Cold War relic 'Bull Ring' is being dismantled at Rota
By SCOTT SCHONAUER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 5, 2003
NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain — A Cold War relic that has been a base landmark for more than three decades will soon be history.
A team of Defense Department workers began dismantling the naval station’s 90-foot-tall circular antenna array last week. The antenna — known as “The Bull Ring” by base personnel and Rota residents — has been a part of the installation’s landscape since 1964.
Part of the military’s high-frequency direction finding system, the antenna once helped Navy code breakers track radio signals from aircraft and ships and intercept voice and message traffic from short-wave channels.
The military has turned to more modern technology, making the double fence of interconnecting copper cables obsolete.
“Technology has gone past it in leaps and bounds,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Paul Zimmerman, assigned to Naval Security Group Activity Rota.
The antenna was an important intelligence-gathering piece during the Cold War and is one of only two of its kind remaining in the U.S. Navy. The military will soon demolish the other is in San Diego.
The Defense Department has torn down most of the antennas because they are outdated and could become a hazard if not maintained.
Rota’s antenna has not been used since the early 1990s. When it was operational, the Navy had a four-person crew to keep it ship shape.
“They were always busy,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Jeff Black, also of the security group.
The antenna has a diameter of 850 feet — nearly three football fields — and can be seen clearly from a road that travels around the perimeter of the naval station. It surrounds a small compound where hundreds of Navy cryptologists once worked. During the early 1980s, the command had more than 1,500 personnel.
Today, the command has between 150 and 200 people and primarily serves Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron Two, an EP-3 unit based in Rota.
At one time, the Navy had about a dozen similar circular antennas scattered around the world in places, such as Japan, Iceland and Guam. They are often nicknamed “elephant cages” or “dinosaur cages” because the interconnecting wires look like some sort of fence out of Jurassic Park.
Residents dubbed the antenna in Rota “Plaza de Toros,” or “The Bull Ring.” The secrecy of the work performed by the command led to widespread speculation in town that the ring was a high-tech security fence.
Its purpose is still a mystery to most people.
What the antenna has accomplished and how exactly it works remain carefully guarded secrets. Although the technology is old, cryptologists fear that going into detail would compromise some of the techniques used today to spy on adversaries.
“It did help win the Cold War,” Chief Petty Officer Glynn Rodgers said.
Workers estimate that it will take three weeks to take apart the antenna and haul it away, using cranes, trucks and metal crunching equipment. The team will tear down 81, 90-foot tall wooden poles and 120 shorter poles.
They also will have to remove 20 miles of copper wire. The team removed 1,750 tie rods — used to keep tension on the wires — Friday.
Workers expect to use as many as 80 truckloads to haul the wire, wood and other parts away from the site located on the northern boundary of the base.
Most of the material will be recycled and sold as scrap.
It cost $9 million to build the antenna, but the price tag to tear it down is much less — between $800,000 and $1 million. Workers plan to complete the project in three weeks.
The command is thinking about possibly cutting up pieces of the wooden poles that make up the antenna and saving them as keepsakes.
Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Paul Zimmerman, left, Chief Petty Officer Glynn Rodgers, middle, and Petty Officer 1st Class Erik Given walk past the circular array antenna Friday outside Naval Security Group Activity in Rota, Spain.
SCOTT SCHONAUER / S&S