Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque
Kirtland Air Force Base is one of the high points of any tour of Top Secret America. It was one of the key transportation facilities for the Manhattan Project, and later became the world’s first assembly plant for hydrogen bombs. Today it is home to two top-secret research labs and is also the world’s largest known storage facility for atomic weapons. And don’t forget the National Atomic Museum and its gift shop!
Kirtland Air Force Base covers 52,678 acres and over 20,000 military personnel and civilians work inside its secured boundaries. Kirtland has long been a major part of the Top Secret Government. Kirtland was founded in 1941 as an Army Air Field, and was one of the major transportation points for the Manhattan Project; C-54 cargo planes from Kirtland carried the atomic bombs eventually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki from Los Alamos to Navy transport ships waiting in San Francisco. After World War II, it became a storage center for atomic bombs built in Los Alamos and later Kirtland served as the manufacturing site for the first hydrogen weapons until the Pantex nuclear weapons manufacturing facility was built in neighboring Texas.
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For years, Kirtland was perhaps best known to the general public as the location of the Manzano Weapons Storage Area, a series of tunnels drilled deep for nuclear weapons storage. Weapons assembled at the Pantex plant in Texas were shipped to Kirtland for storage and eventual redistribution to other military bases. As a result, Manzano rapidly became the largest storage area for nuclear weapons in the United States and a lightning rod for nuclear disarmament and antiwar demonstrations in the 1960s. In 1994, the original Manzano facility was closed and replaced by a new facility inside the perimeter of Kirtland.
Several engineering projects that could not be accommodated at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project were carried out at Kirtland. After World War II, Kirtland became a center for advanced weapons research. Current activities are carried out under the auspices of the Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories and the Air Force’s Phillips Laboratory.
What’s There: Kirtland is a big, busy place. Some of the less secret activities include the 150th Fighter Wing (consisting of about 30 F-16s) and the 58th Special Operations Wing, which trains all Air Force helicopter crews and C-130 transport crews. The Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center tests current Air Force weapons systems under various combat conditions to determine their effectiveness and areas for improvement. One interesting structure here is known as “the Trestle.” This is the largest all-wood structure in the world, and was originally built to test how well an aircraft’s electronics systems would be protected in case of a nearby nuclear explosion. There are also runways, hangars, support and maintenance buildings, housing, and related support facilities for the military and civilian personnel who work at Kirtland.
In addition to the Sandia and Phillips Laboratories, Kirtland is home to the Department of Energy’s Albuquerque operations office.
Key Facilities: As mentioned before, the original Manzano facility was closed in 1994 and replaced by a new weapons storage installation known as the Kirtland Underground Munitions Storage Complex (KUMSC). Located in the southeast corner of Kirtland, the aboveground area of KUMSC covers 56 acres. However, most of KUMSC is underground deep within Manzano Mountain. Information about its structure and organization is classified, but it is known that KUMSC consists of multiple subterranean tunnels and storage areas. KUMSC is fenced off from the rest of Kirtland and has a special security force assigned to it. The exact number of warheads stored here varies, but usually over 2500 warheads are stored here inside lead containers. (Unconfirmed accounts by former Air Force personnel say the containers used to store the warheads closely resemble coffins.)
According to its official description, the Air Force’s Phillips Laboratory “concentrates its research and development in six technical areas: geophysics, propulsion, space and missiles technology, lasers and imaging, advanced weapons and survivability, and space experiments.” Phillips (and its predecessor organizations such as the Air Force Weapons Laboratory) has long been recognized as a world leader in laser research. One of their principal efforts has been the development of high-power lasers, such as those strong enough to shoot down incoming missiles.
Sandia National Laboratories can trace its origins back to the Manhattan Project, when a branch of Los Alamos was established at Kirtland to handle the transport of the first atomic bombs to San Francisco. After World War II, a branch of Los Alamos was established, and in 1949 it became an independent laboratory known as Sandia. The original focus was on atomic weapons research, but today Sandia is involved in perhaps the broadest range of semi-secret and secret research of any government laboratory. In addition to nuclear weapons, Sandia now conducts research in such areas as energy generation and distribution (especially electricity), “waste legacy” (that is, what to do with radioactive waste), solar energy, “remote sensing” of nuclear materials and warheads (how spy satellites and surveillance flights can detect hidden and clandestine atomic weapons), and “emerging threats,” a broadly defined category that encompasses ways of detecting and neutralizing non-nuclear threats such as biological weapons, chemical weapons, large-scale terrorist activities, and “cyberwarfare,” such as efforts to prevent hacking of military websites and networks. But nuclear weapons research is still the main business of Sandia. A 1994 report states that over one-ton of fissionable uranium and plutonium was at Sandia for use in their ongoing research activities.
Secret Stuff: Both Sandia and Phillips are currently working hard on “directed energy” weapons. Directed energy weapons are focused beams of photons (like lasers), microwaves, or atomic particles (neutrons, for example) designed to disable or destroy enemy weapons or personnel. The three main areas of research here seem to be lasers, microwaves, and charged particle beams. Lasers can temporarily blind humans even at modest power levels, and high-power lasers can destroy targets at a distance, primarily through heating effects. Microwave beams can cause heating injuries and damage like a souped-up version of your microwave oven. In addition, they can easily destroy the electronics of enemy weapons systems. Charged particle beams sound like something out of a bad 1950s science fiction film; atomic particles are ionized, accelerated to high speeds, and then focused into a narrow beam of astounding energy. The main application foreseen for charged particle weapons is to blast enemy aircraft, rockets, and satellites out of the sky.
There is a “Directed Energy Directorate” at Phillips whose stated mission is to “conduct research into a variety of energies that might be transformed into future weapons systems.” At Sandia, the emphasis seems to be on defensive measures against directed energy weapons as their research is under the “emerging threats” branch, which also conducts research into how to counter biological, chemical, and other unconventional weapons systems. However, in their “nuclear weapons” division Sandia is working on “pulsed power technology for defense applications,” which sounds like a variation on the directed energy theme. It is believed that many of these weapons at being tested at White Sands (see entry in this section) and the Nellis Range Complex (see the entry under NEVADA).
Another division of Sandia covers “nonproliferation and materials control.” Among their stated goals are to develop “new remote sensing technologies for aircraft and satellite deployment to detect and characterize proliferation activities” and to “track nuclear materials from dismantled weapons systems.”
Sandia recently established an “energy and critical infrastructure” division. This division incorporates Sandia’s long-established research into alternative energy sources (such as solar and fusion) with a new mission of (in their words) “preventing disasters resulting from threats to national and international systems that are essential to everyday life. We call these critical infrastructures. Examples are energy, transportation systems, health care networks, financial information systems, and communication networks.” This is decidedly different from Sandia’s traditional areas of weapons research, and it is not clear exactly what technologies are being developed (surveillance? “superhacking” of computer networks?) to help protect against such threats.
Getting a Look Inside: Kirtland offers group tours through its public affairs office, but these must include at least 20 people and be scheduled at least 90 days in advance. Naturally, the KUMSC is never on such tours. Admission to either Phillips or Sandia laboratories generally requires an official sponsor (usually one of their employees). However, the National Atomic Museum is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day except New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. To visit, park at the gates at either the Wyoming or Gibson entrances (see below) and present the guard with your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. You will then be given a pass good for travel to the museum, which is located on Wyoming Boulevard inside the base. Adult admission is currently $3.00.
Unusual Fact: The gift shop at the National Atomic Museum offers t-shirts, coffee mugs, key rings, and various other charming geegaws and doodads.
Getting There: Kirtland AFB is located on the southeast side of Albuquerque, next to the city’s airport. It can be reached from Interstate 40 via the Wyoming South exit or from Interstate 25 via the Gibson Boulevard exit.