The military doesn’t always pick prime real estate for its bases. Often it prefers strange, far-flung and obscure parts of the world — particularly when it comes to its geekiest endeavors. Some are out-of-the-way test sites for the latest military and space technology. Others are far-flung spots of particular interest to scientists, in areas few could survive unshielded from the elements. Some are obscure because the Pentagon doesn’t like to advertise what they do.
Others face a predicament. Some bases built during the Cold War have found their original reason for existing suddenly disappear. But instead of closing them down, the Pentagon has found new reasons to justify their existence. Others now exist only on life support. There are also the bases built as a consequence of Cold War nuclear paranoia, now acting as a shelter for paranoia over terrorism and global pandemics.
Aside from their obscurity, these bases are monuments to the military’s faith in technology. Implicit in their location is the idea that no matter how extreme or odd or isolated a location, the military can build a place to track intercontinental ballistic missiles, launch secretive drones, or hook up an array of antennas that can study the ionosphere. From the deserts of Utah to the islands of the Arctic Circle and the Pacific, here are seven such bases.
Thule Air Base
Along the frigid northwestern coast of Greenland lies one of the U.S. military’s most isolated bases, and home to one of the Pentagon’s primary tools for keeping an eye out for intercontinental ballistic missile launches: a giant phased array radar. Called the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) at Thule Air Base, the radar works by blasting a constant beam of radio waves off the ionosphere, instantly detecting any object flying over the North Pole once it crosses the horizon.
But since the end of the Cold War, BMEWS at Thule has seen its mission recede in importance, a kind of post-1980s job security crisis for missile-tracking radars. The dangers of a nuclear missile attack on the United States of the kind the Pentagon feared in the 1970s and 1980s — and which would necessitate immovable radars in the Arctic — is now largely unthinkable. The good news is that the radar has found another job monitoring satellites and scanning for space debris.
Though it’s a bit tricky keeping everything functioning up in Thule. The temperatures regularly drop to negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, with storms that can lead to frostbite on exposed skin in less than a minute. Four months of every year are without sunlight, and sea access is blocked by ice for nine months. (These extreme conditions hampered clean-up during one of the “worst “Broken Arrow” nuclear accidents in U.S. history.) Oh, and there’s unexploded ordinance left over from Cold War missile tests around the site, and arctic “wormholes” (.pdf) of frozen ice that can collapse when you step on them.
Dugway Proving Ground
There are lots of fun things to do in the desert southwest of Salt Lake City. Dugway Proving Ground has bowling, hunting and outdoor swimming. And when you’re not enjoying the desert landscape, you can help the military test chemical and biological weapons.
Since World War II, Dugway has been the U.S. military’s primary site for experiments with chemical weapons — and how to defend against them. Since the end of the Cold War, the military has been gradually destroying its stockpiles of chemical and nerve agents such as BZ, mustard gas, sarin and VX, but Dugway is still used as a place to test gas masks, chemical detection systems, and for training the Army’s Chemical Corps on how to clean up after a chemical or biological attack inside a $30 million test building large enough to fit small airplanes. The base is also very much off-limits to the public. More recently, the base temporarily went on lockdown after a vial of VX went missing. (It was later discovered in a laboratory at the base.)
Dugway is not without controversy either. Thousands of chemical and radiological weapon tests occurred at the site through the 1960s. At least a dozen tests during that era involved dropping radioactive material out of airplanes to see if the method could be adapted into a weapon. Most notoriously, a 1968 test involving VX — a lethal nerve agent — resulted in the deaths of more than 6,000 sheep in a nearby valley. According to the Deseret News, nearly 250 tons of nerve agent have been released into the air at Dugway over the years. It’s probably advisable not to wander too close.
In terms of U.S. Pacific island bases, the Kwajalein Atoll is lesser known compared to the larger military establishments at Guam and Okinawa. But decades ago, ballistic missile tests helped spur the technology which led to the internet. For the past decade, the islands have also served as the Pentagon’s main testing site for ballistic missile interceptors like the THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.
The reason is partly size: the atoll is made up of about 97 small islands — the U.S. leases 11 of them from the Republic of the Marshall Islands — spaced out over 1,100 square miles and around a giant central lagoon that functions as a splashdown point for re-entry vehicles. There’s not a lot of shipping traffic, and little in the way of radio interference to muck with missile tests. In addition, the islands have become a testing site in recent years for experimental hypersonic weapons, which use scramjet engines to propel missiles at extremely high speeds.
Living on the atoll is unique. No one actually lives on the island of Meck, that houses the launch facility, which means a 25-mile commute over water from Kwajalein Island, the atoll’s largest and where much of the U.S. military personnel is based. (Marshall Islanders live on another island at the north end of the atoll.) And then there are the realities of living in a small and isolated American town in the middle of the Pacific with limited entertainment options. On the bright side, there’s plenty of sun and scuba diving.
Photo: U.S. Missile Defense Agency
Secret Drone Base
It’s an open question whether this is a secret U.S. drone base hidden in the desert of Saudi Arabia. It may be, or maybe not, and officially it isn’t. But satellite images of the airfield which appeared on Bing Maps this month — and first reported by Danger Room — show a striking similarity to a drone outpost reportedly built in Saudi Arabia two years ago. The purpose of that reported base: launch U.S. drones tasked with carrying out strikes against al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen.
The airfield seen on Bing Maps looks like it was certainly designed to be obscure. The airfield is incredibly remote and blends into the sand dunes, and even hauling the construction materials to the location would have amounted to a major challenge. In the satellite images, no drones are visible, but the three “clamshell” hangars seen at the site are large enough to hold drones like the Predator and Reaper, and resemble the kind of hangar used at other U.S. bases. There are two runways large enough to launch and land drones, with a larger third runway apparently under construction. The airfield, curiously, also appeared sometime in the three years between satellite snapshots.
Image: via Bing Maps
Raven Rock Mountain Complex
Were a catastrophe ever to befall the United States of such sufficient size to force an evacuation of top government officials, here’s one site where many would likely bunker down. The Pentagon’s Site R, also known as the Raven Rock Mountain Complex and the “Backup Pentagon,” is the government’s version of bug-out survivalism: an underground bunker buried into a Pennyslvania mountain about six miles north of the Camp David presidential retreat.
It’s inaccessible to the public, unfortunately, which makes it difficult to tell what’s going on in there. The Pentagon is super-secretive about the activities inside Site R besides its main purpose as an emergency bunker for military and government officials. There’s apparently some weather-monitoring technology used by Air Force One located inside. The bunker also contains offices used by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency — a Pentagon agency focused around countering nuclear, chemical and biological weapons proliferation. But beyond that, it’s all very hush-hush.
Also very Cold War. When Site R was first constructed in the 1950s, these secretive bunkers had a kind of doomsday logic to them. In the event of the Soviet Union nuking Washington, there had to be some place for Pentagon officials to hold out during the bombardment and subsequent radioactive fallout. (Consider it the best of a lot bad options, as the Soviets could have still smashed the bunker by hitting it with a nuke, but never mind.) Site R also persisted — and was even renewed — in the post-9/11 era over fears of terrorist attacks, global pandemics and loose nukes.
But that also poses something of a dilemma. Bunkers are not just designed to protect people — they’re designed to isolate them. Site R, then, becomes the means of stashing those in charge of coordinating disaster response inside a mountain with limited access to the outside world. It’s a wonder how much coordinating they’ll be able to do.
Eareckson Air Station
Out in the barrens of the Aleutian island of Shemya, 1,200 miles west of Anchorage and 200 miles east of Russia sits an airfield that’s so obscure not even the Air Force bothers to keep up a permanent presence of their own personnel, instead paying for a small team of contractors to keep the place from literally falling apart in the harsh Arctic climate. But since 1977, the base has also been home to the massive Cobra Dane ballistic missile radar, a phased array early warning system designed to spot Soviet missile launches over the North Pole, and track launch tests in eastern Russia.
Eareckson and the Cobra Dane radar has struggled with finding a mission in the 21st century. In the early 2000s, Pentagon officials touted the radar as a means of tracking anti-ballistic missile interceptor tests over the Pacific, part of the U.S. government’s efforts to build a weapon that could potentially shoot down an Iranian or North Korean missile. But Cobra Dane is pointing the wrong way — toward the west and toward the Kamchatka Peninsula, not toward the south where the U.S. carries out its tests at Kwajalein.
On the other hand, that puts Cobra Dane at Eareckson in a position to monitor North Korean rocket launches, even though the radar is outdated compared to more advanced SBX radars mounted on floating platforms. The Pentagon doesn’t have plans to scrap the radar, either. On the contrary, it’s paying Raytheon $65 million for maintenance and engineering work on the radar through 2015.
Aside from a radar base, the site is used as an emergency airfield for flights headed between North America and Asia. But once you land, it can be hard to get back in the air — the Arctic and Pacific winds can get so extreme that flights are often grounded for days at a time.
Image: via Google Maps
HAARP Research Station
The HAARP Research Station is in the strange situation of being both widely known and obscure at the same time. A Pentagon-funded project to research the Earth’s ionosphere, the High Frequency Auroral Research Program is more widely known as a focus of popular conspiracy theories. In numerous (fiction) books and television shows and according to innumerable conspiracy websites, it’s a sinister mind-control weapon, or a device to cause earthquakes and hurricanes. No, it’s none of that. But it’s enough to have overshadowed what HAARP is all about.
To start with, HAARP is a $250 million high-frequency radio array that can stimulate the ionosphere — a region of charged particles starting 50 miles up that’s created by the interaction of radiation from the sun with the Earth’s atmosphere. Built in the 1990s in rural Gakona, Alaska, and far enough north to where the ionosphere meets the Earth’s magnetic field, HAARP can do all kinds of interesting things. The array can send out enough energy to manipulate the ionosphere into transmitting radio waves, and can artificially produce the aurora effect by exciting free electrons. For the Pentagon, it could be potentially used to help communicate with submarines deep underwater and help clean up electrons left over from nuclear tests — thereby clearing up interference with communication satellites.
But it’s this combination of theoretical science and dependency on Pentagon funding — HAARP’s funding increased from $9 million per year in 2010 to $22 million in 2012 — that helped fuel the conspiracies. To secure funding, HAARP’s scientists have had to sell the array as something with military utility. Combine that with the military’s tendency towards secrecy when it comes to advanced research projects, and you have fertile ground for conspiracy theories to thrive. The downside is that it’s obscured what the science is all about.
Photo: Air Force