August 06, 2017

Pushing the button. Inside a Soviet Nuclear Missile Base

The fire button was grey, not red as expected. Applying gentle pressure from my finger on it caused the equipment lights to flash and a deafening bell to ring. I had initiated the unstoppable sequence to launch nuclear missiles, along with decoy rockets, from the silos outside.

Twenty years ago this would have led to the obliteration of much of the east coast of the USA. Boston, New York and Washington would have been destroyed. Welcome to the control room of the Pervomaysk Missile Base in Ukraine, formerly Base 46 of the USSR Strategic Rocket Force group.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with the Russians leaving Ukraine (perhaps only temporarily it now seems), most of the 176 missile bases located there were destroyed, and their contents moved back to Russian soil, as part of global disarmament talks.

With great foresight the Ukranian military decided that one base should be turned into a museum. The Russians were not exactly overjoyed at this news, as the design of the underground twelve-storey command centre is exactly the same as the ones that are still in use there today. 

The Ukrainians had the somewhat stronger hand, they had the base after all, on their newly independent territory. Eventually, after much discussion, an agreement was reached. 

Certain classified equipment was to be taken back to Russia, and three floors were sealed off permanently. This led to the Strategic Missile Forces Museum being opened in 2001. Hopefully it does not follow the fate of the incredible Soviet Submarine Base Museum at Baklava in Crimea, which is now again a fully functioning Russian military base.
A missile silo with its nuclear blast proof cover.
Halfway between Kiev and Odessa is the small rural village of Pervomaysk. It is surrounded by farm land, green fields and crops of wheat, perfect camouflage for a missile base. Virtually everything was built underground at the base, the few single level buildings used for checkpoints or air vents had turf with grass laid on top. 

Satellites would see nothing out of the ordinary.

Approaching on foot, the twin layers of high fences with razor wire would have alerted an inquisitive visitor that something important was there. Seismic equipment, that could differentiate between a cow and a man, was constantly monitoring for intruders.

Getting too close to the fence would result in the intruder getting an electric shock from wires hidden in the earth, the severity increasing so that if they actually made it over the first fence they would be killed by electrocution upon their feet touching the ground, or alternatively by carefully placed mines.

If, by some remarkable planning and expertise you actually made it past the last fence, permanently manned machine gun posts would halt your progress. Visiting was definitely not encouraged, unlike today.

The long corridor to the Control Centre
Despite it now being a museum, few signs point out the bases location, and it is better to get there on a tour from Kiev than by public transport, or even hired taxi, as most drivers still do not know about its existence, even as a museum. 

The entry charge is a very reasonable US$10.

Once inside you will be assigned a guide, often one of the military personnel who used to run the base, and be shown the rows of missiles displayed in the courtyard, including a particularly scary looking 'Satan' SS 18 rocket. Painted dark black, and the size of two buses back to back, it is the deadliest nuclear missile ever built, with a payload of 10 warheads, each over fifty times more powerful than the one that obliterated much of Hiroshima.

Walking passed the missiles you are taken to look deep inside the silos in which they were kept, waiting for the day the button was pressed. 

A small yellow sticker provides a safety warning against falling into the hole, although there are none about its significantly more dangerous content.

Undoubtedly the highlight of any visit, for the bargain price of US$20, is the journey to the launch room at the base of the control centre. 

Only two people can visit at a time, so arrive early and book in advance. Descending through an innocuous stairway you walk along over 150 meters (500 feet) in a dark and cool tunnel, in between cables and pipes supplying electricity and water to the command post, and then through steel blast hardened doors, to a two man lift.

The lift moves slowly, making clunking noises, as it takes you thirty metres (100 feet) below the tunnel, and the door is unlocked on level 11. This is the combat room, where two people were on duty for six hours on, and then six hours off. Rather overwhelming yellow in colour, and incredibly claustrophobic, it would not be my ideal workplace.

The operators were continually sent a code of 10 alphanumeric characters to be entered in 7 seconds without mistake, to keep them on their toes every minute. If they made mistakes they would lose their job. Sitting in one of the two operators workstations, I entered the code that appeared on the screen. I did not make a mistake and may have a few job opportunities underground in Russia.

A scale model of the Missile control centre
The resulting flashing lights on the equipment, and ringing bell, told me the missiles were on their way. There were safeguards, the code had to be entered simultaneously by both operators for the missiles to be successfully launched, but mistakes could still happen higher up the chain of command.

We can only be thankful Stanislav Petrov prevented the codes for launch being sent to the combat room here and across the Soviet Union in 1983, when the Soviet early warning system reported nuclear missiles being launched from the US. 

It was in fact an unusual reflection of sunlight bouncing off the clouds above the nuclear silos in North Dakota.

Beneath the combat room, reached down a ladder through a sealed cover, was the rest room, where the second set of operators stayed when not on shift. 

Even smaller than the room above, basic flat beds, a toilet, kettle, a fridge and a television was all the comfort provided. The whole command post was self sufficient for 45 days, and could survive a direct nuclear attack. 

It was built on a hydraulic structure so that it could move to cushion any blast, and the operators wore seat belts for this reason.

The big question of course, is what would be the point? There would not be a lot left of planet earth 45 days after a nuclear war. Pressing the nuclear button would be a prolonged suicide mission for the operator.

The Cramped Combat room, picture taken from inside the lift.
For me, the most scary part of the tour was realising that there are hundreds of exactly the same underground combat rooms in Russia today, manned by operators entering those strings of alphanumeric codes every minute, preparing to press the grey button if an actual launch code appears on their screen. 

A "Satan" SS18 Nuclear Missile (still used today in silos in Russia)

You Might Also Like