Radar – The Soviet Union WWII Part I

British Army. GL mark II, 5m gun laying, receiver British Army. GL mark II, 5m gun laying, receiver. The set had three dipoles: one at right and left for direction by swinging the whole assembly; a third that moved vertically for height determination. Although classified as “gun laying,” it had little or no blind-fire capability. Deployed 1940. Produced by the Soviets as SON 2.

Whoever wishes to learn how governments fail in the duties of protecting their peoples from disaster should study the history of the Soviet Union; whoever wishes to learn how competent engineers can best be thwarted in their efforts to provide weapons vital for defense should study the history of Soviet radar. It is always the case, that in large projects those close to the details are vexed by the confusion and mismanagement they perceive in their leaders and, above all, in the administrative machinery that attempts to carry out their leaders’ instructions. Such was the case in all radar development in the Second World War, but those who toiled in the laboratories of Britain, America, Germany and Japan and who suffered in this way little knew that their work places were ruled by reason and benevolence when compared with their counterparts in Muscovy. 

There was every reason to believe that the Soviets might have surpassed the west in this new craft. They began first with high-level support, had the influential interest of academician A F Joffe, had a brilliant young electrical engineer and veritable model of the new Soviet man, Pavel Oshchepkov, and a radio engineer who had proved himself with decimeter waves, Yu K Korovin, as enthusiastic leaders, and had obtained financial support in 1934 of 300 000 roubles, which dwarfed that provided by any other power. The initial work pointed toward the development of a Freya and a Würzburg, but by 1940 the resulting radar designs were poor, inferior to the Japanese, and left Russia dependent on Britain and America for much of her needs during the war. 

To understand the history of this place and period one must learn the identities of the contending bureaucratic agencies, and in order to keep this cast of characters straight it is best to know them by their identifying abbreviations.

GAU The Main Artillery Administration, an engineering service of the Red Army concerned with the design of weapons.

PVO The Air Defense Forces, the service to which Oshchepkov was assigned and that had the responsibility for the employment of AA troops; they had interests in weapons design.                                

SKB (also KB-UPVO). A special construction office within the PVO to produce radar, opened in 1933 with Oshchepkov in charge.                                                                    

VNOS The Aerial Observation, Warning and Communication units of the PVO, which were to be the immediate users of radar.                                                

VTU The Military Technical Administration, a part of Red Army headquarters.                                                  

LFTI (also LIPT). The Leningrad Physical-Technical Institute, Joffe’s organization, which included D A Rozhanski until his death in 1936.                                                               

LEFI Leningrad Electro-physical Institute, a GAU laboratory, led by A A Chernishev.                                                        

QRL (also TsRL) The Central Radio Laboratory, another GAU laboratory, led by D N Rumyanysev.                

NII-9 Scientific Research Institute 9, another GAU laboratory that absorbed LEFI in fall 1935. The renowned radio engineer Professor M A Bonch-Bruevich became its director after the purges and attracted good men. Unfortunately, he died in March 1940.                      

UFTI The Ukrainian Physical-Technical Institute, a laboratory organized by Rozhanski and where research in magnetrons was conducted. Later directed by A A Slutskin.                                                                           

NKTP The Research Sector of the Commissariat for Heavy Industry, the supervisory organization for both LIPT and UFTI.                                                                        

NIIIS-KA Scientific Research Institute of Communication Engineers of the Red Army, a group with its own program for the development of signals equipment.                                                                               

VEI All-Union Electrical Institute, a competent research organization with a laboratory for ultra-short waves led by Professor B A Vvedenskiy.                                                                            

SRI (also NII-RP). Scientific Research Institute of the Radio Industry headed by A B Stepushkin.                    

The Academy of Sciences (mercifully seldom referred to by initials). An organization consulted at the highest levels that concerned itself with all manner of scientific and engineering problems relevant to the Soviet state. 

NKVD The People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, the secret police, the name of whose chief, Lavrenty P Beria, carried terror to millions. 

At this point one might well let the reader form in his mind the kind of radar that was to come from the machinations of these agencies, all of which participated, and his construction would probably be close to the mark. Yet the poor Soviet product resulted as much from the purges that Stalin initiated in 1937 as from clumsy, bickering agencies which knew how to use the NKVD for their bureaucratic ends and to take care of a few personal matters along the way. Fear concentrates thought but on survival, not on the subtle intricacies of electronic circuits. This no doubt lies behind the marked deterioration in design encountered in the second stage of Soviet radar development. Important parts of this story will remain unknown to us. 

The PVO had responsibility for early warning and had sponsored the early work on the radio screen Rapid that was done at LEFI until that group was absorbed into the Television Institute, the combination becoming NII-9. Despite the objections from many that Rapid gave precious little data of value about intruding aircraft, PVO had LEFI build under the supervision of B K Shembel a model suitable for army deployment, which had its first tests in July 1934. 

The GUA also wanted radio AA gun-laying equipment and had been sufficiently impressed with the experiments QRL had conducted in January 1934 with a 50 cm set that they wished the idea exploited, and NII-9 undertook the task of providing a suitable prototype. The work was started under Shembel. By early fall 1936 NII-9 had produced an experimental continuous-wave twin-dish set, Storm, which operated on 18 cm using early magnetrons from UFTI that gave about 6 W of continuous wave power. The detection range was only 10 km, and the directional accuracy only 4°, neither adequate. The range problem was a compound of magnetrons with too little power and frequency stability and a noisy receiver that also picked up too much of the primary transmitter signal. Shembel devised a solution for the direction problem analogous to lobe switching and presaging mono-pulse radar. He used four dishes, one a transmitter and the other three paired off in horizontal and vertical coordinates. The first trials failed, and he was unable to bring the concept to fruition before being separated from NII-9 in 1937. 

Victorious NIIIS-KA also continued the GUA gun-laying project, replacing NII-9 with UFTI. The principal deficiency of Storm had been the use of continuous rather than pulsed waves. Bonch-Bruevich had held the project to continuous waves, despite having used pulsed waves in early ionosphere studies; he even terminated pulse work at NII-9 when he became director in 1935. UFTI turned their efforts to a new, pulsed wave 64 cm design called Zenith. It combined every bad feature one could reasonably imagine in one set. It reported the coordinates of range, azimuth and elevation only every 17 s, making it useless for directing an AA gun, and had a dead zone extending out to 6 km, the result of the receiver being unable to recover from the transmitter pulse, although it could observe aircraft to 25 km. A pulse length of 10 to 20 µs gave correspondingly bad range accuracy. Work continued and by the middle of 1940 the range had been extended to 30 km, but the equipment had such a catalogue of ills that it was given up. The technical reasons for failure are not apparent. It would appear that the designers were unable to master the techniques of microwave electronics and thereby profit from the magnetron that N F Alekseev and D D Malairov had invented. 

The purges had at least made one agency responsible for radar, NIIIS-KA, but in the process had removed good engineers from the laboratories and the most supportive top military commanders. Soviet radar entered World War II a low priority project with equipment inferior to all the major powers. Yet it need not have been so. The early start with high-level support, capable engineers and the cavity magnetron could easily have made the Soviet Union the leader in radar. 

The reader must consider these simplified attempts at recounting relevant events in Stalin’s state with suspicion. The material available is limited and was written before the collapse of communism opened secret files and by men not indifferent to what history would record.

As already discussed, Soviet radar development suffered from lack of interest in the high command, confusion as to its mission and the dispatch of excellent radar engineers to the Gulag during the purges of the late 1930s. That anything at all came out is remarkable. Because of or in spite of these extraordinary circumstances there occurred what must be one of the most baffling incidents in the history of radar. In April 1940 when the cavity magnetron was Britain’s most precious military secret, when it traveled under armed guard, when its use was discussed at cabinet level, when it was described as the most valuable cargo ever to arrive in America, when the United States was preparing to open a special laboratory just to exploit its properties, when all these circumstances applied, two Soviet engineers published a complete description of it in the open scientific literature.

During 1936 and 1937 N F Alekseev and D D Malairov produced a series of cavity magnetrons as part of a project for building an anti-aircraft (AA) gun-laying radar at Scientific Research Institute 9 (NII-9) from proposals by its director, radio-eminence Mikhail Alexandrovich Bonch-Bruyevich. The magnetrons were discarded in favor of a pulsed transmitter that used very-high-frequency triodes that worked on 64 cm, had 12 kW peak power, was called Zenith and was abandoned in 1940. 

One can presume and little other evidence is at hand that the lack of success of magnetrons in this work, for whatever reason, taken together with Professor Joffe’s long-standing opposition to microwaves for radar allowed the publication of the paper. Irrespective of the reasons, the paper is a complete disclosure of the elements of the cavity magnetron. One does not even need to know Russian. It suffices to see the tables giving wavelengths and powers and to think a bit about the drawings of the characteristic electrode shapes. That the drawings showed water-cooled anodes tells one a lot. It was all there. There is a report of the independent invention of the klystron at NII-9 by N D Devyatkov during those same years, but even less was made of it than the magnetron. It was quickly followed by a reflex klystron.

The skepticism that had met Oshchepkov’s Rapid soon hardened into hostility to radio location generally in the form of a report in 1935 by the Red Army Chief of Signals, which asserted on the basis of studies by his own NIIIS-KA that radio location was unrealistic and a waste of time. M N Tukhachevskii, Chief of Ordnance, had been impressed with the possibilities of the new technique, even if it was not satisfactory at the moment, and decided in favor of retaining the infant radar program after a rousing fight. It was, as those familiar with the ways of bureaucracies will recognize, not the end but only the beginning. Life was becoming complicated and dangerous. 

In 1937 Army Commander A I Sedyakin conducted a large air defense exercise using conventional acoustical and optical methods that had a most unsuccessful outcome. He became acquainted with the new radio-location methods during discussions with General M M Lobanov of the GAU, who convinced him of the need to pursue this kind of work. This happy state of affairs came to a quick end in June 1937 when the purge swept military and technical ranks. Both Tukhachevskii and Sedyakin were quickly eliminated, and the NIIIS-KA instigated investigations of NII-9 and SKB with the resulting arrest of NII-9’s chief and the dismissal of Shembel. Bonch-Bruevich, who had attracted Lenin’s favor for his early radio work and who stood highest in electronic prestige, appealed directly to Central Committee Member Andrei A Zhdanov, who used Party influence to preserve the activities of NII-9. SKB was cleaned out and Oshchepkov, along with other radio engineers, went to the Gulag for ten years; he survived, thanks in no small part to academician Joffe, who sent him food packages and letters. 

NIIIS-KA stepped into this to absorb NII-9 and SKB, and once the hated radar project was theirs their attitude changed; they completed the transformation of Rapid into an army prototype called RUS-1 (Rhubarb). It had a truck-mounted transmitter and two truck-mounted receivers that were normally placed about 40 km from the transmitter. These sets, of which only 44 were manufactured in 1940 and 1941, were technically not significantly advanced over the way Oshchepkov had left them and proved to be of little value. 

Following completion of the design of RUS-1, LFTI set about building a pulsed air-warning radar, RUS-2 (Redoubt). It was bi-static equipment of 50 kW working on the 4 m band; transmitter and receiver were mounted on separate trucks having Yagi antennas that tracked one another in direction, although they had to be located about 1000 m apart, the obvious result of not having solved the common-antenna problem. The experimental set started in 1936 was not completed until late 1939, just in time for it to be tried in the Russo-Finnish War where it was successful enough for ten sets to be ordered on a crash basis. RUS-1 failed the same test completely. RUS-2 provides an exception to the general rule for design of meter-wave air-warning sets of the time in using Yagis rather than dipole arrays backed by conducting screens, the directional antenna immediately and instinctively adopted by others. 

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