Giant antennas, the tops of which sometimes hide in dense fog, have long become a monument to Soviet socialist militarism, technology of secrecy and waste. And today, it is planned to make a museum out of the ARC complex, which is located in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
A seemingly ordinary intersection is located on the way from Chernobyl to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, not far from the Lelyov checkpoint, at the entrance to the 10-kilometer zone. A concrete road leads from the track to the forest, and an abandoned bus stop is nearby. However, this intersection is usual only at first glance. After a few tens of meters, you can see a sign symbolizing the restricted area.
This route is the path to Chernobyl-2, the last, now existing element of the Arc project. It was a large-scale and ambitious project at one time, and the place where the concrete led to was indicated on Soviet topographic maps as “Pioneer Camp (inactive).” And just such an inscription, “Pioneer camp”, was at the bus stop.
Six kilometers of concrete slabs, trees planted in straight lines, and behind the last bend appears what they hid so carefully – a grandiose cyclopean antenna complex, which was designed to track ballistic missile launches from the United States so that the USSR had time for an answer, so called “doomsday machine.”
The road ends at the checkpoint and the terrain, having passed which, it is not immediately possible to assess its scale. In total, there are more than 30 structures – barracks, garages, workshops and much more. A residential complex with its own school, kindergarten, medical center, club and hotel is behind the trees to the right.
More than a thousand people lived here, most of whom were invited civilian specialists. Their place of work was located nearby, in the second zone, which was separated by its own checkpoint. A sign “Long-distance communications radio center” hung on the fence, with an official and rather abstract name for those who shouldn`t know more.
The low-frequency antenna extends for half a kilometer and has 150 meters in height. A slightly lower high-frequency antenna (approximately 250 by 120 meters) is nearby. When fog is approaching, the top of this structure is hidden in the fog. However, this impressive object was only the “tip of the iceberg”, because the main part of the system was the computer center.
The acting head of the secretariat of the Pripyat Municipal Public Organization, Alexander Rybak, said that he first visited the exclusion zone 10 years ago, as a tourist. Arriving for the first time at the Arc, he was impressed – there was very little information about the object at that time. For several years, research has been conducted here in order to learn more about secret equipment, understand the principles of its operation, systematize historical facts.
Secret development of a retaliatory strike
The history of the object begins from the time when both the USSR and the USA, equipped with ballistic missiles and nuclear installations, developed the issue of retaliation. The essence of the secret development was to be able to have an additional 20 minutes in order to decide whether to strike back or not.
Existing systems did not allow such activities to be carried out effectively. Therefore, both countries began to conduct studies of over-the-horizon radar systems. There was an institute of long-distance radio communications in the Soviet Union, which began to develop the project “Arc”. One of the six stations of this system is located near the city of Pripyat.
The system consisted of three receiving complexes and three transmitters, which were synchronized using satellite communications. In addition to the Chernobyl zone, objects were located in the Far East of the USSR and in the Nikolaev region. There is one receiver in the exclusion zone.
Alexander Rybak draws the signal transmission and reception scheme of the Arc system directly on the sand in front of the antennas: a transmitter and a receiver were used in order to see what is happening at a distance of tens of thousands of kilometers. The transmitter sent a signal that reflected short waves, a multi-step signal design entered the enemy’s territory, where it was reflected from a launched rocket and sent back, where it was picked up by a receiver located in Chernobyl-2.
In order to receive a signal that travels over a great distance, you need a very large antenna. Therefore, the size of the “Arc” antenna is not associated with gigantomania. There was a satellite communication station at each object that transmitted a signal to a satellite, where it was synchronized and subsequently transmitted to a secret bunker for decision-making.
In order to determine the distance and speed of a launched rocket, you need to have several transmitters and receivers. Despite all the technological developments and fantastic investments in terms of volume, the efficiency of the system was unacceptably low, that`s why it never passed state confirmation.
“Russian Woodpecker” – unmasking effect
“It was a great experiment in all respects, but which was not completely successful. One of the problems of this station was that it was never on combat duty. It actually never worked. The station was functional, but there were certain problems.
For example, in radios in Western Europe and sometimes in the USA, one could distinguish a characteristic knock on the air – the distortion that caused a very powerful pulse transmitter. For this, the station in the west was nicknamed the “Russian woodpecker.” It was a very serious unmasking factor, so the special services spent some time getting rid of this effect,” Alexander Rybak said.
After the modernization, it was planned to launch the station by the end of 1986, but this became impossible due to the Chernobyl accident. Interestingly, the giant antenna, which still impresses visitors to the exclusion zone, was not the main element of the Arc. The most important was the computer center, which had six supercomputers.
The K340A, the world’s fastest specialized second-generation uniprocessor computer developed in 1963-1966, worked here. It was built on transistors and consisted of several dozen cabinets with boards. Computing speed reached 2.4 million operations per second.
Of course, any smartphone can handle more operations today, but it was a technological breakthrough at that time. The machine was specialized and worked only with the radar stations of the Institute for Long-Range Radio Communications.
In total, no more than 50 units of such a computer were produced in the world, at least three of which were for an over-the-horizon radar system. They were cooled by air, so the whole floor of one of the buildings was occupied by powerful climate control systems. After the Chernobyl accident, powerful fans sucked in the radioactive dust.
The equipment had to be turned off, and the staff evacuated. Thus, after the station was turned off in emergency mode, it was never turned on again. After the decontamination of the facility, the Cold War actually ended, so there was no need for such a complex.
Today, the ARC is a unique building, a kind of open-air museum, so experts are working to create a museum of the Cold War on its basis. How successful such an initiative will be, time will tell.