Residents of the Western Massachusetts town of Amherst were shocked to learn in the early 1980's that their town had been selected by the U.S. Air Force as a site for a communications facility that would allow the U.S. to fight a "prolonged nuclear war"! There was a major concern that the existence of a GWEN station in Amherst would put Amherst on the Soviet target list for the first time. Many residents also objected to anything that would support the concept that it was possible to fight a protracted nuclear war.
The system was called the Ground Wave Emergency Network GWEN for short and consisted of a network of low frequency radio towers whose purpose is to send release messages to U.S. strategic forces at the beginning of and during a nuclear conflict. The Air Force states two main rationales for the system:
1. GWEN is resistant to electromagnetic pulse (although not hardened against nuclear blasts themselves).
2. GWEN was an internally redundant system (messages can be switched along various paths when certain towers are destroyed during a nuclear war).
The proposed network consisted of three types of communications stations:
Input-Output Stations: These stations can both enter messages for transmission through the GWEN network and receive messages from the network. An example of such a station is the Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska.
Receive Only Stations: These stations will be located at missile command centers and Air Force bases. Emergency Action Messages, such as those that order the use of nuclear weapons, will be received at these stations.
Relay Stations: These stations will make up the bulk of the GWEN network and will consist of automated radio relays. These stations will be located in areas that are currently not high priority military targets (such as Eugene). The relay stations will be organized so that messages can be routed around the network even if large numbers of the relays are destroyed during nuclear war. This will require several hundred relay stations.
A small part of the GWEN network became operational in the mid-80s putting out signals in the 160-180 khz range. Construction of GWEN was to take place in three phases. These phases are:
Phase 1: A limited number of test sites, presumably input/output stations, have already been built at existing military installations.
Phase 2: The Thin Line Connectivity Capability, currently under construction, consists of 95 towers and would perform the GWEN function temporarily.
Phase 3: Final Operational Capacity will involve towers variously numbered at 158, 240, or "approximately 400," depending on the Air Force document/informant cited. This phase has not yet been built, nor funds for it appropriated, although the Army Corps of Engineers has completed lease negotiations for some of the sites.
Each site would consist of a 299 foot tower (presumably to get around automatic imposition of the National Environmental Policy Act requirement for an environmental impact statement for any federally-funded 300 foot tower), a concrete building, and a series of fences on a 700 foot square site. Underground, a "ground screen" of copper wire would radiate to 330 feet at regular intervals. Physically unimpressive, the towers are presented to the public by the Air Force as radio towers for "emergency communications."
Each tower will cost $1.4 million, the entire system a billion dollars. Other systems such as AFSATCOM, Milstar, Green Pine, and Giant Talk are designed to provide nuclear war communications at other electromagnetic frequencies and with the same or other weapons systems. Because of GWEN´s relatively simplistic technology, the Air Force presumes that GWEN will be replaced in 15 years by a satellite system.
Ultimately pressure from citizens and other issues caused Congress to kill the program.