Please, No Buzzing in the War Room!
Please, No Buzzing in the War Room!
During the Cold War, one of the most crucial elements of survival was not food or water or even a deep enough bomb shelter; it was communication. As many know by now, ARPANET, the grandfather of the internet, was created by the Department of Defense to provide a backup system of networks in the event the unthinkable had happened.
Well, the Cold War has ended, and the unthinkable is, well, not thought about much these days. Most people have taken Stanley Kubrick’s advice and learned to stop worrying about the bomb, but there are some small, nagging little mysteries that continue to remind us that perhaps the Cold War isn’t completely thawed out as we had hoped.
One of these odd bits is called The Buzzer. No, it’s not a doorbell or a joke item you’d find in the back of an old Boys’ Life magazine or issue of Grit. It’s a mysterious buzzing sound heard over the airwaves on the shortwave frequency of 4625 kilohertz. It buzzes at a rate of 25 tones per minute. It’s clearly man-made and can be heard all across Europe and parts of the Western hemisphere, including North America.
So what is it, exactly? Part of a weather monitoring system, as some have suggested? Or is it a jamming device? But why on only one frequency?
What makes it even stranger is that on occasion the buzzing stops and sounds can be heard in the background, as if someone is moving around in a room nearby and the mic is keyed-up. Then there are the voices – Russian voices. On very rare occasions a male or female voice is clearly audible and spells out a letter/number identification – UVB-76 (or MDZhB, depending on who you talk to). This is spoken phonetically using the Cyrillic alphabet. Then, a string of words and numbers are heard.
The words are names, Russian names like Mikhail, Ivan, Nikolai. We know that the words designate letters spelling out other words, just like those used in NATO phonetics, Alpha represents an A, Bravo represents B, Charlie, C, and so on. After the words are spelled out, numbers follow: 23, 5, 19 and so on. The voice message repeats, then it stops and the buzzing resumes. So what is spelled out by all those letters and what does it mean? That’s part of the mystery. It’s obviously in code and only those in the Russian military, if it is them transmitting, know for sure. Forget about decoding any of it; even if you had a room full of HAL 9000 supercomputers and an industrial park of Bletchley Parks, you’d never crack it. That’s because old fashioned codes like these are used only once then discarded.
By the way, the buzzer and voices have been transmitting with only short interruptions 24/7, 365 days a year since a little before Ronald Reagan was sworn in. That’s something to think about.
The transmitter seems to have moved at least once, too. Some have claimed they found a former site of the transmissions near Povarovo in the Moscow military district of Russia, but that site has been abandoned since 2010 – the same time that the Russian military underwent massive reorganization. Odd coincidence? However, a logbook was found at the site. It displays handwritten notations of a transmitter using the frequency of 4625 kilohertz, the same used by The Buzzer.
Speculation as to what the buzzer is have run the gamut from a long running radio hoax to the nightmarish scenario of a Soviet-era nuclear launch frequency still being reserved for future use.
Far fetched? Maybe not. During the Cold War before ARPANET and the internet, both the United States and the Soviet Union each maintained a backup radio system to transmit so-called ‘Go codes’ or ‘Launch codes’ to their forces around the world. On the US side, these included the Nuclear Triad: the ICBMs, the SLBMs (Submarine Launch Ballistic Missiles) and of course, the Nuclear bomber force of the Strategic Air Command depicted in Stanley Kubrick’s classic nuclear satire film Dr. Strangelove.
The current US version of this backup radio communication system is maintained by the Air Force and, like its predecessors, is designed to alert forces around the world of time sensitive situations, imminent threat or crisis and to give instructions if bad things got even worse. Some believe the somewhat unnerving Skyking messages, which can, and often do interrupt other military communications without warning, are linked to the Nuclear Triad. Possibly one of the most serious of the radio communication message types, on the US side that is, are referred to as the EAM, Emergency Action Message. Hollywood loves to use this one as a plot point within a story to ramp up the tension. These are those printouts we’ve seen in movies that are for the ‘Captain’s eyes only’, you know, the ones that ‘just came over the wire’. Nothing gets a seasoned submariner sweating like an EAM before breakfast! And it works – even in comedy. In the film Dr. Strangelove, the bombers are sent to destroy their targets in Russia by the three-letter code CRM 114 transmitted over the coded radio system. The letter/number combination is the same format that can be heard on The Buzzer today.
Many believe that The Buzzer is in fact saving a spot for the most serious of Russian EAMs – all out war. The idea is, The Buzzer buzzes to prevent anyone from using that specific frequency, so if an attack message needed to get out when all else failed, it could.
If this is true, let’s hope that The Buzzer keeps on buzzing and is not replaced by a nervous Russian voice delivering a coded message that we’ll never have time to worry about – until, as Vera Lynn sang, We Meet Again, that is.
Learn more about it:
Youtube video detailing the basics.
Youtube channel featuring voice messages.
Helpful site with more information on The Buzzer and other radio anomalies.