Air Force Technical Applications Center (AFTAC)

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.

Mission

AFTAC’s mission is the detection of nuclear detonations (NUDETs) anywhere in the world: below ground, in water, surface blasts, free-air and in space. The global network of monitoring is referred to as the United States Atomic Energy Detection System (USAEDS). The purpose of maintaining the vast network is to ensure that countries who are signatories on various nuclear treaties comply with the intent of the nuclear treaties.

  • The Limited Test Ban Treaty limits nuclear testing to underground, and furthermore prohibits the venting of nuclear debris or radiation from those tests outside the country’s national borders.
  • The Threshold Test Ban Treaty limits all nuclear testing to a yield of under 150 kilotons of TNT.
  • Finally, the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty limits all civilian purpose nuclear explosions to a yield of 150 kilotons and an aggregate group yield of 1,500 kilotons.

Upon detection of any disturbance in USAEDS, the applicable AFTAC laboratories analyze the event for identification. Should the event detected be nuclear in nature the event is referred to national command authorities.

History

On 16 September 1947, Army Chief of Staff General Dwight D. Eisenhower directed the Army Air Forces to coordinate detection of nuclear detonations anywhere in the world. Two days later, the United States Air Force was separated into a distinct service; the atomic detection mission was incorporated into the new entity.

Activated 1 April 1948, as a field extension of the Air Force chief of staff, the 51st Air Force Base Unit was tasked to experiment on various platforms for the detection of nuclear weapons. An infrastructure for detection was constructed quickly, amidst fears of the Russia’s nuclear ambitions.

On 28 August 1948, the 51st Air Force Base Unit was re-designated the 1009th Special Weapons Squadron. The 1009th was assigned to Headquarters Command, U.S. Air Force, 1 August 1949. One month later, an air sampler aboard an AFOAT-1 B-29 flying between Alaska and Japan detected debris from the first Russian nuclear test.

By the end of June 1971, 13 detection techniques were being actively pursued by USAEDS: Seismic (B), Debris Collection (C), Whole Air Sampling (D), Geophysical Diagnostics (F), Magnetic (H), Acoustic (I), Debris Analysis (L), Hydro-acoustic (0), Electromagnetic Pulse (Q), Vela Satellite system (T), Very Low Frequency Phase (U), High Frequency Radio (W), and Atmospheric Fluorescence (Z).

AFTAC was activated in 1973, assuming control of the USAEDS mission.

Notable detections

China

On 16 October 1964, AFTAC detected a Chinese atmospheric test.

Sinking of Soviet Submarine K-129

On 11 March 1968, the acoustic signatures of two extended destructive events were detected and recorded by four AFTAC hydro-acoustic 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

India’s first nuclear test was detected 18 May 1974, by AFTAC.

Vela Incident

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.

Pakistan

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.

North Korea

AFTAC confirmed North Korea’s 2006 nuclear test.

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