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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Kapustin Yar

Kapustin YarKapustin Yar, the first missile-test range in the Soviet Union, is located about 100 kilometers east of Stalingrad (later renamed Volgograd). Kapustin Yar was first used for the tests of the V-2. The initial series was completed by December 1947. during which period 12 missiles were fired to distances of approximately 225 kilometers.

The United States has an important suborbital launch site at White Sands, New Mexico, which was used for firing V-2, Viking, and Aerobee rockets. The Soviets used Kapustin Yar for similar geophysical and biological payloads.

It had been known in the West for some time in a general way that the Russians were making a big effort to increase the range of the German V-2 rocket that had been used against Britain in the closing months of World War II. Early in their occupation of Germany, they had rounded up all the scientists they could lay their hands on, particularly those who had worked with rockets at Peenemunde and elsewhere. In due course, after their heads had been emptied of secrets, the Germans were sent home, to be questioned all over again by Western intelligence.

Not long after Kapustin Yar opened, Washington learned about the missile base from Britain's intelligence services. More detailed information arrived in the early 1950s when some of the German engineers who had been moved to Moscow were repatriated to East Germany and fled to the West. Though the Russians had carefully excluded the Germans from the most advanced aspects of the missile program, the Germans knew about Kapustin Yar and filled in British and American intelligence officials in September 1952. A month later, the Air Force brought some of the German engineers to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to be debriefed.

By the early 1950's it was known from this source that the Russians were experimenting with rockets of unprecedented size at a place called Kapustin Yar, on the east bank of the Volga. The further discovery in 1953 that the Russians were simultaneously thrusting for thermonuclear weapons suddenly charged the accounts supplied by the repatriated Germans with the most serious kind of meaning.

To get a closer look at the Soviet test site, the British modified an RAF Canberra bomber for a spy flight over Kapustin Yar. The plane could not be refueled, but with extra gas tanks installed in the bomb bay, it had the range to fly from West Germany across Eastern Europe and the Ukraine. In late August 1953, the airplane, outfitted with reconnaissance cameras, took off from Giebelstadt in West Germany in daylight, which was necessary for photographing the missile base but left the plane vulnerable to Soviet air defenses. The Canberra was hit by gunfire as it dodged Soviet fighters, but managed to get pictures of the missile complex and then fly on to Iran, where it landed. The mission, however, was a failure. Vibrations produced by the damage to the plane made the pictures so blurred they were all but useless.

It now became of the utmost importance for U.S. military scientists to determine exactly what was going on at Kapustin Yar. Fortunately, a novel means for penetrating the Iron Curtain had come to hand. In the winter of 1954-55, at a village called Diyarbakir, situated in the mountains of Turkey that stare across the Black Sea, a full 660 nautical miles from Kapustin Yar, a small body of U.S. technicians began the construction in secrecy of the most powerful fixed-beam radar to be built until that time. The Turks, who could be counted upon to forward any project calculated to undo the Russians, smoothed the way for its arrival. The antenna was half as long as a football field, and a considerable airlift was required to transport the structure, together with the necessary power units and other equipment, across the ocean.

By the early summer of 1955 the installation was in operation, watching whatever arose above Kapustin Yar. The first intelligence that was deducted from the electronic signals was fairly meager. The rockets entered the radar's field of vision, so to speak, only after they had risen above the horizon, and they could be tracked only for several seconds before their trajectory carried them out of view. Nevertherless, the data that was thus collected on magnetic tape and flown back to the United States furnished us with vital information.

By the end of 1955 it was clear that the Russian testing program was a large one; that rockets potentially of ICBM range were being launched; that the firings were proceeding with a high degree of success; and that the American program was far behind.

In the middle of June 1956, Eisenhower authorized CIA to overfly the Soviet Union for a period of 10 days. In these 10 days the detachment based in Germany made five separate, long penetrations of the Soviet Union at an altitude of about 14 miles. One crossed into central Russia, to look down on the rocket installations at Kapustin Yar. The photographs taken with cameras having a focal length of 36 inches were dumbfoundingly good. As Richard Bissell recalls, "the detail was so sharp that one could almost read the tail markings on the bombers."

The CIA's analysts were some time deciding the values and implications of the inventions and facilities that showed up in the photographs brought back by the U-2. Judgments were admittedly speculative. It was quickly established that the Kapustin Yar complex was a test center for rockets of both intermediate and medium range. These weapons (with ranges extending from 500 to 2,500 nautical miles) were being developed primarily for use against Western Europe. The mystery was, where was the Soviet range for the ICBM's? In the early summer of 1957, shortly after the U-2 began to operate out of Pakistan, the place was found. It was situated on the Trans-Siberian Railway, at a place called Tyura Tam.

Later the Soviet space authorities began space launches with smaller vehicles from Kapustin Yar. When the Soviets announced the launch of Cosmos 1, the ground trace of the first orbit went right through their old testing ground at Kapustin Yar.

When the Kapustin Yar site came into use, an existing intermediate range missile with a suitable new upper stage was needed to lift the modest payloads. Since the British classed these payloads within the range of a missile similar to the US Thor, it was easily identified as an adaptation of the SS-4 Sandal MRBM, of 1963 Cuban fame. By modifying the Sandal for space flight, the Soviets developed the Series B launch vehicle, and by adding an upper stage, the B-1 (Series B plus upper stage) was developed. The Series B is also referred to as e Cosmos vehicle, the Kapnstin Yar small vehicle, and the KY-launch vehicle. The B-1 can lift up to a 600-pound payload and is ed at both Kapustin Yar and Plesetsk.

Sources and Methods

  • Photographs and Site Diagrams Appended to the Memorandum of Understanding for the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles, December 1987.
  • Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of the Data Base for the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles, December 1987.

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