Strategic Fireworks

Warhead Impact Crater (photo: Novaya gazeta)

Being practically the eve of Victory Day, news is hard to come by.  

Novaya gazeta, however, was nice enough to print an interesting article about Russia’s strategic shooting gallery — Kamchatka’s Kura test range.

The author says, from the air, this 13,206 square kilometer patch of taiga looks like an unattractive golf course with a great quantity of holes.  In Kura’s 55-year history, more than 5,500 “items” have landed here.

Kura was called Kama at the time of its establishment in 1955, and two years later, the first missile, an R-7 (SS-6 / Sapwood) — the world’s first ICBM, landed here.

Why this site?  An old hand at the Independent Scientific-Testing Station of Space Forces explains:

“There are several reasons for this.  Firstly, this is one of the most remote regions, that is it’s possible to test missiles here not only for firing accuracy, but for range.  Secondly, the trajectory of all flights was conducted only over the USSR’s territory.  Thirdly, the range was laid out at a great distance from populated points and airline routes.”

So, the military’s calculations were correct.  No aircraft or people ever suffered from a stray missile, but not every “item” landed as intended.  They cut into mountains, or splashed in the ocean.  In the early 1980s, one caused casualties in a Koryak reindeer herd.

Kura Test Range

“Items” land here less frequently now, not more than 20 per year.  In the past, there were up to 250 per year.  The old hand continues:

“In the Soviet years, warheads poured from the sky like off a conveyor belt.  Not just military here, but scientific life was also cooking here.  Groups from scientific-research institutes who were creating the Soviet ‘star’ program as a counterweight to the American SDI constantly came here.  But after perestroyka, most scientific research was rolled up.”

He says the range’s helicopter pilots are marvelous fliers, but it’s often the bears who first find what’s fallen from the heavens.  All the oxidized metal is bad for the environment, of course.

The local garrison is just tens of kilometers from the Klyuchevskaya Sopka volcano, and its ash and sulfuric acid takes a toll on equipment.

The author says the locals say the warhead flights are spectacular.  At first, there’s a bright star in the night sky, rapidly approaching the ground.  Then a flash so powerful the street’s lit like daytime, but doomsday lasts not more than a second.  In an instant, the big star separates into several smaller ones.  Up to 10 warheads separate from the platform and fly at their own targets.  Cooler than any fireworks.

V / ch 25522 has 200 conscripts, about the same number of contractees, and 500 officers.  Life in the garrison town is generally good.  Soldiers preferred the old “Afghan” uniforms to the new ones from Yudashkin.  The barracks are warm, and there’s been no violence or hazing in recent years, but there’s not much free time (or much to do) either.  Soldiers can use their cell phones on days off.

For Space Troops officers, service here is considered prestigious, and the pay is almost three times that in units in Central Russia.  A year of service here counts double for hardship.  The stores are significantly better stocked here than on the “mainland,” but the prices are also 2-3 times higher.

Like everywhere, officers are being retired or put in civilian billets.  Engineer pay at the range, with supplements and coefficients, is 25-30 thousand rubles a month.  A lieutenant colonel gets 50-60 thousand.

Winter is seven months, and earthquakes a daily occurrence.  The volcanic ash isn’t good for people, but it isn’t deadly, they say.

Many officers have served at Kura since the early or mid-1990s, and they don’t complain.  The work is interesting, and the surroundings beautiful.  Things are better than 10 years ago when personnel didn’t get paid, and pilots had to buy their own spares for their helicopters.  Now equipment gets repaired, and the pay’s on time.

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