Plokstine – A Preserved Nuclear Missile Site in Lithuania

While almost all nuclear sites you can find in European Countries once beyond the Iron Curtain are today totally abandoned and fairly unaccessible, there exists a perhaps unique exception. The Plokstine site in northwestern Lithuania has been selected around 2010 for complete refurbishment with the help of public money, and in 2012 it has opened its doors as a museum. Located in a beautiful natural setting crowded with hikers – namely Zemaitija National Park, a national recreation area around Plateliai lake – it has quickly grown to international fame, and is now recording several thousands visitors per year, with guided tours in multiple languages – including English – offered on a regular basis during the warm season.

What is today an intriguing tourist destination, used to be part of a large Soviet installation for launching ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. It is worth mentioning that Lithuania was a ‘Soviet Socialist Republic’ in the realm of the USSR, i.e. not just a satellite country of the Soviet Union, but part of it. Actually, this small country on the shores of the Baltic Sea, on the extreme western border of Soviet territory, was an ideal location for deploying weapons to hit European targets from within the Union. Furthermore, the Plokstine forest was – and still is – a little populated area, where construction works for a large top-secret military facility for storing and operating offensive cutting-edge hi-tech warfare would go likely unnoticed.

The missile complex was completed in December 1962, in the years of Khrushchev and Kennedy. The Plokstine site comprises of four interred silos and an extensive underground command station in the middle – the ensemble constituted a so-called ‘Dvina’ launch complex.

The ‘Dvina’ site in Plokstine was actually the last part of the missile base to be built. Two more sister surface sites, with four launchpads each, had been completed one year before, just west of the nearby village of Saiteikiai. These surface sites were similar to those you can find in Latvia (see this post), a neighbor country where unfortunately the last remaining ‘Dvina’ site was demolished in 2017, but abundant traces of the Soviet presence can still be found.

All three launch complexes in this region were designed around the R-12 missile. The R-12U missile was actually used in the underground ‘Dvina’ complex, slightly different from the surface-launched R-12. This weapon was better known by its NATO designation – SS-4 Sandal – and was a 2.3 megaton, single warhead, single stage nuclear missile. It reached true international notoriety before the base in Plokstine was activated, for this was the type deployed to Cuba in the missile crisis of 1962. Coincidentally, part of the staff transferred to Cuba in the days preceding the crisis was from the same rocket regiment of the Red Army (the 79th) stationed in Plokstine. Sandal missiles from here were reportedly transferred in complete secrecy to Cuba, via the port town of Sevastopol in Crimea in that occasion.

The base remained operational until the last missile – by then obsolete – left in 1978.

The Baltics were the first republics to leave the dying Soviet Union, openly defying the military authority of neighbor Russia. After the collapse of the Union and the end of communism in Europe, these three states – which historically do not belong to Russian culture – quickly joined the NATO and European Union, to escape Russian influence as much as possible. Most Soviet military installations were shut down and abandoned, and have been for two decades an interesting destination for explorers and war historians (see this post for many examples). Later on, most sites have been slowly demolished or converted into something else. Really a few of them have been preserved for posterity.

In this post you can find photographs from the Cold War Museum now open in the former ‘Dvina’ site of Plokstine, from a visit in 2017. Close to the bottom, you can find a few further photographs from a previous visit made by appointment in 2009, before the site was selected for renovation – these may be more appealing for Soviet-aura lovers!

Sights

What can be visited today is all in the area of the old ‘Dvina’ complex. The complex is mainly composed of four interred silos, covered by heavy steel & concrete bulged covers, placed on the four corners of a square. These gigantic caps are the most prominent components of the site from the outside. Today, an observation deck has been erected on the south of the area. From there, you can appreciate the distinctive plan of the ‘Dvina’ complex, with an access road terminating in a loop touching all four armored silo covers.

The weight of each cover is told to be around 100 tonnes, as it was armored to withstand a nuclear explosion. The covers would be pulled sideward with a sled mechanism, to open the silos before launch. Unmovable missile launch complexes, like the ‘Dvina’ site in Plokstine, were easy and attractive targets for western weapons, thus requiring a very strong defense barrier. Similar considerations led the design of the Titan missile sites in the US, which albeit more powerful and capable of a greater range, are roughly from the same era (see this post).

To get near the silos or get access to the museum, you need to pay a ticket and join a guided tour. The visit includes a tour of the Cold War Museum, which has been prepared inside the rooms of the former control center. The tour will start from the visitor center, a new modern building. You will soon go through a specimen of the original fences which ran around the ‘Dvina’ complex, and which included barbed wire and high-voltage electrified lines. Close by, you can find traces of original unarmored constructions, likely service buildings. The missile site was operated by more than 300 troops stationing in a number of smaller centers in the area around the complex.

The guide will lead you along a walk around the surface part of the complex, where you can see the construction of the caps from very close. The metal part is very rusty, but the concrete cover has been refurbished and looks like new – a pretty unusual sight, for connoisseurs of Soviet military relics!

Access to the underground missile service and control center is via a small metal door, right in the middle of the square formed by the four silos.

A few rooms in the control center today host the exhibitions of the Cold War Museum. A room displays a quick time-line of the Cold War, since the end of WWII to the end of the USSR. In the adjoining rooms you can find propaganda items

Another room is about defense against nuclear threat. This is interesting, with many artifacts like dosimeters and medical tools, plus easily readable instructions of ‘dos and don’ts’ in case of nuclear attack.

Another room is about the evolution of weapons over the Cold War decades, with original material from the time, including heavier tactical weapons.

The exhibition is modern, small but not superficial, and may appeal to any public, including children. Besides the exhibits, you can appreciate the relatively small size of all rooms and connecting corridors in the former control center.

As you are driven next to the missile operation part, you can find a scale model of the ‘Dvina’ complex and a cut-out of a R-12U silo, together with a map of the relatively few missile sites in Lithuania – from the map, it can be argued that, for some reason, many more sites were prepared in nearby Latvia.

Resting quarters for the troops and a communication station with original electronic gear have been reconstructed based on original footage and pics. Communication with the military headquarters was clearly an essential task – it was the only way an order to launch could be issued – and the serviceman on duty was responsible for assuring a permanent link with the chain of command. In other words, he was instructed not to leave his headphones under any circumstances, during a several hours-long shift!

On the sides of the corridors you can see holes for the extensive network of cables and pipes. Further on, you meet the most ‘hardware’ part of the exhibition. First, the original diesel-fueled power generator has been refurbished and is standing in its original room. The underground complex was designed not only to withstand a nuclear blast, but also to provide shelter for all servicemen for several days following an attack. This meant air filters, food, water, technical supplies and of course electrical power, were all essential assets. Oil for the generator was stored in a container in an adjoining room.

Finally, you get access to one of the four silos. You need to go through a tight door opened on the wall of the concrete structure of the control center. Writings in Cyrillic can be spotted on the walls in this area. From there, you will see the cylindrical shape of the metal structure of the silo from the side. This metal canister is really big, the ‘Dvina’ silos featured a much greater diameter than the SS-4 missile they were built for. This was somewhat different from their US counterpart (see this post), where the missile diameter fits the size of the silo without much margin.

You can get access to the silo via the original hatch, cut in the metal wall close to the rim on top of the silo, just beneath the external cap. Going through this hatch is incredibly difficult – it is extremely narrow, much longer than the size of a human step, and tilted upwards! It is hard to understand why the Soviets built it in a size so small – this applies to the control center too, for all corridors are really narrow and the ceiling in the rooms is so low you may easily need to bend forward! For those who don’t want to try the original entry to the silo, there is now a non-original door cut in the side of the canister.

The inside of the silo can be observed from an original service deck, immediately under the external cover. From here you can clearly appreciate the size of the construction – the missile was more than 70 ft long, and sat here in a vertical position. The SS-4 was among the first missiles to make use of a storable liquid propellant, which allowed it to stay in almost-launch-ready conditions for a prolonged time, if resting in a silo. Nonetheless, the time for opening the armored caps was about 30 minutes, which meant this was not exactly quick to launch. The understructure of the armored caps can be clearly appreciated from inside the silo.

Photographs Before Restoration Works – Ghost Base

When I visited this site for the first time in 2009, it was open only by appointment. Unfortunately, I had only a compact camera at the time, and the very low light inside plus a rainy day outside, meant I could take only a few acceptable pictures.

However, they provide an idea of the state of the ‘Dvina’ complex before it was decided to reconfigure it as a museum.

As you can see, the armored silo caps were in a worse shape than today, yet not heavily damaged. The barbed wire fence around the four silos was probably original Soviet.

Inside, the control rooms were basically empty, except for some communist emblems and flags. Green wall paint and Cyrillic writings could be found even at the time, so what you see today is likely original. The generator, whilst in bad shape, was there.

The silo could be accessed only via the original hatch, and except for the partial darkness, its appearance is similar today.

It is out of doubt that the ‘Soviet ghost aura’ of the base was somewhat lost in the restoration process, yet credit must be given to the effort of the local government in preserving a rare and relevant trace of military history through an expensive restoration process.

Getting there and moving around

The Cold War Museum (Šaltojo karo muziejus in the local idiom) is located in the Zemaitija National Park, northwestern Lithuania, east of lake Plateliai. Access is via the road 2302. The place is totally accessible and well advertised locally. Visiting the outside of the armored caps and inside is possible only with a guided tour, offered in many languages including English, and lasting about 50 minutes. No fee is required for climbing on top of the observation deck. Full information through the official website here.

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.

Hitler’s Mystery Mega-Structures in Central Europe

During the last two years of WWII, the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany was slowly retreating from the eastern front, pushed back by the mighty blows of the Red Army. The bombing runs carried out by the western Allies from airfields in Britain were systematically hitting most urban centers in mainland Germany and over the territory occupied by the Nazis. It is hard to imagine, but it was in the year 1944, when the destiny of Germany was almost sealed, that industrial production in Hitler’s Third Reich reached an all-time record.

At that time the Germans were desperately short of fuel, raw materials and troops, and their production efforts would not spare them from a complete defeat in 1945. Yet it was in the last stages of the war that some of the most ambitious industrial facilities were designed, built and in some cases made operative before the end of the war.

The driver of the design was in most cases the need to move production lines to secluded and well protected areas, difficult to spot and to destroy through air bombing. As a result, these sites were placed far from urban centers. They were also designed to withstand bombing, by putting them underground, or building them with substantial reinforcement, making large use of one of Nazi Germany’s favorite materials – reinforced concrete.

In this chapter two major sites of this kind are described. One is in southwestern Poland, a region which had been part of the German Empire for long before WWII. The second is in eastern Bayern, today one of Federal Germany’s most prosperous states, close to the border with the Czech Republic. Photographs were taken in late summer 2018.

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Sights

Project ‘Riese’, Poland

Construction around this cluster of underground sites started in late 1943, and reportedly lasted until the closing stages of WWII, just days before the Soviets entered the region. The name ‘Riese’ means ‘giant’ in German, and it is surely well suited for this complex, which while far from finished is really striking in size. It was actually composed of at least six major construction sites, which in the intention of their designers should have been developed deeper in the mountains, until a link could be established between them forming a formidable network of tunnels and large halls.

Besides the size and historical meaning of these sites, what makes project ‘Riese’ so fascinating is also the actual purpose of this incredible complex is far from established. Three major theories exist in this respect. The complex might have been intended to be an underground industrial city, a kind of Noah’s Ark for the ‘superior race’ embodied by the top-ranking military and governmental staff of the Reich, or a gigantic secret laboratory for innovative technologies.

What is sure is that the construction was carried out by forced labor, mainly by prisoners of Gross-Rosen concentration camp, just a few miles north of the complex. For the scope, the Nazis created a number of satellite camps next to the entrance of the  construction sites. Rather incredibly, only very scant traces of the project remain in the written records of key figures of Nazi Germany – Albert Speer’s personal diary notably reports some millions marks allocated for project ‘Riese’, and at some point after the war he cited the item resulting from the completion of the construction works, whatever its purpose, as sized to be capable of hosting some tens of thousands people.

Today, six construction sites have been discovered, of which two – Osowka and Rzeczka, the most conspicuous – have been opened to the public, whereas the other are visitable basically for speleologists only.

Osowka

The first visitable site is in the town of Osowka. This site is composed of two parts, one underground with access from the side of a hill, the other close to the top of the same hill.

The underground part can be visited only with a guide. The plant of the completed construction features two accesses, and you will be driven in using the first and out using the other. Between the entrances, the site is mainly composed of an array of parallel tunnels pointing towards the mountain, connected by long halls.

Close to the entrance you can spot a concrete guardhouse with loopholes for machine guns. Some wooden structures like in a mine have been put in place to give an idea of the appearance of the working technique at the time of construction.

Most tunnels have been dug but not reinforced with concrete walls, whereas others are almost complete, showing a peculiar two-level design. The lower level features a smaller section, and the top one a taller, round shaped section.

A feature of the ‘Riese’ complex is a special technique for building the inner concrete coat of the rocky tunnels, producing the distinctive ‘church-ceiling-like’ appearance of some of the halls, with a round shape and frames close to one another.

The Osowka site features also a collection of smaller artifacts, collected from the ground and dating from the construction years, i.e. from late WWII.

Life-size silhouettes of some WWII tanks are on display, to show how the size of these items was totally compatible with the size of the tunnels, in support of a potential use of the site for weapon manufacture.

The outside part, which can be accessed freely, is the most mysterious. At the base of the trail leading uphill you can spot a strange concrete platform, with provision for – possibly – interred pipelines.

Close to the top of the hill you can find a huge concrete platform, with an apparently chaotic ensemble of slots, pipes, handles, stairs and pools. This item has been deemed close in shape to the base of a service building for the valves and pipelines of a power-plant. Theories have flourished in support of the use of this item as a prototype control system for a nuclear power-plant.

The nuclear program of the Nazis, which indeed existed and is even documented to some extent, is shrouded in mystery for what concerns the actual findings obtained during the war. These dark spots are also due to the destruction of most of the hardware connected with the program everywhere in Germany, and with the inherent secret nature of the program itself. No evidence exists of the Osowka site in the public papers about the nuclear studies of the Reich, so the true purpose of this object is likely to remain an unsolved riddle.

Close by this platform, you can find an original concrete building, part of the same construction plan. It is pretty long, with large windows, and likely intended for troops or technical staff.