The black nylon coated chain link fence stretches for miles in either direction, terminating at one end with the western edge of Imperial Beach, California and at the other with the beginning of Silver Strand State Beach. At 32' 36" 17.46N by 117' 7" 32.41W and 16.4 feet sits something that I am in a bad way about visiting, namely the Imperial Beach Radio Receiving Facility. Known more simply by the local name of `The Elephant Cage,' IBRRF is something of an anomaly along a stretch of unbroken and otherwise pristine coastline at the most southwestern point of the United States. This is a facility which had one primary purpose above functioning as one of the last MARS stations, the namesake for which it was dubbed.
The ULF/VLF array.
Stretching nearly four stories into the early summer sky are a number of telephone poles between which are strung several miles of cable and wire. This serves as support and as the primary transmission/reception elements of the long wire antenna, itself several hundred feet in diameter.
Most common radio frequency energy cannot penetrate land masses or go through more than a few inches of solid water (without a sufficiently powerful transmitter,) ULF/VLF on the other hand plows through as much as if it were not there. This includes the ubequitious cellular phones seemingly surgically grafted to the side of the head of nearly every Californian. UHF/VHF is limited to line of sight, meaning that if you can see what it is that you're trying to talk to (even with a telescope,) you can probably zip radio waves right to the thing. This is why the National Security Agency of the United States of America listens to your phone calls, because you're kind enough to transmit over insecure mediums they're kind enough to listen. HF on the other hand isn't quite the right wavelength to make it out of the atmosphere or penetrate the ground (ionospheric reflection and ground reflection,) so it bounces around between the two. This accounts for why your CDMA cellular phone will work in Huntington Beach but not outside the service area stipulated in your contract, however Bob down the street talks to his friends in Sydney on a routine basis. The former is UHF, the latter HF. ULF and VLF on the other hand sort of go through whatever. Unfortunately due to the wavelengths involved you are required to have a pretty good sized antenna (upwards of a quarter mile or more,) and one hell of a transmitter. Thus, this limits the number of civilians with ULF/VLF antennae floating around and brings us to the question of why the U.S. Government needs an entire facility dedicated to a single array?
In one word: submarines. More specific than that, ballistic missile submarines.
At Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma there are a couple of squadrons, VQ-3 and VQ-4. These two units are responsible for the maintenance and operation of the U.S. Navy's fleet of aging E-6 Mercury TACAMO planes. Two of these aircraft are in flight right this minute, regardless of where or when you read what is written here. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year without fail, a pair of these planes is on station and in a classified oval racetrack orbit somewhere over the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. These two E-6's, while in the air, are the primary method by which the President of the United States talks to the submarines piloting around beneath the waves with a payload of Trident intercontinental ballistic missiles. In the event of actual thermonuclear war, these planes would transmit the orders to fire to the submarines from long wire antennae deployed from the back end of the aircraft via huge spools in the tail. (There is an entire sect of Aviation Electronics Technicians and Aviation Electrician's Mates in the Naval Aircrew Community who are what are known as Reel Operators. This is not a particularly fun job, or so I am told by several of the individuals that I have met who were at one time employed in this respect. It involves being off the ground for twelve to sixteen hours, orbiting and waiting for hopefully nothing to happen.) Things like the SIOP are taken very seriously by the men and women at USSTRATCOM. The order for the U.S. Ohio class ballistic missile submarines to start shooting at a potential enemy of the Great Republic is one that the aforementioned organization very much wants those boats to get. Preferably promptly. Thus the need to saturate the planet with ULF/VLF energy all broadcasting the same Flash traffic and the intent to end everyone's collective broadcast day.
Hence the necessity of IBRRF, the `Elephant Cage,' and my hand lightly tracing the chain link fence on one summer afternoon. The facility has been closed down for nearly a year after falling victim to the kindler, gentler sort of mentality that makes no mention of icky things like global thermonuclear war, Single Integrated Operations Plans, Massive Overwhelming Responses, Mutually Assured Destruction, Calculated Acceptable Losses, Fallout Shelter Here, Radiation Shielding Efficiencies, Contingency Plans, Brinksmanship, and The Enemy. Imperial Beach Radio Receiving Facility is still there, still lit up at night by security cameras watching what was once a coastal defense artillery emplacement dating as far back as the second world war. The bunkers with their telltale conical shelves hanging over heavy steel doors are still there, still protected by two fences topped with doubled rows of barb wire.
The facility sits, moth balled just as many other like it, until it is decided that we may indeed need to open the doors, send the first shafts of daylight onto lightly dusted tile flooring. Listen to the sound of boots and urgent voices pounding through the facility as the transmitters begin to taste the electricity denied for so long, as the first waves begin radiating outward into the ocean not more than five or six hundred feet away. Beneath the brine some thousands of miles from the tightening throats, racing pulses and collections of last moments a rather specific alarm will sound. The boat will slide to launch depth, hovering under the surface of the water as the message is confirmed twice and twice again. Sonar technicians will clear the dead areas behind the sub's screws for possible attackers, report all clear, slide the headphones from their ears and listen to the background shriek of the missiles. Twenty four Trident Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles guided by Mark 98 Mod II control systems (limited by SALT to eight 100 kiloton MIRVs versus the maximum of twelve,) slide through salt water in a protective gas envelope to the surface and initial ignition.
I want to see the rooms that I feared for so long. I want to know what it is that I am supposed to hate. I want to sit at the chair. Stare at the controls. Understand. Fathom. Grasp. Rationalize. Walk into the blistering heat of catharsis with the invisible threat hanging like the fabled sword over six billion other human lives. Shoot the fucking elephant before it can escape. Bludgeon it with great clubs bearing nails, do to it the violence and rape of life that it would bring to bear if released and allowed to trumpet the final siren song far beyond the shoreline I walk along now. Joking, kidding, laughing about this or that and still back at the fence. Looking at the face of where the war would begin and colder than I have ever been.
"Welcome to Imperial Beach Radio Receiving Facility. Full military courtesies are always rendered with pride on this installation." -Sign, front gate of IBRRF.