Air Force Technical Applications Center
The Air Force Technical Applications Center (AFTAC), based at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. is an Air Force surveillance organization assigned to the Twenty-Fifth Air Force. Its mission is to monitor nuclear treaties of all applicable signatory countries. This is accomplished via seismic, hydroacoustic and satellite detection systems.
|Air Force Technical Applications Center (AFTAC)|
Air Force Technical Applications Center Shield
|Active||25 July 1947 – present|
|Branch||United States Air Force|
|Part of||Twenty-Fifth Air Force|
|Garrison/HQ||Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.|
|Motto(s)||In God We Trust, All Others We Monitor|
|Col. Chad Hartman|
The Air Force Technical Applications Center provides national authorities quality technical measurements to monitor nuclear treaty compliance and develops advanced proliferation monitoring technologies to preserve our nation’s security. It is the sole organization in the federal government whose mission is to detect and report technical data from foreign nuclear explosions.
Consisting of more than 3,600 sensors worldwide, AFTAC operates and maintains a global network of nuclear event detection equipment called the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection Systems (USAEDS), the largest sensor network in the U.S. Air Force. Once a disturbance is detected underground, underwater, in the atmosphere or in space, the event is analyzed for nuclear identification, and the findings are reported to national command authorities.
AFTAC’s nuclear event detection mission is directly linked to its nuclear treaty-monitoring mission. AFTAC monitors signatory countries’ compliance with the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty. This treaty prohibits nuclear testing anywhere but underground and prohibits the venting of nuclear debris or radiation from those tests into the atmosphere outside the country’s national borders. AFTAC also monitors the Threshold Test Ban Treaty of 1974 and the Peaceful Nuclear Explosion Treaty of 1976. The 1974 treaty limits the size of underground nuclear tests to 150 kilotons, while the 1976 treaty prohibits the testing of nuclear devices outside of agreed treaty sites.
AFTAC is on the leading edge of technological research and the evaluation of verification technologies for current and future treaties involving weapons of mass destruction, which threaten our national security. In 2014, AFTAC supplemented its extensive network of contracted laboratories by opening its state-of-the-art Ciambrone Radiochemistry Lab to analyze and assess compliance with nuclear weapons testing in support of USAEDS and AFTAC’s Nuclear Debris Collection and Analysis Program. The 38,000 square foot lab filled a void created when the center’s central laboratory at McClellan AFB, Calif. closed after the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure actions.
Soon after the end of World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized the need to monitor nuclear testing programs. In 1947 he directed the Army Air Forces to develop technologies capable of detecting “atomic explosions anywhere in the world.” In 1949, a particulate sampler aboard an Air Weather Service modified B-29 flying between Alaska and Japan detected debris from the first Russian atomic test – an event experts predicted could not happen until the mid-1950s.
As the Air Force activated AFTAC in 1959 to prepare to monitor compliance with the Limited Test Ban Treaty, AFTAC assumed some responsibilities for the USAEDS and the advancement of Long Range Detection capabilities. Over time, AFTAC’s various programs evolved into a unique resource system monitoring compliance with nuclear treaties; supporting our nation’s space program; and helping to protect citizens during emergencies involving nuclear materials.
Over the years, the Air Force tasked the nuclear treaty-monitoring center to conduct short-notice collection operations. In April 1986, AFTAC responded to the Ukrainian nuclear accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the former Soviet Union. In total, AFTAC flew 55 sorties compiling 502 flying hours, and AFTAC’s McClellan Central Laboratory processed 354 samples and logged more than 2,500 human-hours.
In October 2006, AFTAC detected an event associated with North Korea’s claim of a nuclear test and later provided verification of the nuclear event to national authorities.
More recently, the center supported Operation Tomodachi, the U.S. government’s response to the 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan. The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant experienced a nuclear meltdown in three of the plant’s six nuclear reactors. AFTAC personnel flew nine nuclear debris collection sorties, processing 342 seismic events, and analyzed 660 samples from the affected Pacific peninsula.
In the summer of 2015, AFTAC led the removal of 10 Radioactive Thermoelectric Generators, or RTGs, from Alaska, which were no longer required to power AFTAC’s seismic array. This power source was the Air Force’s largest source of sensitive radioactive material. This endeavor safely and successfully removed nuclear radiation from the environment and eliminated a potential source of material for use by terrorists in improvised radiological explosive devices or dirty bombs.
In December 2015, the IAEA released its final assessment on “Past and Present Outstanding Issues” regarding Iran’s nuclear program. AFTAC provided trace forensic analysis of samples supporting the IAEA’s mission to monitor Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. As a major component of the IAEA’s network of analytical labs, AFTAC’s analysis was foundational to the report.
In January and September 2016, AFTAC sensors detected underground disturbances near North Korea’s reported nuclear tests. The center’s findings were based on seismic activity, which was quickly analyzed, packaged and elevated to national decision makers.
As Hurricane Irma barreled up the Florida peninsula in September 2017, members of the nuclear treaty-monitoring center were analyzing and reporting their findings on North Korea’s purported nuclear test that registered a 6.3 on the Richter scale – 10 times more powerful than N. Korea’s detonation in 2016.
AFTAC is also on the forefront of protecting the homeland as it establishes an array of sensors across the United States as part of the National Technical Nuclear Forensics (NTNF) program. This program is designed to collect forensic analysis after detonations to aid the Federal Bureau of Investigation in attributing attacks on U.S. soil to foreign governments or terrorist entities to swiftly bring those responsible to justice. AFTAC’s efforts are making the Department of Defense’s vision to protect U.S. personnel and interests from the threat of a domestic nuclear detonation a reality.
Today, AFTAC continues to improve the USAEDS. As the nation’s caretaker of USAEDS, AFTAC works closely with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) in Vienna, Austria. Together, both parties are significantly improving the International Monitoring System. In fact, AFTAC now contributes six of its U.S.-based USAEDS seismic monitoring stations to the IMS.
On 16 October 1964, AFTAC detected a Chinese atmospheric test.
Sinking of Soviet Submarine K-129Edit
On 11 March 1968, the acoustic signatures of two extended destructive events were detected and recorded by four AFTAC hydroacoustic stations in the Pacific: Midway Island; Kaneohe, Oahu; Wake Island; and Eniwetok; and by the AFTAC tap on a US Navy SOSUS array terminating at Adak, Alaska. These signals were analyzed using time-difference of arrival times at each station and were determined to originate within 2 nms of 40-06N / 179-57E and originating within a few seconds of 111200Z March 1968. This detection and localization provided the first specific data on the wreck of the Soviet Golf-II class SSB "K-129" which became the target of the CIA's Project "AZORIAN" salvage operation conducted in the summer of 1974.
India's first nuclear test was detected 18 May 1974, by AFTAC.
On 22 September 1979, one of the Vela satellites detected a double flash of light, consistent with a nuclear explosion, centered over the Prince Edwards islands. There is still a great deal of contention about whether the detection was nuclear in origin.
AFTAC detected Pakistan's first of five nuclear tests 28 May 1998, with another nuclear test 30 May 1998. This was several days after several Indian tests.
AFTAC has detected and confirmed each of North Korea's nuclear tests between 2006 and 2017.
- "Air Force ISR Agency – AFTAC". U.S. Air Force. June 2007. Retrieved 19 January 2009.
- "This Week in PACAF and USAF history" (PDF). U.S. Air Force. 13 September 2008. Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 July 2011. Retrieved 19 January 2009.
- Polmar, Norman; White, Michael (2010). Project Azorian : the CIA and the Raising of the K-129. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-59114-690-2.
- "AFTAC Celebrates 50 Years of Long Range Detection" (PDF). AFTAC. October 1997. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 19 January 2009.
- "AFTAC celebrates 60th anniversary". U.S. Air Force. 11 October 2007. Archived from the original on 22 April 2009. Retrieved 19 October 2009.
- Sellers, Laurin (16 October 2008). "Brevard unit checks nukes". Orlando Sentinel.