If you cover the echo, the radar goes blind. So it was easy for someone with a couple hundred watts of power to make the Woodpecker go somewhere else. Some operators even had a preset speed and weighting switch on their keyers for just that purpose. There was some skill involved to cover up the echo by not transmitting in time with the transmitted signal. It helped if the transceiver was solid state (not requiring tuning) and had full break-in (hear the receiver in between the dots).

        So the question is, did the Woodpecker work? Given the behavior of the Woodpecker when people covered up the echoes, I think it did, though perhaps not as well as the Soviets would have hoped. I knew people who had looked at the pulse shape and, knowing what other radar pulses looked like, wondered how it could possibly be accurate. But maybe accuracy wasn’t the point. I think presence or absence of a moving threat was really all they were after. It may have been an early warning for other radars to give them an approximate direction and target to monitor.

  2. “This was during the Cold War, and plenty of people rushed to the conclusion that it was some sort of Soviet mind control scheme or weather control experiment.”

    Oh people and their wacky conspiracies.

    “He believes that the nuclear incident at Chernobyl was orchestrated to divert attention away from the structure, which was due for an upcoming inspection that it was never going to pass.”

    Which still continue.

    1. How can you have such a brain trust of national intelligence and make such stupid mistakes… including with international oversight?

      Granted… technical vs management issues causing design sub-optimization. Still… doubting was random. Not only are some domestic forces candidates desperate to “disrupt” , infiltrated foreign agents are even more desperate.

      Then add into the equations liquidators, mafias that bankroll on destructions waste and investment groups that bankroll on death, destruction and chaos.

      More than one planned for the situation is my guess.

      1. “How can you have such a brain trust of national intelligence and make such stupid mistakes”
        If the US military claimed that the Soviets were a huge threat because of $insert_conspiracy_theory_here, then they could ask for more money in their budgets, (and of course the same could be said of the Soviet military talking about the US).
        Of course, the conspiracy theory has to be somewhat plausible, but they could slap a TOP SECRET rating on everything to make it harder to disprove.

        1. I heard that in the US, around 50 000 persons are classified to read “Top Secret” material. Point is, even top secret is not that “protected” making evil small powerstructures harder to maintain.

          1. To read classified material you must not only have the appropriate level of clearance, you must have the “need to know”. Having clearance to top secret weapon design does not mean you can see today’s launch code.

    2. At the time the Woodpecker was in operation, there were ongoing “psy-ops” propaganda programs intended to trick the Soviets into wasting money on dead-end military research projects such as mind control and weather control. Some of this nonsense was (perhaps intentionally) leaked to the tabloid press , giving rise to many of the conspiracy theories existing today.

      It even appears that rumors of soviet attempts to develop psychic warfare lead to us army intelligence starting the Stargate Project that inspired the book and subsequent film :The Men Who Stare at Goats”.

      Apparently, thr Soviet government considered the Duga system importance enough to keep it in operation, drawing power from the reactors that were still operational after the explosion an meltdown of reactor 4 at the Chernobyl complex. This implies that workers were sent into the hot zone to run the radio array as well as the power station for about three years after the meltdown

      1. I don’t think the Mind Control and Weather Control were PSYOPS entirely since many projects performed resulted in systems and infrastructure that has been capable of causing such operations and programming.

        For instance, the sound controls using wireless devices to beam form sound into or onto specific focal points has been refined and developed into more than one device using more than one technology, i.e. heterodyne, pulse train and carrier with modulated signal demodulating on a target. That’s not even considering the thermal and RF specific photonic and phononic methods that can do more than create sound.

        Then there are the body and mind control clear developments and implementations using wired electrode methods with not so clear developments regarding the wireless no electrode required methods that I’m confident have been implemented though are not clearly disclosed publicly in regards to systems/device/operations implementations in exacting detail due to classification schemes.

        For example, just the work of Dr. Jose Delgado alone sheds light onto the history of the body and mind control advances where by the 1980’s no radio-contrasting agents were required for wireless mind control.

        Then, maybe read the prior comment to the above link and then think about all RADAR infrastructure implemented known and then where some little room or box can be added to process signals to create even more RADAR or RADAR like infrastructure on top of the communications and powerlines infrastructure.

  3. Gave a listen at about 15:20 UTC on 14.270 and all I heard was bleed over from somebody operating sideband phone on the 20M band. This is from southern Arizona, USA

  4. Detecting something the size of the shuttle with an RCS of a warehouse isn’t exactly useful for something supposedly capable of detecting an ICBM during launch/boost phase.

    1. The Shuttle was maybe three the size of a Minuteman III ICBM, so it’s pretty close. And of course, the US doesn’t launch many ICBMs, but Shuttle launches were announced in advance, so they would have been a useful calibration target.

  5. Duga-3 is referenced in the excellent S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow Of Chernobyl video game. In the game there’s a large antennae array called the brain scorcher that turns people into mindless zombies.

          1. Yeah, the big antennas are like an electro-cautery or electrocoagulation fright… especially if capable of beam forming to a really small target focal point… I mean that high enough duty cycle pulse can electro-ablate.

  6. Does anyone know if there are any documentaries on ‘ChirpSounders’ ? I hear them all the time on the HF bands. Fun to watch them sweep across the bands.

  7. “He believes that the nuclear incident at Chernobyl was orchestrated to divert attention away from the structure, which was due for an upcoming inspection that it was never going to pass.”

    Err, no. DUGA had been superseeded by satellites by the end of the 1970s and was due for removal. The only reason why it still exists is that the radioactive fallout made it too complicated to dismantle it.

    “According to the documentary, the Duga antenna cost twice as much as the Chernobyl plant itself — around 7 billion Rubles.”

    Highly unlikely. I was there, the most complicated part of the DUGA installation in Chernobyl was the building with the analogue computers. Neither the antenna nor that building could ever have been as expensive as a single reactor, of which the Chernobyl plant had four.

    Also the DUGA antenna in Chernobyl was the receiver. The sender of this pair was located about 20 kilometers further east.

  8. Weirdly I saw the Duga antenna used in a sci-fi show that I watch on NBC called Debris on 5/20/2021. They used a photo of the array and digitally used it in a shot. Strange coincidence.

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