One day in September 1954, at General Electric’s facilities in Syracuse, New York, a retired Air Force officer who had worked in R&D at the Pentagon and then been hired by GE’s marketing department walked into the office of Burton Brown. A genial man who towered six feet, six inches, Brown was a specialist in longdistance radar. “Is there any way you could build a radar that would see a missile at a thousand miles?” the retired Air Force officer asked.
“Well, I don’t know. Maybe. What have you got in mind?” Brown replied. The retired officer had become acquainted with Trevor Gardner while still on active duty and would stop by to see Gardner whenever he happened to be in Washington. He had done so on his latest sales-generating trip. He said Gardner had told him that the Soviets were test-launching guided missiles from a site near the port of Odessa on the Ukrainian coast of the Black Sea. Gardner wanted to intercept and track the missiles in order to learn as much as possible about their capabilities. “Let me think about it a little bit,” Brown said.
When he saw the man the next day, Brown said he might have a solution. Radar works by sending out pulses of high-frequency electromagnetic waves. The waves bounce off the targeted object or objects and are picked up by a receiver. Depending on how the receiver is designed, the radar operator can detect the distance, direction, and speed of moving objects like aircraft or ships, or the location of stationary objects like buildings. The difficulty in this case was that radar waves are sent out on line-of-sight beams. The curvature of the earth over the roughly 1,000-mile distance between possible sites in West Germany and Odessa might be sufficiently great so that the beams would overshoot the missiles, and the rockets would fly under the beams. Brown did not see the problem as insurmountable. He proposed to overcome it by constructing an extremely large transmitting station in Germany that would direct huge electromagnetic waves down toward Odessa. He would then put the receiver that was to pick up the reflection of the radar waves off the missiles much closer to Odessa, on the coast of Turkey across the Black Sea just south of the Soviet Union. The proximity of the receiver to the launching ground should enable them to pick up enough reflections of the radar waves to track the missiles.
The following Monday, a visitor from the Pentagon appeared in Brown’s office, identified himself as Dr. Chalmers Sherwin, chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force, and said, “Let me hear your proposal.” Brown described it. The visitor listened and then thanked Brown and left. There were no questions. Brown assumed that meant the end of the matter. But on Tuesday he got a telephone call from someone in Trevor Gardner’s office. Mr. Gardner wanted Brown to fly down to Washington the next day and brief him on the proposal. Brown and an associate prepared some charts and dutifully appeared in Gardner’s office at the Pentagon on Wednesday. Gardner, like the scientist, listened quietly during the briefing, saying little, which surprised Brown. Gardner’s reputation for aggressiveness had reverberated to Syracuse and Brown had expected to be handled roughly. As he put it in an interview in his modular retirement home in Florida forty-three years later, Brown had heard that Gardner was definitely “not a deadpan-type guy.” Gardner also raised no questions or objections when Brown told him that the work would take two years and cost about $5 million. At the end of the briefing, Gardner said, “Let me have what you said in writing on Friday.” He explained that he was going out of the country and wanted to study the proposal before he left. And so Brown and his associate rushed back to Syracuse, hurriedly put their ideas down on paper, and had a memorandum typed and in Gardner’s office by courier on the last day of the week.
On Monday, Burton Brown got another telephone call he was not expecting. It was from an acquaintance of many years who happened to be the senior civilian technician at the Air Force’s main electronics facility, the Air Development Center at Rome, New York, about forty miles east of Syracuse. “Hey, what have you been telling Trevor Gardner?” his acquaintance asked. “We have an order from Gardner’s office to put you people under contract right now for some kind of radar. What the hell are you talking about? Come on down tomorrow and tell us about it.” When Brown arrived at Rome, he found about twenty people assembled in the conference room there to hear him. Two of them, he was to discover, were officers from the Air Technical Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, the organization Hap Arnold had created to uncover the secrets of German technology, now targeted on the Soviet Union. At the end of Brown’s presentation, one of the officers stood up and introduced himself. He was Lieutenant Colonel James Manatt, chief of the guided missiles section at ATIC. “Mr. Brown, that is very interesting, but there are two things wrong with this,” he said. “Number one, the launch point is not Odessa.” Taken aback, Brown asked where it was. Manatt explained that it was a place called Kapustin Yar, near Stalingrad at the bend of the Volga River. Apparently, the fact that Air Force intelligence knew of the mere existence of Kapustin Yar was considered such a big secret in 1954 that he had previously been deliberately misled. He called for a map and measured off the distance from Odessa to Stalingrad. It was more than 650 miles. He could not possibly pick up missiles being launched that far away with a radar transmitter situated in Germany, no matter how big. The curvature of the earth definitely fell off sufficiently between Germany and Stalingrad so that the missiles would fly under the beams. Despite being misled, Brown felt exceedingly foolish. He regarded himself and GE as under a verbal contract at this point to deliver a radar that could detect and track the Soviet missiles and “here we are sitting with an invalid proposal … and it’s just all nuts.” Manatt had more bad news for him. “The second thing,” he announced, “this two-year delivery schedule you have got, that’s for the birds. We have to have a radar on the air to see what goes on at the beginning of the next Russian firing season, June first next year [June 1, 1955], not two years from now.”
Brown formed a steering committee of radar experts from the Air Development Center at Wright-Patterson, the Lincoln Laboratory at MIT, and elsewhere in academia to puzzle out the problem. They decided to begin with the fact that they were going to have to abandon any attempt at secrecy, such as clandestine radar receiving stations on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. To get close enough to observe what was going on at Kapustin Yar, they would have to build the biggest radar installation in the non-Communist world in eastern Turkey. This would put them on the most direct line south from their target. They would still be roughly 800 miles away, however, and so they would have to construct an antenna the size of a football field.
In between committee sessions, Brown studied earthquake maps. Turkey and the entire surrounding area are notorious for violent earthquakes, which pose an obvious threat to a radar installation, particularly one of these gargantuan dimensions. The maps were covered in red to indicate earthquake zones, but Brown noticed one spot about twenty-five to thirty miles in diameter that was relatively earthquake-free. It was just below the city of Diyarbakir, on the upper reaches of the Tigris River in southeastern Turkey, approximately 430 miles southeast of the capital of Ankara. The region is one of the most ancient in the inhabited world, the scene of peoples and empires succeeding one another over many centuries, the land worn down by man and the uses and abuses to which he puts the earth. Antique Diyarbakir is itself built on the ruins of the still more ancient city of Amida. Mount Ararat, the solitary 16,496-foot mountain where the Bible says that Noah’s ark landed after the Deluge, rises from the dismal landscape off to the east where Turkey meets Armenia and Iran. The Diyarbakir region is currently known as Turkish Kurdistan, because it is peopled by the Kurds, an originally nomadic, mountain race whose spread of habitation extends over into Armenia and Iran and down into Syria and Iraq. They are Muslims, but neither Arab nor Turk, speak a language of their own, and have struggled unsuccessfully over the more recent centuries to form an independent Kurdistan. Besides being earthquake-safe, Diyarbakir held another advantage for Brown. The Turkish air force had a fair-sized airfield there with a small contingent of U.S. Air Force advisers. Brown could use the airfield as a base from which to scout.
In November 1954, he flew to Turkey with three colleagues from GE, a young geologist, and two officers from the Air Force Security Service’s headquarters in San Antonio. The AFSS is the Air Force’s electronics spying agency. It listens to the communications and eavesdrops on anything else it can profitably glean on the military activities of opposing nations, in 1954 obviously the Soviet Union and its allies. GE was going to supply the technicians to operate the radar installation, but the AFSS would administer it. They landed in Ankara and then headed down to Diyarbakir in two twin-engine C-47 transports of Second World War vintage. One carried them and a Turkish interpreter and the other a pair of jeeps in which to explore for a site. They bunked at the small compound at the airfield where the U.S. Air Force advisers lived. Brown and the others then went in search of an American Protestant missionary whom they heard had lived in the area for a long time. Brown assumed the man would be familiar with the countryside around the city and thus could help them select a site. Somehow, they left the Turkish interpreter back at the advisers’ compound at the airfield. But, spotting some children in the city they thought might help them, they stopped the jeeps and were soon surrounded by a flock of about fifty curious Kurdish youngsters. One of the Americans took out a Turkish/English dictionary and pronounced as best he could the Turkish word for “church.” His pronunciation apparently made the word sound to the children like the Turkish one for children’s playground.
As Kurds, the children did not speak good Turkish in any case. They all nodded assent and beckoned to the Americans to follow them. Parking the two jeeps, Brown, the two Air Force officers, the other GE men, and the geologist walked for what seemed about a mile through a labyrinth of dirt streets until they came to a dead end. There was no church nearby. The place looked like a handball court and was clearly a children’s play yard. One of Brown’s colleagues resorted to sign language. He clasped his hands together and raised them as in prayer. Then he made the sign of the cross. The children understood that immediately and, being militant Muslims, picked up stones and anything else that lay to hand and pelted the Americans, who ran for their lives back down through the dirt streets. They were rescued by some adults who emerged from mud houses at the tumult and stopped the youngsters.
The Turkish interpreter managed to locate the missionary the next day through the local authorities. Brown invited the man and his wife to dinner at the best of the town’s hotels. They were a forlorn couple. They had been laboring in Diyarbakir for twenty years and their congregation still numbered only ten people. The wife said the atmosphere was so hostile to the conversion of people to Christianity that she feared they would one day be attacked. The dinner was also Brown’s first experience with Turkish food. The hotel was attractive and clean, but the meat and vegetables tasted to him as if they had been cooked in rancid butter. He was glad to get back to the canned American military rations served at the little Air Force compound. The missionary was also of no help in locating a site for the radar installation.
And so Brown and his contingent set off to scout the region about ten miles south of the town. He was appalled at the poverty and desolation. The Kurdish farmers were dressed in baggy pants and sheepskin coats, but went barefoot, despite the November cold. Even the village chief had no shoes. They had few cattle, mainly camels, and their plows, drawn by oxen, were crude wooden contraptions that bit only about three inches into the hard soil as the farmers maneuvered them around the many boulders. Brown thought the fields resembled rock orchards with sprigs of winter wheat showing here and there. He noticed that about one out of every four of the dirty, tatteredly clad children was blind and diseased in one eye. The Turkish interpreter from Ankara regarded these people, with whom he was barely able to communicate, with scorn. (Turkish abuse of the Kurds was to provoke a rebellion in the area during the 1980s that took 30,000 lives.) He told Brown that the blindness came from filth and indicated that in his opinion the Kurds were a subspecies of humanity. Brown had the interpreter question the farmers about earthquakes. Had the houses ever shaken? Did their fathers ever speak of the houses shaking? What about their grandfathers? He noticed that despite the poverty, the houses had electricity. Ice storms can impose great weight on a radar antenna. Had the farmers ever seen ice build up on the electric wires?
When the responses to all the questions were negative, he foraged for a site, setting up his surveyor’s transit theodolite on tripod legs at various likely places and pointing it in the direction of Stalingrad to measure the horizon. To achieve optimal results in sending the radar’s electromagnetic waves beaming into the Soviet Union, he needed as low a horizon as possible, less than a degree and a half. After he had found a field with the horizon he wanted, he had one more check to make as a precaution against earthquakes. He needed to know how far down the bedrock was on which he could rest the foundations for the antenna and the rest of the station. The young geologist he had brought along assured him it was only about three feet below. How did he know that? Brown asked. The geologist pointed at a nearby mound and explained that it was an extinct volcano. The eons since its extinction would have deposited a covering of soil and debris above its once molten rock, but about three feet down they ought to run into solid basalt. Brown didn’t believe him. He had twenty laborers with picks and shovels brought from the town. Marking off a fifteen-foot square in the dirt with a stick, he told them to dig. Soon he had a fifteen-foot-square hole in the ground, roughly three feet deep, with basalt rock at the bottom.
“The rug does not shake,” Brown telegraphed his superiors at GE in Syracuse. He assumed from all of the talk about the threat of earthquakes before he left that they would understand he was signaling he had found a safe site. He asked the Turkish interpreter how much land they could have for the radar station. The interpreter said as much as they wanted. Brown calculated they would probably need about ten acres for the huge antenna, the transmitter and receiver, and housing for the approximately one hundred GE technicians who would be required to operate the facility. The Air Force Security Service intended to add a detachment of ten officers and men and they would also obviously need housing. Someone on high reached an agreement with the Turkish authorities to turn the land over to the Air Force. Whether the Kurdish farmers were compensated is unknown.
After Brown returned to the United States, he discovered that the word had been put out in the Air Force, probably by Gardner through Twining and White. No matter what he wanted, everyone was eager to cooperate. He had originally intended to ship the monster antenna, assembled in pieces at Syracuse, and the related equipment by sea and then to put everything together on the site. It was not until mid-January 1955 that all was ready to go, however, and he was afraid that sea shipment, followed by overland transport to Diyarbakir, would be too slow to meet the June 1 on-air deadline. During a steering committee meeting at the Pentagon, he asked, “How’s chances for an airlift?” An Air Force colonel down at the end of the table said, “Let me see.” He picked up the phone, dialed a number, and spoke to an officer at the other end. “How much stuff have you got?” he asked Brown. “Four hundred and fifty tons,” Brown said, expecting to be told this was a ridiculous imposition on the Air Force and he would have to find himself a ship. The colonel relayed the figure over the phone and returned to Brown, “Okay, you’re in. Can you have it at Dover [Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the Military Air Transport Service center] in ten days?” Brown said yes he could, and he did. Prefabricated barracks-type housing for the hundred GE technicians and ten-man AFSS contingent, along with generators, a water purification system, and a sewage treatment plant, were also airlifted in pieces to Diyarbakir. The airfield there turned out to be long enough to handle the big American transports coming into service, like the mammoth Douglas four-engine C-124 Globemaster, with two massive doors at the front of the fuselage that swung open to roll cargo, vehicles, or machines on and off.
The Turkish Radar, as Brown’s and also Trevor Gardner’s creation was henceforth to be known within the Air Force, was on the air by June 1, 1955. Its football-field-sized antenna boomed a whopper of an electronic signal out over the southeastern end of the Black Sea, across the Caucasus Mountains of the Soviet Republic of Georgia, and into southern Russia toward Kapustin Yar approximately 800 miles away. The Soviets could not fail to detect it, nor fail to understand that electronic missile espionage was under way. Another radar specialist on Brown’s steering committee predicted that it would enjoy a life span of one week. The Soviets would then jam it. Brown noted they could easily have done so, either permanently with a ground jamming station or selectively when they were testing missiles by having an aircraft equipped with jamming gear circle over the Black Sea. They never did jam the Turkish Radar or interfere with it in any other way during the many years it was on the air. Brown was uncertain why. Lieutenant General Forrest McCartney, who left a country town in northeast Alabama for an Air Force life that saw some of its most memorable days working for Schriever, had what was perhaps the best explanation. There were, he said, certain “implied rules of engagement” that both sides adhered to throughout the Cold War, unspoken but carefully observed modes of conduct based upon common sense. Sending spy planes like the U-2 over the Soviet Union was unacceptable to the Russians, but electronic spying and later espionage from space were something else. They wanted to do their own. If they jammed an American radar in Turkey spying on their missile launchings, the Americans would jam the radars on the Soviet trawlers that lurked off Cape Canaveral, Florida, to monitor American missile firings.
About a week or two after the Turkish Radar went on the air, Brown got a telephone call from Lieutenant Colonel Manatt of the Air Technical Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson. When he devised the radar, Brown had also created a system whereby a camera constantly filmed the radar’s viewing scope, called an oscilloscope. The oscilloscope was connected to the receiver and showed what the radar was detecting. Because of the way the radar operated, the electromagnetic waves reflected off the flying missile and back to the receiver would appear on the oscilloscope not as an unbroken streak but as a series of images, contacts with the missile, separated by empty spaces between them. They would thus appear the same way on the film of the camera photographing the scope. Brown had calibrated the film so that one could calculate the speed of the missile by measuring the distances between the contacts. Manatt said the radar had achieved an intercept and he was sending a copy of the film to Brown by an armed Air Force courier. Would Brown please study the film and give him a reading?
Brown laid a straight edge ruler on the film and measured the distances between the contacts. The warhead of a ballistic missile that is launched into space at the optimal fifteen-degree angle and is traveling a mile a second is capable of going approximately 1,100 miles. That was the angle and speed at which the warhead of this Soviet missile was flying. Brown called Manatt back and told him what the film revealed: “You’ve got an eleven-hundred-mile missile.” There was hesitation at Manatt’s end of the line. “Are you sure?” Manatt asked. Brown replied that that was what the film said. Manatt thanked him and hung up. For some reason, the information percolated slowly up through the Air Force intelligence bureaucracy. Schriever, Gardner, and von Neumann do not seem to have received this first “hard evidence” of Soviet missile progress by the time they briefed Eisenhower on July 28, 1955. The news apparently reached them a bit later. The Soviets were clearly testing an intermediate-range ballistic missile, or IRBM. It was certain now that they were in a race.