Cold War Files: The Ghost of Soviet Past

Nukes

CRAWLING THROUGH THE DECAYED NUCLEAR MISSILE BASES OF THE USSR

Editor’s note: In December 2015, two Army intelligence officers set out on a trip to explore the mysterious remnants of the Soviet Union in the Baltic States. In the first of this two part series, they showed War on the Rocks readers what they saw in an abandoned Soviet military city.  In this part, they explore the remnants of the Soviet nuclear missile infrastructure in Latvia and Estonia.

“Da?” (Да) muttered the broad-shouldered man behind the diner counter, eyes apathetically glancing at the television mounted in the corner of the room playing Russian pop music videos. The place was a far cry from a favorable Yelp review, but it was the only open restaurant in the isolated municipality of Gulbene.  We occupied a table in the corner and noticed two other patrons giving us a piercing stare. It seemed we were more interesting to them than the scandalously-dressed teenage Russian pop-stars on TV, and the gaze lasted the full duration of our Latvian truck stop dinner.

Our destination in the vicinity of this sleepy little town was an enormous subterranean Dvina missile silo complex, once the home of R-12 medium-range ballistic missiles (NATO designation: SS-4 Sandal) of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Placed on the western edges of the Soviet Union due to their limited range of 2,000 kilometers, the Sandals could reach targets as far west as London.  From their initial fielding in 1959 through the 1980s, the Sandals were the mainstay of Soviet nuclear missile forces in Europe, and became infamous in 1962 when 42 of them were revealed in Cuba.

Four identical silos housed the R-12 missiles, with each kept at a different level of combat launch readiness in the event of nuclear war. Generally, decreased start-up time would be sacrificed for the missile’s shelf life in any configuration. For example, a moderate readiness level would allow the missile to be launched within one hour, and included inserted flight path data and initiation of the missile’s onboard guidance system. The drawback, however, was that the missile could only remain in such a condition for about three months due to technical constraints such as the expiration of Soviet guidance systems. The nucleus of the complex was a centralized command bunker, which supported each silo through interconnecting corridors buried under an unassuming forest floor; a hub with four very lethal spokes.

Read the Remainder at War on the Rocks

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