"The Russian Woodpecker." No, that's not a new mascot for the Moscow Olympics, but it is the name of an international pest that's disrupting the world's airwaves.
The problem started a little over three years ago, when ship-to-shore radio operators noticed a strange type of interference jamming their transmissions. It wasn't like the type of jamming that sometimes appears of the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe. This signal blocked shortwave, maritime, aviation, amateur, military, business, government and other types of low-frequency radio communications -- often simultaneously.
At one moment, operating conditions would seem normal, then a buzzing, hammering type of signal (sounding like an electronic woodpecker) would suddenly envelop a wide band of frequencies. Often, the signal was so strong that it would shut down all communications on the affected bands.
The problem got so bad after a few months that American radio operators and their employers requested the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the matter. The FCC's direction-finding equipment pinpointed the signal to a spot in Siberia.
Since the Soviet Union is a signatory -- along with the United States -- to the 1959 Geneva Radio Regulations, the Russians must respect the agreement's provisions regarding non-interference and destructive signals.
So, in accordance with protocol, the FCC -- in cooperation with the State Department -- notified Soviet radio officials of the problem. There was no response.
Between 1976 and 1978, the FCC sent numerous pleas to the Soviets for relief from the interference, which continued unabated across the years. The only response the Russians could offer was that they "were working on the problem."
During this time, more than a dozen other nations joined in pressing Moscow for a solution, all to no avail. In late 1977, professional radio operators from 10 European countries organized to boycott radio communications with Soviet shipping. However, after a few weeks of no movement from the Russians, the plan was abandoned after shippers decided the boycott was hurting business.
But what is the purpose of these strange radio signals? Electronics engineers have determined that a transmitter capable of producing such interference must be in the 10- to 15-megawatt range. That's 10 to 15 million watts. By contrast, the greatest power any U.S. domestic radio station runs is 50,000 watts.
Since no conventional radio transmitter needs to generate the power the Soviets are apparently running, it's doubtful that their equipment is used for any communications purposes. Some scientists have speculated that the vast amount of power generated is a byproduct from some type of "death ray" the Soviets are perfecting to shoot down U.S. spy satellites.
A more plausible theory is that the Russians are testing a form of "over-the-horizon" radar, for use in detecting missile launches from the other side of the world. That would help to explain why the Russians are keeping quiet about the signals.
Whatever the reason for the interference, the Soviets show no sign of concluding their tests soon. In the meantime, they are in almost daily violation of an international treaty, while the rest of the world seems limited to sending official protests to Moscow.