Museum of Strategic Rocket Forces
The Museum of Strategic Rocket Forces near the Ukrainian town of Pervomaysk is one of the greatest places we at Comtourist have visited in the former Soviet Union. Almost everything at this former missile base still works as it did before it was decommissioned in the early nineties. We descended in the command centre and got to push the button that would have launched the bomb.
The Pervomaysk missile base, operated by the 43rd Rocket Army, was the main site of total ten ICBM launch sites in an area of 30KM. Most of these sites were destroyed after Ukraine signed the Budapest memorandum in 1994, accepting to remove all nuclear weapons from its territory. Only the Pervomaysk missile base was left in tact and later turned into a museum. There is only one other public museum like it, the Titan Missile Museum in Arizona. Comtourist visited the museum and found that walking around in a former top secret location is a thrilling experience, with a simulated launch of an ICBM in the real hot-seat as unforgettable highlight.
Near the road from Pushkove to Pervomaysk
Daily from 10:00 - 17:00
The former missile base is located in the countryside near the town of Pervomaysk in the Luhansk region halfway between Kyiv and Odessa. It will take up to four hours to get to the museum from Kyiv, so a daytrip is possible. A better option is to combine the museum with a visit of Uman from where it is an hour to the museum. Getting there by public transport is possible but generally not advisable for tourist, since it will be a complicated journey and take a lot of time. Specialized tour agencies offer trips costing between $100 and $300 depending on the numbers of persons. An alternative is to make a deal with a taxi driver, possibly in advance with the hotel. Do bring a map with the museum location since many locals are not aware of its existence. The museum is located in the fields on the P06 road before Pervomaysk near a large industrial complex (Pobuzke nickel plant). A blue and yellow road sign near a gas station indicates the exit for the museum.
History of the Pervomaysk missile base
The Pervomaysk missile base was under the command of the Strategic Rocket Forces, created in 1959 and ranked as the most important part of the Soviet armed forces (followed by the Army, Air Defence Forces, Air Force, Navy and Civil Defence Forces). ICMB launch sites were constructed throughout the Soviet Union during the 1960s, with the 43rd Rocket Army, formed at Vinnitsa in 1960 from the 43rd Air Army operating in the Ukraine. The 46th missile division was activated during May 1960 in Pervomaysk, initially as the 29th Missile Brigade. It was renamed to the 46th Nyzhnyodniprovske Red Banner Order of the October Revolution after it was awarded the order of the October Revolution in 1978. The 46th missile division grew from 3 regiments with 30 launch sites in 1961 to 9 regiments with 86 launch sites in 1978. The current museum site was the command post of the 309th Missile Regiment that included 10 launch sites clustered in near Pervomaysk. The Pervomaysk site remained operational until 1997 when it was disbanded. The Ukraine waited to turn it into a museum until the Russians had changed equipment, security and launch procedures for similar launch sites to avoid exposing Russian military secrets to the West.
Missile types operated on the Pervomaysk base
The Pervomaysk launch and control site became operational in the early 1960s and was equipped with various types of ICBM models until it was shut down in 1997. The first generation silo launched missiles deployed at Pervomaysk was the R-14U (SS-5 Skean) that became operational from 1962. The R-14U missiles were replaced by the UR-100 (SS-11 Sego) in 1967, a second generation nuclear missiles. These missiles were updated with UR-100N (SS-19 Stiletto) missiles from 1973 to 1975 and then converted to the UR-100NU (SS-19 Mod.3) from 1979 to 1983. The last generation missiles deployed at Pervomaysk was the RT-23UTTh (SS-24 Scalpel) from 1988. Websites claim that the R-12, famous from the Cuban missile crisis and giant R-36 (SS-18 Satan) missiles, both on display in the current museum were also deployed at Pervomaysk, however, we could not find any record for that. All nuclear missiles in the Ukraine were given to Russia with the launch infrastructure destroyed as a result of the START-1 agreement in 1999.
Layout of the base
The Pervomaysk base is the main site that was part of a cluster of ten launch sites under the 309th Missile Regiment in the area, each with a missile silo. Each base was constructed according a standard layout. Launch control for all sites was handled from the Unified Launch Command Centre (LCC) on the Pervomaysk base. The missile silo and LCC are both located on the high security premise of the base surrounded by a high voltage security fence plus two additional barb wire fences. A guardhouse with machine gun turret that can only be entered via a tunnel from the outer security area overlooks the high security perimeter. There is also an engineering bunker inside the high perimeter area that can provide life support for 45 days to the LCC in case the base sustains a direct hit from a nuclear missile. The general area of the base is made up of a guard house near the entrance, an administrative building, staff quarters, food storage building and a garage.
The USSR had the capability to launch nuclear missiles from submarines, railways, mobile systems and silos. Silo launchers were developed to keep a missile launch-ready on very short notice while the missile is protected against any type of attack. The Pervomaysk Type IIID missile silo was constructed in 1968 to house the new UR-100 (SS-19) missiles. The 120 ton blast hardened cover of the silo could open in 8 seconds in case of a launch. The Pervomaysk silo has been partially filled with concrete but to top part has been left open.
Unified Launch Control Centre
The Unified Launch Command Centre (LCC) on the base was constructed in the late 1980s for management and control of the ten RT-23UTTh launch sites of the 309th Missile Regiment. The LCC is housed in a 33 by 3.3 meter cylinder buried 3 meters under ground. These cylinders were prefabricated modules that could be installed in a concrete and steel reinforced mine using special crane. The shock mounted LCC was designed to sustain a direct nuclear hit and could operate 45 days with 3 men personnel operating the post.
The LCC can be reached via a tunnel that is connected with the staff building and the engineering bunker. Cables and tubes providing water, electricity, cooling and communications are also installed in this tunnel. Two heavy steel blast hardened doors lead to the elevator that connects the 12 compartments of the LCC. The top 10 compartments contain all sorts of electrical and computer equipment. The actual control post that would be manned by three officers constantly is located in the 11th compartment. A living facility for a reserve crew is located in the 12th compartment.
Visitors of the museum are allowed to sit in the seat behind the missile launch control panel and simulate part of the missile launch procedure. Two persons have to push the launch button simultaneously; lights will start flickering combined with a loud noise indicating a launch in progress. The actual launch procedure also involves using two launch keys and entering a sequence of launch codes received from Moscow and displayed on a monitor. Various control panels monitor the status of the ten missile sites under the 309th Missile Regiment.
Simulating a launch of a ICBM in the underground Unified Launch Command Centre
The engineering facility, housed in a bunker 3 meters underground provides water, electricity, cooling, heating and air handling to the underground command post. Large tanks with antifreeze are installed to help cooling the facility, an underground water tank is located elsewhere on the site. The engineering room was not designed to remain operational after a direct nuclear hit, the command silo would need to fall back on emergency water and fuel supplies stored below it.
ICBM launch sites were some of the most secret and highly protected military installations in the USSR. Their locations were top secret and the security equipment used was the best what the Soviets had available. Base security was divided in two sections, an outer area with utility buildings and a high security inner perimeter with the missile silo and launch control post. The inner area was build according a standard layout used for every Soviet launch site. Multiple layers of barb wire surround the inner security area, with a 3000V electric fence model P-100 as last barrier. A guard house with a machine gun turret guards the high security perimeter that can only be accessed by tunnel. Video cameras, motion tracking devices, Pion-T radiation detection and module M-200 receptive underground seismic sensors for all the ten launch sites of the regiment were monitored from base. The guides told us that there have been two security incidents at the base, both cases where thieves or drunks trying to steal something.
Missile transport, loading and fuelling vehicles
Many of the vehicles that were used for transporting, loading and fuelling the missiles remained on the base and are on display in the museum. Most impressive are the giant MAZ-537 trucks that were used for transporting and loading the missiles. Missiles were transported by railway from the factory or storage facility to a station nearby the missile base. The purpose build heavy transport MAZ-537 putting tractors would then offload the missiles from the train, transport them to the base and finally load them in the silo.
The museum also has a MAZ-537 tractor on display that is configured to transport and install the command post silo in its mine. Two other MAZ-537 trucks were used to fuel the missiles with rocket propellant component. Other variants are a MAZ-537 pusher truck and smaller MAZ-543A putting vehicle. There is also a T-80 tank on display; it is not likely that this tank was actually used for defence of the base. A ZIL-130 fire truck would probably have been used on the base since the risk of a fire was very real.
Missiles on display
A variety of missiles and missile part are on display in the museum. The highlight is a giant R-36 (SS-18 Satan) ICBM that is partially cut open showing what the missile looks like inside. Another complete missile on display is the R-12 (SS-4 Sandal) that became famous during the Cuban missile crisis. Many websites claim that both the R-12 and R-36 were deployed at Pervomaysk, however, this was not the case.
Motors and other engine parts on display come from various ICBM models including the R-14 (SS-5 Skean), UR-100N (SS-19 Stiletto) and RT-20 (SS-15 Scrooge). There is also a large collection of other types of missiles including two types of Raduga Kh-22 (AS-4 Kitchen) nuclear anti ship missiles. Other missiles on display are the 9M21 artillery rocket, 3M9M3 and 9M33M3 surface-to-air missiles plus a wide variety of other service-to-air and air-to-air missiles.
The former administrative building of the base is turned into a museum that tells the story of the base and the Strategic Missile Forces. The first thing that visitors are shown is a large map of the Ukraine showing the sites of the 43rd Rocket Army in the Ukraine. The main room shows maps of the base, models of the silo and command post and a recreation of the launch control post and crew quarters that came for another decommissioned base. The high tech security monitoring equipment that was used on the base is actually pretty impressive equipment. Three other rooms are dedicated to Hiroshima, the Ukrainian army today and the process of removing nuclear weapons in the Ukraine under the Start-1 treaty. All guides, souvenirs or other material were sold out during our visit of the museum.