Project ELF was a US Navy program intended to provide communication with nuclear submarines at sea. Since conventional radio waves have difficulty penetrating water, submarines must generally surface, or travel slowly at shallow depths in order to receive messages. Extremely Low Frequency radio waves (ELF) penetrate further through water, making them more useful for submarine communication. Frequently the reception of an ELF message simply told the submarine to get closer to the surface so a normal radios message could be transmitted to it.
Since ELF waves require enormous antennae, Project ELF used the Earth itself as a transmitter, attaching a 222 km (130+ mi) dipole antenna to the Laurentian Shield, a huge granite geological feature which makes up the bedrock of about the upper third of Wisconsin.
The Navy began its interest in ELF in 1958, but due to secrecy around the project, the first test facility was not built until 1969. The facility was built in the Chequamegon National Forest south of Clam Lake, Wisconsin and consisted of 45 km (28 mi) of antenna cable strung above the ground on poles. The antenna is in two segments of 22 km (14 mi) each, laid out in the form of an “X” to provide bidirectional transmission.
In the 1970s, the Navy with public with the project and announced plans for a new ELF system called Project Sanguine, using underground, unmanned transmitter capsules capable of surviving a nuclear attack. The plan was stalled by public concerns about the environmental impact and questions in the Pentagon about the need for such a system until the early ‘80s when President Ronald Reagan pushed for a scaled-down version of Sanguine, upgrading the Wisconsin facility and installing a second transmitter at K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in Michigan.
In addition to environmental concerns about the low frequency waves affecting people and wildlife, anti-nuclear activists feared that the system would give the US first-strike capability and destabilize the nuclear balance of power. Wisconsin Democratic Senators Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold tried repeatedly to cut funding for ELF, calling it a “relic of the Cold War.”
The Navy finally decided to shut down Project ELF in 2004, stating that “Improvements in communications technology and the changing requirements of today’s Navy make the ELF communications system no longer necessary.”
Game and Story Use
- Adventure Seed: Only the Strong Survive
- In a Cold War-era game: Enemy agents are trying to access the ELF system to seize control of the US submarine fleet. Can you stop them?
- Someone is sabotaging the poles that make up a big part of the system. Is it anti-nuke activists? Eco-terrorists? Or are the Chippewa Indians who have been protesting the site right and angry spirits of the land are striking back?
- The program has been officially dismantled for some time now; but you discover that someone is still using it. And they’re not sending messages to submarines. Who is really controlling Project ELF and who… or what… are they talking to?
- Could it be… Cthulhu?