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Fla. military unit watches for North Korean nuclear tests

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 4/20/2017 Rick Neale
Airmen assigned to the Technical Support Squadron monitor seismic activity throughout the world from Patrick Air Force Base. © U.S. Air Force photo by William B. Belcher Airmen assigned to the Technical Support Squadron monitor seismic activity throughout the world from Patrick Air Force Base.

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — As the world awaits North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's next military move, a secretive U.S. Air Force complex on the other side of the planet continues to monitor the isolated nation for nuclear bomb tests.

Headquartered at Patrick Air Force Base, the Air Force Technical Applications Center operates and maintains the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System. Operating on all seven continents, this $3 billion surveillance network of more than 3,600 high-tech sensors — including seismic sensors, ocean hydrophones and gamma detectors — identifies nuclear detonations underground, underwater, and in the Earth’s atmosphere and space.

"AFTAC, and our squadron in particular, are ready to go all the time, 24/7. It doesn't matter what's happening globally, what the specific circumstances are," said Lt. Col. Ehren Carl. He commands the Technical Surveillance Squadron, a group of 70 airmen who analyze the incoming sensor data.

AFTAC is the Department of Defense's lone agency charged with monitoring compliance of international nuclear test ban treaties. Utilizing more than 1,000 assigned personnel and laboratories around the world, AFTAC findings can reach the desk of the president — such as in January and September 2016, when airmen detected North Korea’s fourth and fifth underground nuclear tests via seismic activity.

"We have a very highly educated workforce here, military and civilian. So we'll bring in a PhD to go over what the analyst has seen and say, 'Yeah, this is something.' And then from there, we bring in the rest of the team to start materials analyses, weather modeling, all the different pieces that go into finding the technical information that we're tasked to find," Carl said.

"The entire building engages at that point and comes together. In a matter of hours, we will have assessments done and ready for the national leaders," he said.

AFTAC uses WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft, which collect airborne samples of nuclear debris. Stars and Stripes reported that one of these “nuke sniffer” aircraft arrived earlier this month at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan in advance of the 105th birthday of Kim II Sung, the late North Korean supreme leader and Kim Jong Un's grandfather.

That birthday celebration occurred Saturday, and Kim Jong Un displayed an array of new missiles during a military parade in the capital city of Pyongyang.

Sunday, North Korea launched a suspected medium-range ballistic missile that failed a few seconds after launch. Vice President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea hours later, and on Monday he toured the Demilitarized Zone and said the “era of strategic patience is over.”

Then Wednesday, while standing on the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier in Japan, Pence warned North Korea that "the sword stands ready" under President Trump. A newly released North Korean propaganda video depicts the nation's missiles wiping out an American city.

AFTAC's $158 million headquarters opened in March 2014. Inside, technicians man a series of clean rooms and a 38,000-square-foot radiochemistry laboratory.

The North Korean 2016 detonations marked the first time that AFTAC responded to multiple nuclear blasts in a single year since 1998's testing showdown between bordering India and Pakistan, Sr. Master Sgt. Rob Christman said.

"Last year was definitely the busiest ops tempo that AFTAC has seen in almost the last 20 years, in terms of worldwide activity that we've been a part of monitoring and analyzing and reporting. So that has been a challenge, but a rewarding one," Carl said.

"We have some of the smartest airmen in the Air Force that are doing that mission for us, 24/7," he said.

Last year, AFTAC personnel detected and differentiated about 700,000 natural events, ranging from lightning strikes to earthquakes to volcanic eruptions.

"These guys are busy all the time. That keeps us ready all the time," Christman said.

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