Gregory Feifer, NPR
The Gabala radar base command center.
The Gabala radar base command center. Gregory Feifer, NPR
Gregory Feifer, NPR
The transmitter building at Gabala sends radar signals south toward the Middle East and the Indian Ocean.
The transmitter building at Gabala sends radar signals south toward the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. Gregory Feifer, NPR
Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered up a radar base in Azerbaijan for U.S. use as an alternative to American plans to install parts of its planned missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
The Gabala radar base would need significant updating. The base is weather-beaten and looks quite old. The concrete appears to be chipping.
Inside the concrete building, a large industrial elevator carries visitors 20 stories to the top, under the watchful gaze of military minders. From the top, there's a sweeping view south, showing the plains stretching to the horizon.
The base may be at the center of U.S.-Russian relations, but where it stands seems like the middle of nowhere. It lives at the top of a flat hill in parched northern Azerbaijan, a bumpy 150 miles across desert from the capital Baku.
The radar station was built mainly to track possible missile launches from U.S. submarines in the Indian Ocean. This is the first time this base has been visited by western journalists since it was built in the early 1980s.
General Alexander Yakushin, first deputy head of Russia's spaces forces headquarters, says the radar is capable of tracking missile launches from the Middle East, Central Asia and the Arabian and Indian Oceans. But he declines to answer whether the radar would be capable of functioning as part of an American missile defense shield.
"That's a technical detail I'd rather not discuss," Yakushin says. "Russia has a different conception of what a missile defense system is. But this radar station is battle-ready and can be modernized if a military and political decision is made to do so."
Inside, the command center looks like a dusty set from a 1960s Hollywood film. It's dark and there's not a single modern computer in sight. Instead there are rotary phones, telex machines that look like old IBM electric typewriters — and soldiers in uniforms typing on ancient-looking consoles.
Putin publicly made his offer for Washington to use the station as part of its planned missile defense system last month as an alternative to U.S. plans to install parts of the shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Moscow is angry about that plan, saying it threatens Russian national security.
The Kremlin says if Washington is serious that the missile shield would really be aimed against rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, it would have no reason to turn down the offer to use the Gabala radar station. But most analysts agree the base would be useless for American purposes.
Military expert Alexander Golts says even that's a moot point because Washington's missile defense system is still theoretical and a long way from operational.
"This discussion can be resulted on decision of mutual use of absolutely useless Gabala station for absolutely useless American missile defense system," Golts says.
Most Azeris are largely ambivalent about Putin's offer. But in the town of Gabala, locals say they want the radar base shut down.
Retired military officer Sakhim Jafarov served at the Gabala radar station and lives in the town.
"This radar emits huge radiation that affects four or five regions in the south," Jafarov says. "People complain of birth defects and other problems. The base is old. Why would the Americans want it?"