Base Tuono – Cold War Surface-To-Air Missiles in Italy

Just like West Germany, post-WWII Italy found itself on the border with a communist dictatorship, Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia. Even though Tito and the government of the USSR were never close friends, from the viewpoint of the western alliances Yugoslavia represented a potential threat.

This mistrust was also a result of the aggressive policy Yugoslavia had adopted against Italy after WWII, imposing the cession of a piece of traditionally Italian territory in the northeast part of the country as a war compensation. This had triggered a significant migration of the local population, who was trying to escape from communism to mainland Italy and abroad. This added to the bitterness of the Italian-Yugoslavian relationship, to the point that the new border was not formally settled until the 1970s.

Italy was among the founding members of anti-communist NATO in 1949. This meant the chance to take part in a coordinated defense effort against the eastern bloc. Among the tangible results of this cooperation was the adoption of American war material, including aircraft and, as soon as they became a reliable war asset, missiles.

Considering air defense, besides a number of manned aircraft, the airspace of western Europe was protected by two defensive lines of surface-to-air missiles (SAM) extending roughly from the North Sea to the area around Venice on the Mediterranean. This was studied especially to counteract bombing raids carried out by a great number of enemy bombers simultaneously attacking from the east. This huge defense system was based on the US-designed Nike and Hawk missile platforms, and deployment started in the late 1950s.

SAM installations in Italy comprised the low to intermediate altitude Hawks, with a quick reaction capacity against low-level intruders. These were managed by the local Army. High altitude Nike-Ajax and later Nike-Hercules missiles were operated by the Italian Air Force against high-altitude targets, typically bombers. New dedicated groups were established since 1959, trained in the US to work with the new missile platform. At its height, the Nike force in Italy counted on 16 such groups, apparently corresponding to as many launch bases.

Concerning the effectiveness of the Nike defense line, it soon became obsolete, in the sense that a significant part of the strategic deterrent was transferred to ICBMs by both the NATO countries and the USSR. As a result, SAM defensive lines conceived against aircraft intrusion and low-level attacks would turn out more useful than the high-altitude and high-yield Nike-Hercules. As a matter of fact, all Nike platforms were deactivated in Italy and everywhere in Europe by the early 1980s, well before the end of communism in Europe.

Following deactivation, most bases, stripped of all hardware of any value, were simply locked up and abandoned. In Germany very few traces of this extensive system remain to this day (see this post). Together with the US, Italy is possibly the only country where this fragment of military history is documented through the active preservation of one of the former SAM launch bases.

The Nike-Hercules base preserved in Italy is called ‘Base Tuono’ – ‘tuono’ meaning ‘thunder’ in Italian language – and was operated between 1966 and 1977. It is in a gorgeous mountainous setting in the northeastern Alps, about an hour from the little town of Trento. After years of disrepair, a part of it has been refurbished with original material and opened as a beautiful, partly open-air museum, where you can get a lively impression of how the base would have looked like in the years of operations.

The following photographs are from a visit to ‘Base Tuono’ in Autumn 2018.

Sights

Nike batteries were composed of two connected but geographically separated areas, an integrated fire control area (IFC) and a launch control area (LCA). In the first resided the electronic aiming part, comprising all the antennas and electronic gear necessary to collimate the target, compute the expected kill point of the missile, and to track and guide the missile to that point. The launch area was composed of an array of three flat concrete pads, each supplied with a hangar for storing the missiles, gantries for putting typically three missiles at a time (per pad) in launch position, and a concrete shelter to oversee and trigger the launch sequence. An extensive description of the Nike SAM system can be found on this excellent dedicated resource website.

Due to the features of the radar guidance system, the IFC had to stay in line of sight from the LCA, and at a higher – but not excessively higher – elevation. At ‘Base Tuono’, due to the mountainous setting, the two areas are not far, yet they are not easily accessible from one another. Furthermore, what remains today of the former base is all concentrated in the launch area. One of the three original pads – ‘Alpha’ – has been preserved, where the other two – ‘Bravo’ and ‘Charlie’ – and other ancillary buildings as well, have been completely demolished, and a water basin can be found in their place. All installations and housing in the former control area on top of a local peak – Mount Toraro – have been wiped out, but you can get an impression of the original plan of this part of the base walking around on your own.

Launch Control Area

The launch pad ‘Alpha’ is the focus of the museum. Approaching from the parking, which is located close to the site of the former barracks and canteen, you can spot from the distance three Nike-Hercules missiles aligned in vertical launch position. A water basin covers a large part of the former base, as you can see from historical pictures. Launch pads ‘Bravo’ and ‘Charlie’ are totally gone, similarly to the original outer fence delimiting the large perimeter of the installation.

Getting closer to the launch pad ‘Alpha’ you can notice an array of radar antennas, which were originally in the IFC area on top of Mount Toraro. The area of the launch pad features a reconstructed inner fence, which was in place around each pad in the original base.

The pad is basically rectangular in shape, with a hangar on one side, a protection rim and the launch control bunker on two opposing sides and a free side where today you can find the ticket office.

Three missiles are placed on top of their launch gantries. The gantries are part of a sophisticated rail system, designed to allow an easy side motion of the missiles from inside the hangar to their respective launch positions outside. The missiles were stored horizontally in the hangar to the far top of the rail on trolleys. When being readied for launch, the trolleys were pushed along the rail to the launch position, where the trolley was joined to the gantry. The missiles were raised to a vertical attitude together with the trolley with the help of a lift, which was a movable part of the gantry.

While the pavement is covered in asphalt, you can see the gantries and the rail system are staying on hard concrete foundations. These are among the few remains you see in the German Nike site covered in this post.

Inside the hangar you can spot a Nike Hercules missile, with lateral cutouts to expose the inner structure. These reveal the four-canister solid-propellant booster stage, which was ignited first and was separated from the bullet-shaped second stage when exhausted. The latter features the warhead, the electromechanical rigs of the guidance system, and a single solid-propellant sustainer rocket engine. The rocket had a range of about 25 miles, and a top speed over Mach 3, making it a really remarkable piece of technology especially compared to the soviet counterparts of the time.

All around the missile in the hangar you can see inner parts of the missile itself and of the ground fire control system as well. There are also panels with the history of the base, and original warning signs and instructions painted on the inner walls of the hangar – and similarly on other walls of the base. These writings are in double language, both in Italian and English. While the base was managed by the Italian Air Force, such installations were integrated in the NATO defense line, so many procedures of the Italian Air Force were in English. Furthermore, US military staff was required on site ‘by design’ in case of operations with nuclear warheads, which the Hercules could optionally carry. Nuclear warheads were never deployed to this base though.

Further items on display around the three missiles on the open apron include an old Nike-Ajax missile, a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter – the Italian Air Force was the last in the world to retire this model from service, as late as 2004 – and two trailers aligned in a row. The trailers are the battery control trailer, or BCT, and the radar control trailer, or RCT. Both trailers were originally in the IFC area of the base, and were operated by the staff responsible for offensive operations. In the days of operation, there was always somebody on duty in the trailers.

The BCT is, roughly speaking, where targets were designated, the kill point computed and the launch sequence triggered. The most notable feature are the two computerized plotting boards used to identify the target and to define the flight trajectory of the missile. The LOPAR detection radar and the identification friend-or-foe (IFF) radar reported information to this trailer, which coordinated the attack.

In the RCT stood the operators of the TTR and TRR radars, which were responsible for keeping trace of the target and for monitoring the missile during the flight towards the designated kill point.

To the back of the two trailers, it is possible to spot the rectangular shapes of the LOPAR radar and of the smaller IFF radar. The two round-shaped antennas are the TTR and TRR radars. In many pictures they are portrayed inside a bulbous cover, conferring them a distinctive spherical shape.

The concrete bunker to the opposite side of the launch pad with respect to the trailers is a protected room for the launch section panel, which is a kind of control panel for triggering the launch sequence of the missiles. The bunker served as a shelter for the operators of the launch section, for remaining on the outside in the vicinity of the missiles during launch operations was extremely dangerous.

During the guided visit, you are given a demonstration of the launch sequence from inside the control room, which is insulated from the outside with double tight doors. The firing procedure was quite complicated. Actually, it was a direct signal traveling along a cable connection from the battery trailer that gave the go to the missiles. Yet there were redundancies for increased safety, and it was possible to trigger the entire launch sequence from within the firing section, in case communication with the BCT was lost. During normal operations, the OK from the operator of the control panel in the bunker had the function of a further go/no go safety layer for the launch.

A trailer with a panel similar to that in the bunker can be found outside. This likely represented a further redundancy, or like the F-104 it is a piece coming from somewhere else.

To the back of the bunker with the fire section panel you can find an original watchtower from a US base in northern Italy, similar to the towers originally in place around the missile base. Close by, there is a nice example of the canisters used to the transport the stages of the Nike-Hercules, as well as the crane used to assemble it. There is also a further example of the second stage of the missile.

Getting there and moving around

The ‘Alpha’ battery of the launch control area is open as a museum, called ‘Base Tuono’. It is located on the road SP143, which departs from Folgaria, a small town about 12 miles south of the regional capital town Trento. You can find clear roadsigns leading to the site from Folgaria.

The museum has opening times, visiting is generally possible on a self-guided basis. Access to the bunker and the trailers is possible only on guided tours. All information on their website (in English). Large free parking about 0.2 miles away from the entrance.

There is much to see for technically minded subjects, but the visit will be surely appealing for children too. I would recommend to allocate at least 45 minutes for the visit, and up to 2 hours if you want to take a guided tour and take all the pictures on your own. The scenery around is gorgeous, so it will be easy to combine this destination with a nature trail or with other tourist destination in the area.

Integrated Fire Control Area

This is where the radars and trailers used to stay, together with barracks and service buildings. It can be found about 2 miles south east direct line of sight from the launch pad, on top of Mount Toraro. Differently from the launch control area, this area has been demolished and sanitized. No buildings remain in place, yet some of the former foundations and platforms to anchor the trailers can still be seen.

Reaching to the top of the peak is interesting to appreciate the view of the launch site from here. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit low clouds obstructed the sight.

Getting there and moving around

Even though the wide original road to reach this part of the base still exists, for some reason access to the top of the mountain is not allowed by car. In order to get to the trailhead from the museum, you can take your car and keep going southeast along the SP143 for about 1.5 miles. As you go ahead, the road will change the name to SP92 on your nav. Soon after the road starts descending, you will find the trailhead to your right, with a horizontal obstacle and a prohibition sign for cars. You may park there. It is likely the trail to the top of Mount Toraro will be on your nav too, for it is basically a normal road. The distance to walk to the top is about 1 mile, along the former service road to the base – covered in asphalt, gently ascending, no risk of any kind.

The Estonian Aviation Museum

A nice and lively university town in the heart of the Estonian countryside, Tartu has really something for every kind of tourist – including those interested in aviation history. The Estonian Aviation Museum, or ‘Eeesti Lennundusmuuseum’ as they write it in the tricky local idiom, boasts a substantial and heterogenous collection of aircraft preserved in exceptionally good condition, which will not leave indifferent even the most knowledgeable aviation expert.

Having being for long a socialist republic in the realm of the Soviet Union – and today sharing a border with Russia – Estonia had access to massive surplus reserves after the end of the Cold War, so it is no surprise that Soviet aircraft are well represented in an Estonian museum. This already might appeal to western tourists, for the exotic, menacing silhouettes of MiGs and Sukhois are not often to be found except in less accessible spots in the former Eastern Bloc. Yet some more unexpected and rare models have been added over the years, including some SAAB aircraft from Sweden which are authentic collectibles.

The following photographs cover almost every plane that was there in summer 2017.

Sights

Most part of the collection has been preserved in a cleverly designed structure, made of small open-walled hangars with translucent canopies. The aircraft are illuminated by natural light, helping much when taking pictures, but they are not exposed to direct sunlight, rain or snow, which tend to damage both metal and plexiglas on the long run. Furthermore, the lack of doors and frames allows you to move around freely, and the place is not suffocating nor excessively warm.

The aircraft are basically all from the Cold War era, but some of them have outlived the end of the USSR and were retired more recently. The portraits are grouped here roughly based on the nationality of the manufacturers or aircraft mission.

Designs from the US

The American production is represented in this museum firstly by a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, operated by the West-German Luftwaffe. The General Electric J79 turbojets have been taken out of the airframe, so you can see them separately.

A pretty unusual sight, also the antenna and electronic group in the nose cone have been taken out and are on display. This Phantom is a F-4F, a version specifically developed for West Germany from the basic F-4E. The former inventory number was 99+91.

Another iconic model on the menu is a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, formerly from the Italian Air Force. This exemplar is actually an Italian-built ‘S’ version, and among the latest to be retired by the Aeronautica Militare. The engine, again a J79, is on display elsewhere in the museum. An unusual crowd of instruction and warning stencils populate the external surface of the aircraft.

Soviet Military Models

The majority of the aircraft on display were designed in the Soviet Union or other countries of the Warsaw Pact.

Two aggressive aircraft include a MiG-21 and a MiG-23. The first, present here in the colors of the Polish Air Force, is a MiG-21bis Fishbed, the latest development of this fast delta-wing fighter/light-interceptor.

Possibly one of the most ubiquitous fighters of the jet age, the MiG-23 Flogger is part also of this collection. The aircraft you see in the pictures is a MLD variant, representing the last upgrade of this iconic fighter, which was also the basis for the very successful MiG-27 design.

It bears the markings of the Ukrainian Air Force, therefore it is likely an ex-USSR aircraft. The engine is sitting besides the aircraft, and two rocket canisters are placed beneath the fuselage, close to the ventral GSh-23 twin-barreled cannon.

A less usual sight is a MiG-25 Foxbat, a super fast interceptor/recce aircraft. Conceived in the late Fifties when the race for speed was in full swing, it was developed into a high performance platform to counteract the threat of the SR-71 Blackbird. It was built around two massive Tumansky R-15 afterburning turbojets, rated at a pretty high wet thrust of 110 kN, resulting in an incredible top speed around Mach 3.2! The aircraft is pretty sizable, and you can appreciate that looking at the picture of the main landing gear – search for the cover of my Canon wide lens close to the ground and compare sizes!

The menacing silhouette of this huge bird, with red stars on the vertical fins and a bare metal fuselage, will likely make relive in you an ‘Iron Curtain feeling’!

One which will not go unnoticed is a Polish Air Force Sukhoi Su-22M4 Fitter in a flamboyant, very colored livery. This massive fighter-bomber represents the export version of the Su-17M4 built by the USSR for domestic orders.

Despite the shape, roughly similar to that of the MiG-21 also on display, the size of this aircraft is much bigger – you might think of Su-22 as a case for a MiG-21…

Soviet bombers are represented by a pretty rare Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer, which is today still in service in Russia. The example on display bears the markings of the Ukrainian Air Force, meaning it was once a Soviet aircraft.

This massive twin-engined beast outsizes all other military aircraft on display. The aircraft is on display with three support tanks under the fuselage and the inner wing pylons.

A less common sight is a Yakovlev Ya-28P Firebar, a long-range intercept version of this multi-role platform from the early Sixties. This design is very interesting, with a four-points undercarriage and a very long nose cone, where a radar system for a target-tracking and missile guidance system was located. The two turbojet engines are mounted in cigar-shaped underwing pods. The relevant sweep of the wing suggests a significant speed capability, yet many variants of this aircraft were developed to exploit also its good range performance. The antenna originally placed in the nose cone is on display besides the aircraft, which bears original Soviet markings.

Soviet Transport Aircraft

Two aircraft which could not find their way in covered shelters mainly due to their bigger size, are a Tupolev Tu-134A-3 and a Yakovlev Ya-40. Both can be accessed, so you can get a view of the inside, including the cockpits.

The Tu-134 twin jet, with its distinctive glass bulge in the nose ahead of the cockpit, has been for long a ubiquitous aircraft in the USSR and in many countries of the Eastern Bloc. The exemplar on display was taken over by the Estonian company Elk Airways, created after Estonia left the USSR.

Notwithstanding this, the aircraft betrays its Soviet ancestry and ownership in every particular, from the all-Cyrillic writings to the hammers and sickles here and there, from the design of interiors to the exotic cockpit, painted in a typical lurid Soviet green and with prominent unframed black rubber fans for ventilation.

The Yak-40 is an interesting three-jet executive/small transport aircraft. The one on display went on flying for at least some good 15 years after the collapse of the wall in Berlin.

The internal configuration features an executive room ahead of a more usual passenger section and tail galley. The style of the cabin and of the pure analog cockpit is really outdated for todays standards!

A rugged workhorse still flying today in many countries is the Antonov An-2, a single propeller, radial-engined, biplane tail-dragger transport. There are two of them in the collection. One is under a shelter and can be boarded. The interiors are very basic, but the visibility from the cockpit is very good especially for a tail-dragger with an engine on the nose.

Swedish Aircraft

An unusual chapter in air museums except in Sweden is that of SAAB aircraft, which are represented in this collection by two iconic models, a Draken and a Viggen, and an extremely rare, very elegant Lansen. All are in the colors of the Royal Swedish Air Force.

The Saab 35 Draken features a very distinctive double-delta wing, and was developed in the Fifties for reaching a high supersonic speed. The design turned out to be pretty successful, and was operationally adopted primarily as a fighter by Sweden and other European countries as well.

The one in the collection is painted in a bright yellow livery. The infra-red pod under the nose cone of this aggressive attack aircraft looks like the lidless eye of an alien!

The Viggen is a an attack aircraft from the late Sixties, developed for the domestic military needs into some sub-variants. With the JA 37 version displayed here, the Viggen went on to constitute the backbone of the intercept fleet of neutral Sweden, and was retired only in the early 2000s. The aerodynamic configuration features a prominent canard wing, and the Viggen was notably the first in such configuration produced in significant numbers.