Driving through the bucolic countryside around Platelaiai in Lithuania is very peaceful and it is really hard to imagine that this region once held a dense population of the world's most deadly weapons. At a time of a cold-war surge, a radioactive firestorm with an unimaginable power of destruction was to be unleashed from here and within minutes, the entire region would be turned into glass and ashes by a rainfall of NATO missiles.
In 1960, a frenetic work was initiated to excavate four thirty meter deep shafts and a command bunker. Some 10,000 soldiers equipped with shovels were put to work and in December 1962 the commander could proudly announce that the Plokstine missile base at Ploksciai was operational, the first installation of this kind in the USSR. Each silo held a R-12U/SS-4 "Dvina" Medium-Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM), capable of delivering a 1-2.5 megaton yield nuclear warhead to a target some 2500 km away. That distance allowed eradication of any capital of choice in Western Europe given a target accuracy of some +/- 1 km. An astonishing accomplishment given that there was no active guidance and no computers were involved.
Facing facts like this, one has to stop and think a few seconds or maybe minutes. That is at least what I had to do. Imagining the destruction caused by the 0.02 megaton yield Little Boy dropped at Hiroshima in August 1945, these bastards were some 100 times more powerful. Back into the "logics" of the nuclear buffs around 1960, the military planners were enthusiastic of developing charges with a yield of 1 gigaton, i.e. some 50,000 Little Boy. It seems however that the 60 megaton "Tsar Bomba" hydrogen bomb dropped by the Soviets at Novaya Zemlya in 1961 cooled off the big-is-beautiful-guys a bit and the race for yield was over. Quantity and reach became the leading star instead.
Although I've been brought up during these years of complete insanity, it takes something like this to recall it. We had lessons in school describing the impact of The Bomb, how to evacuate the city, how to put out fires, where the shelters were etc. When I did my military service back in 1987, the nuclear threat was certainly a reality. The training together with informational films that were shown to us grunts gave a true taste of the upcoming annihilation. I think I can speak for more than myself in saying that the omnipresent threat of this nuclear nightmare somewhat diminished when the Wall and the Soviet Union collapsed.
Entering the complex at Ploksciai is almost a surreal experience with this background in mind. Seeing the supreme commander’s room and imagining the call from Moscow where a "go ahead" for maximum alert was given. Within 30 minutes, the rockets were fueled and aligned, the warhead put in place and the silos opened. The launch bearing was set by rotating the rocket in the silo and the range was set by the amount of fuel being pumped in. Probably, this target selection was done just after the go-ahead. By pressing two buttons down in the command bunker, some three meters apart, the rocket was launched and given a march speed of some 2500 m/s, my home town Stockholm 430 km away would have been reached in less than five minutes. A single 2 megaton charge would have turned our capital into a glass crater for sure. I silently think about a "Doctor Strangelove" scenario here where a fuse blew in the head of the local commander, just like what happened to General Ripper. One can wonder how close something like that we ever were...
Ironically, just as these silos were put into operation, the Cuba crisis in the fall of 1962 revealed the importance of high-altitude reconnaissance. When Kennedy triumphed Khrushchev with U-2 photos of the SS-4 installations in Cuba, the silo approach was doomed as everyone understood that such fixed installations could not be kept secret and was therefore "sitting ducks" in the event of a preemptive attack. Interestingly enough, some of the rockets deployed for Cuba were "borrowed" from Ploksciai and adjacent base Sateikiai. Just like with the Dr Strangelove character, Buck Turgidson, the SAC high-brass with the madmen Generals Curtis LeMay and Tommy Power in the front were enthusiastic of the idea of a "decapitation" attack against Soviet nuclear targets. The concept was that an inital preemptive massive attack over the lines would knock out most of the Soviet nuclear capacity, thereby causing "acceptable" US casualties, "just some 10-20 milion or so". The guys at Ploksciai were guaranteed a prime target on Tommy's list... Just watch Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece from 1964, where Buck stands in for Curtis - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgyjlqhiTV8
In 1978, the Ploksciai base was closed and the silo based "Dvina" missile system was scrapped for good as a part of middle-distance rocket disarmament agreement between the US and the USSR. Although both parties tried to sell in this event as a sign of peace, it was purely a sort-out of an obsolete system that now was replaced with far more modern and mobile launcher missile systems. Interestingly enough, the R-12U rockets were finally sorted out as late as 1987.
Although the Baltic countries are littered with remains of the Cold War era, most bases have fallen into pieces, demolished by the retreating Russians and by local looters in search for metal scrap. The Ploksciai base is unique in this respect as it is relatively intact.
Good ol' Tom Lehrer sang back in 1959:
When you attend a funeral,
It is sad to think that sooner or'l
Later those you love will do the same for you.
And you may have thought it tragic,
Not to mention other adjec-
Tives, to think of all the weeping they will do.
(But don't you worry.)
No more ashes, no more sackcloth,
And an arm band made of black cloth
Will some day nevermore adorn a sleeve.
For if the bomb that drops on you
Gets your friends and neighbors too,
There'll be nobody left behind to grieve.
And we will all go together when we go.
What a comforting fact that is to know.
An inspiring achievement,
Yes, we will all go together when we go.
We will all go together when we go.
All suffused with an incandescent glow.
No one will have the endurance
To collect on his insurance,
Lloyd's of London will be loaded when they go.
Oh we will all char together when we char.
And let there be no moaning of the bar.
Just sing out a Te Deum
When you see that ICBM,
And the party will be come-as-you-are.
Oh, we will all burn together when we burn.
There'll be no need to stand and wait your turn.
When it's time for the fallout
And Saint Peter calls us all out,
We'll just drop our agendas and adjourn. "
As some kind of closing words, it feels so utterly surreal to watch and think about this madness. I tried to explain it to my kids and show some pictures but it bounces. Insanity is insanity, no matter if it is labeled USA or USSR. The only marginal difference to me is that the Americans as a nation could afford this madness whereas the Soviets couldn't. The suffering by the Soviet people to pay for this on a national level is just so tragic and meaningless. What if all these thousands of trillions of rubles and dollars were spent of something meaningful... What would the world have looked like today, one can wonder... Oh, well - it almost seems like I think it ended back then and military insanity is a phenomenon of the past...
Let's end with Georges Clemenceau's famous words - "War is to important to be left with the generals". Or was it "War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men". Whatever is true...