AFTAC continues excellence as part of Air Force nuclear enterprise

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Patrick Murphy
  • AFTAC Public Affairs
When Gen. Norton Schwartz was appointed the 19th chief of staff of the Air Force Aug. 12, he emphasized a renewed focus on the nuclear enterprise as one of the Air Force's top priorities.

Air Force Technical Applications Center Commander Col. Lisa Ann Onaga, having assumed command only five days earlier, took this to heart.  As commander of the unit that maintains and operates the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System, or USAEDS, a global network of nuclear-detonation detection sensors, Colonel Onaga knew that a renewed focus on the nuclear enterprise also meant a focus on AFTAC.

"AFTAC has been successfully executing the Air Force's nuclear-detonation detection mission for nearly 50 years without any fanfare," Colonel Onaga said. "The nuclear-detonation detection mission is directly linked to our nuclear treaty-monitoring mission, and these missions are a significant part of the nation's nuclear enterprise."

"AFTAC is also on the leading edge of technological research and the evaluation of verification technologies for current and future testing of weapons of mass destruction that threaten national security," she said. "So, AFTAC's success is a win for the Air Force's nuclear enterprise."

General Schwartz set the goal for the Air Force when he said, "Precision and reliability is our standard, regardless of job or specialty, and we will return the vigor and rigor to all the processes and missions for which we have been entrusted."

Precision and reliability have long been traits of the long-range detection program, a program AFTAC became responsible for when it stood up in 1959. But the LRD program actually goes back to 1947, when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower directed the Army Air Forces to be able to "detect atomic explosions anywhere in the world." 

In 1949, an Air Force B-29 Superfortress flying between Alaska and Japan detected debris from the first Russian atomic test. 

The LRD program also confirmed France's first atomic weapons test in 1960, China's in 1964, India's in 1974 and Pakistan's in 1998. In October 2006, AFTAC's USAEDS detected an event associated with North Korea's claim of a nuclear test and later provided verification that the event was nuclear in nature.

While presenting AFTAC with its eighth Air Force Organizational Excellence Award in August, Maj. Gen. Craig Koziol , the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency commander, explained the center not only played a vital role in shaping the nation's nuclear posture, but also impacted the collective response of the international community to nuclear events.

"Armed with information provided by AFTAC, the United States supplied the scientific evidence to justify international sanctions against the North Korean government," he said.

The award covered the period of Jan.1, 2006 through Dec. 31, 2007, during which time center officials formed new partnerships and spurred collaborative efforts across government and international lines. AFTAC representatives led the way in meeting national responsibilities to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, and sought and obtained International Monitoring System certification for three seismic array platforms. 

This demonstrates the center's commitment to upholding its treaty obligations, but perhaps more importantly, it furthers our diplomatic credibility with the various host nations where our platforms reside," General Koziol said.

The center's personnel defined new domestic roles, mission capabilities and responsibilities with members of the Air Force ISR Agency and Headquarters Air Force A2, and formalized their role to officials with the Department of Homeland Security's National Technical Nuclear Forensics Program. AFTAC is now recognized as a critical domestic nuclear rapid response team member.

In addition, the dedication of AFTAC's personnel to developing forward-thinking technologies and techniques in the area of Nuclear Debris Collection and Analysis culminated in the prestigious Air Force Science and Engineering Award for Exploratory and Advanced Technology Development for 2007.

With this award, the Air Force chief scientist recognized the Nuclear Debris Collection and Analysis Research and Development team from AFTAC's Materials Technology Directorate for its brilliant adaptation of the latest scientific research and technology to the worldwide nuclear explosion detection problem. 

Maximizing current meteorological, nuclear, spectroscopic and computing developments, the team reengineered, modernized and vastly improved the nation's capability for verification of nuclear treaties. The team's ensemble meteorological modeling, collection systems, analysis apparatus and evaluation techniques operated flawlessly to provide confirmation of North Korea's October 2006 nuclear test.

"Our people are dedicated to our mission, and we work tirelessly to provide the very best data to our customers," Colonel Onaga said. "Earning the Air Force Science and Engineering Award validates AFTAC's continuing commitment to provide data that is both precise and reliable."

This commitment was recognized in early 2006 by one of AFTAC's customers, the International Atomic Energy Agency. In a letter to the AFTAC commander, Olli J. Heinonen, IAEA's deputy director general and head of the Department of Safeguards, expressed "sincere appreciation" for the support AFTAC provided to IAEA, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2005.

"The support from the agency's network of analytical laboratories, particularly that of the AFTAC laboratory network, contributed substantially to this important recognition of the agency's most critical safeguard challenges," Mr. Heinonen wrote. "We look forward to a long and productive relationship with AFTAC and hope that, as the IAEA is confronted with new safeguards challenges, AFTAC will seek ways to extend the level of support and cooperation to meet those challenges."

While Colonel Onaga and the members of AFTAC are proud of what the unit has accomplished throughout its history, they are very much aware that applying the standards of precision and reliability in the execution of every mission is an ongoing process.

"We've worked hard to earn our reputation, and we'll continue working hard every day to keep it," Colonel Onaga said. "The nuclear enterprise is too important to do it any other way."

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