U.S. Air Force Adds Squadrons for Nuke Spying
Secretive atomic-intel center stands up five new units
There are big changes afoot for the U.S. Air Force’s nuclear intelligence force. Hidden away at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, the secretive Air Force Technical Applications Center now has five new squadrons.
Originally created in 1959 as the even more obscure-sounding 1035th Field Activities Group, AFTAC keeps an eye out for atomic tests, makes sure other countries are playing by the rules of nuclear treaties and monitors foreign long-range missile and space launches.
In 2014, the flying branch decided to turn the organization into the equivalent of a wing-type unit … and this means new squadrons.
An official Air Force news article named the squadrons and described their missions:
Technical Surveillance Squadron (TESS) – this squadron, now commanded by Lt. Col. Ehren Carl, provides the nation with persistent surveillance to monitor treaty compliance through AFTAC’s 24/7 Operations Center and the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System to detect, identify and locate nuclear explosions underground, underwater, in the atmosphere or in space.
Technical Operations Squadron (TOPS) – this squadron, led by Lt. Col. Robert Light, conducts Olympic Titan (mobile maritime platform foreign missile and space activity operations) and worldwide reconnaissance missions via technical sensors radar systems and aerial sampling operations to provide national authorities quality technical measurements to monitor treaty compliance involving weapons of mass destruction that threaten national security.
Technical Support Squadron (TSUS) – this squadron, under the command of Lt. Col. Dennis Uyechi, provides a broad range of world-class operations support to AFTAC, including intelligence support, training, standardization and evaluation, command staff and operations support to 17 worldwide locations employing more than 1,000 personnel executing the center’s nuclear treaty monitoring mission.
Technical Sustainment Squadron (TSMS) – this squadron, with Maj. Patrick Carpizo at the helm, empowers AFTAC with quality sustainment of the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System and innovative global logistics and maintenance support to the Department of Defense’s sole nuclear treaty monitoring mission.
Cyber Capabilities Squadron (CYCS) – this squadron, commanded by Lt. Col. Brian Hippel, provides AFTAC with decisive and assured cyberspace capabilities through innovative and robust global network architecture, data management, systems engineering and integrations services with unrivaled expertise and commitment.
The TESS’ is no doubt focused on North Korea. Since 2009, the reclusive regime has tested at least two nuclear weapons in underground sites. Iran is another possible target for the squadron’s monitoring gear.
TOPS will most likely continue spying on friends and enemies alike through its Olympic Titan missions — one of three specialized global intelligence programs run by U.S. Strategic Command. The squadron has snooped on Chinese, Indian, Iranian, Israeli and Syrian ballistic missile and space-bound rocket launches for at least the last eight years, according to Air Force histories War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The U.S. Navy and Air Force work together to keep track of these launches using a number of largely unknown spy ships such as the USNS Howard O. Lorenzen – a.k.a. Cobra King – and USNS Invincible, or Gray Star. The quasi-civilian Military Sealift Command officially refers to these vessels as “missile range instrumentation ships.”
On top of this, TOPS could coordinate with RC-135 and WC-135 reconnaissance planes, which hoover up information and air samples after suspected atomic explosions. The Air Force’s 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska owns the entire fleet of these unique, airliner-sized spy planes.
AFTAC “is the sole organization in the federal government whose mission is to detect and report technical data from foreign nuclear explosions,” according to its official fact sheet. As a result, TSUS will be in charge of making sure signatories to the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty and 1976 Peaceful Nuclear Explosion Treaty keep up their end of these bargains.
In 1963, the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom all agreed to end nuclear tests in the skies, in space and underwater. More than a decade later, Washington and Moscow decided to stop testing nuclear weapons with yields greater than 150 kilotons underground.
The Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons – more commonly known as the NPT – gave nations the right to experiment with atomic blasts for civilian purposes … and created a loophole in test bans.
Since the end of World War II, both Washington and Moscow toyed with the idea of carving out roadways through mountain passes or sealing up oil spills with nuclear detonations, among other nominally “peaceful” ideas.
The United States and Russia have not tested nuclear weapons since the early 1990s. But with Washington and Tehran beginning to implement a landmark nuclear deal, and an ever-obstinate Pyongyang among other concerns, AFTACs new squadrons will be plenty busy.