The Mystery of Azgir: Part Two

The Azgir sphere.


The Fear of Directed Energy Weapons (1970s to 1980s)

By Robert Kelley

In the 1970s, the US Department of Defense became concerned about Directed Energy Weapons (DEW), believing that the tremendous energy released by a nuclear weapon could be harnessed and turned into a weapon. While only a theoretical device, should the energy be focused into a beam and directed, it could potentially be used as a potent anti-satellite weapon or missile defence system. During the Cold War, this would have the potential to negate the US ability to attack the USSR or its allies, altering the strategic balance between the two super powers.

A chief proponent of arguments that the Soviet Union was developing DEWs was US Air Force Major General George Keegan, Director of US Air Force Intelligence from 1972 to 1977. Keegan frequently testified to Congress about this potential threat and worked with the nuclear weapons laboratories, particularly the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and to a lesser extent Los Alamos, to study their feasibility. One of his strongest arguments to fund US research on DEW was his use of satellite imagery intelligence to highlight several installations in the Soviet Union. His primary concern was a facility at the Semipalatinsk nuclear weapon test site in North Eastern Kazakhstan. Keegan’s ideas at the time were popularly characterised as “a death beam gap.”

Semipalatinsk spheres

Satellite imagery, highly classified at the time, revealed that the Soviet Union was emplacing at least two spheres, estimated to be 18 metres in diameter, into the ground at a large industrial facility at Semipalatinsk, eastern Kazakhstan. This was named Unidentified Research and Development Facility 3 (URDF-3) by the CIA.

The hypothesis put forward by Keegan and others such as Edward Teller, known colloquially as “the father of the hydrogen bomb”, was that small nuclear explosions would be contained in these massive underground spheres. It was argued that the energy from these explosions would be used to pump ‘nuclear laser beams’. Imagery leaked to the media in 1977 added further pressure to US decision-makers and Teller’s work eventually led to Project Excalibur, the US’ own DEW programme, which ran from the late 1970s until the late 1980s.

The characterisation of the spheres was misguided, as it was later proven after the fall of the Soviet Union. During a 1992 visit, American scientists were shown the entire site in Kazakhstan, now called the Baikal-1 facility, who confirmed the site was related not to nuclear weapons development, but to the former Soviet nuclear rocket programme.

Assembled in place and then surrounded by concrete for support, the spheres were placed underground in the 1970s and are no longer visible. Instead of channeling blast energy, they contained liquid hydrogen intended to be the working fluid for nuclear rocket engines under development at URDF-3, and were actually relatively weak in their construction.

DigitalGlobe imagery shows the Yava-1M explosive containment test complex near Azgir, Kazakhstan. (© 2013 DigitalGlobe / IHS)

Their purpose as hydrogen containers was not clear from the imagery available to Keegan at the time of his analysis, although at the same time, the US was also testing nuclear rockets on its Nevada Test Site, the main US continental test site for nuclear weapons, using huge amounts of liquid hydrogen for the fuel. Although the containers at URDF-3 were only liquid hydrogen containers and not designed to contain explosions, unlike the sphere at Azgir, their presence sparked a lengthy intelligence community battle.

PART THREE: The Journey to Azgir will be published on 11 July 2018.

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