From The Miami Herald, 7 July 1982

Radio hams do battle with 'Russian Woodpecker'

By Dave Finley
Herald Staff Writer

Electronic warfare is usually associated with a shooting war. But not always.

From their own homes, many ham radio operators have quietly carried on an electronic war with the Soviet Union for the last six years and, in some cases, are winning. Their battle is with a powerful Soviet radar signal dubbed the "Russian Woodpecker."

The Soviets fired the first shot in 1976. Miami Springs amateur operator Andy Clark (W4IYT, now SK) remembers it.

Clark was operating a commercial aeronautical communications station, one which keeps contact with long-distance airliner flights by shortwave radio. Suddenly, powerful interference came on the air, disrupting communications.

"I named that damn thing the woodpecker," Clark said, when he asked the New York headquarters of his communications firm if they, too, were experiencing "this woodpecker noise." They were.

The signal, he said, was "raising hell with the airplanes. We just couldn't contact some of them."

The "woodpecker," as it is now almost universally known because of its unmistakable sound, still disrupts shortwave communications. Its signals have long since been traced to locations within the Soviet Union.

It is, experts agree, a Soviet over-the-horizon radar system. Radio waves in what is called the shortwave range, which are actually longer than those in the VHF or microwave range, are, unlike the others, "bounced" off upper regions of the Earth's atmosphere and returned to the ground. This is how you receive faraway foreign stations on your shortwave radio.

The "skip" also is used to get a radar signal over the horizon and back to detect incoming airplanes.

The Soviets, however, have ignored internationally~accepted rules about what frequencies can be used by whom, and simply transmitted their ultra-high-powered radar signals on any frequency where "skip" conditions are good at the particular time. Their signal also is unusually "wide," blocking out a large number of other stations.

The "woodpecker" regularly interferes not only with commercial and amateur communications but with international broadcasting stations.

The hams, along with many others, complained to the U.S. government, which relayed the protests to the Soviets. Officially, the Soviets don't even admit the signal is theirs.

Some hams, irate at the intrusion into their legally-allocated frequency bands, have gone beyond simple protests.

Wayne Green, publisher of the ham magazine 73, in a recent editorial urging hams to "attack" the problem, described the process:

"If you want to screw up a radar signal, all you have to do is send a return signal on its frequency which blocks out the echos. Hams, from the earliest woodpecker days, have been driving the monster off their bands by getting on the frequency and sending properly spaced dots back. The screen somewhere in Russia blanks out and the operators utter some Russian oaths and change the frequency to get rid of the interference."

It works, too, say many hams who have tried it, although it greatly helps if several hams in different locations "gang up" on the radar's frequency. Green advocated better organization for doing just that.

Hams in Texas have tried such tactics and dubbed their group The Russian Woodpecker Hunting Club.

Robert Haviland, a Daytona Beach amateur, has heard "woodpecker hunting" on the air. There are several difficulties, he said, with transmitting on exactly the right frequency and sending the dots at exactly the right speed to interfere with the radar.

However, if it's done right, he said, "a shift in frequency of the woodpecker comes very quickly."

And an American ham operator has just won a one-on-one match with a massive Russian radar installation.


Copyright 1999 the Miami Herald.
Republished here with the permission of the Miami Herald.
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