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The Evolution and Success of the CIA’s Area 51

The Evolution and Success of the CIA’s Area 51


By James Lint
Faculty Member, School of Business, American Military University
Senior Editor for In Cyber Defense and Contributor, In Homeland Security

On January 27, a Central Intelligence Agency retiree gave a briefing that began with a slide once classified as Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI). That classification is a world-class attention-getter for an audience that had seen it before in more proper locations.

Thornton D. Barnes, author and veteran intelligence operative, gave a talk on “The Evolution of the CIA’s Area 51.” This was the first distinguished lecture of the 2017 year at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada. The museum tells the story of America’s nuclear weapons testing program at the Nevada Test Site and elsewhere.

Barnes is the president of Roadrunners Internationale, a group of pilots that tested advanced military aircraft at Area 51, and the former executive director of the Nevada Aerospace Hall of Fame. Barnes worked on NASA’s Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA) at the Nuclear Rocket Development Station at the Nevada Test Site. He also participated in Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy) tests of the atomic bomb. Barnes is the author of several books, including “MiGs Over Nevada,” which was approved for publication by the CIA.

CIA: the Solution to No Unarmed Air Force Aircraft

Barnes started his talk by discussing how the wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS) evolved into the CIA in 1947. In 1950, Lockheed developed high-flying reconnaissance aircraft.

But Air Force General Curtis LeMay was not interested in unarmed aircraft. The CIA had flown its Air America fleet in covert operations, so the agency became the natural choice to conduct high-flying reconnaissance aircraft testing.

Why CIA Chose Nevada for Aircraft Testing Site

In 1950, Nevada had a population of 237,000. Most residents were involved in wartime work with the military, NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Nevada had long been known as a military-friendly state and the belief was the no one would notice yet another military activity. These reasons are why the CIA chose Area 51 in Nevada to conduct flight testing for the U-2 aircraft.

The CIA built the Area 51 facility and combined its airspace with the adjoining Nellis AFB gunnery range, creating the largest contiguous air and ground range in the nation. The AEC labeled the Groom Lake facility a NASA weather research station. But the reality was that the CIA would conduct flight tests on a reconnaissance plane that was more highly classified than even the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb.

Barnes Describes Realities of Working at Area 51 Facility

Area 51 was a rough, undeveloped desert facility. Employees would fly in on Monday and fly home on Friday on their own commuter airline program called Janet Airlines. Secrecy was important.

The CIA Special Projects team was composed of many engineers with different specialties. The members were known by simple code names that were easy to remember and protected the identity of the Area 51 workers. Barnes was “Thunder.”

These engineers were often loaned out to other agencies. Whether it was the AEC or a branch of the military, the agencies were always called “the customer” for security reasons.

There were many stories of reverse engineering. For example, engineers used the Soviet Tall King Radar to determine how U.S. reconnaissance planes would appear on Soviet radar. U.S. pilots flew simulated MiG-17s and MiG-21s to show what they would be up against in combat.

Barnes also talked about the first stealth plane, the A-12 Blackbird, and how the Special Projects team would evaluate it. Because the U.S. tracked Soviet satellites and knew when they were overhead, test planes, U-2s and Stealth aircraft were moved into hangers to protect them from Soviet surveillance.

Successes from Area 51

Area 51 had many successes, including:

  • U-2 Projects Aquatone/Idealist flew reconnaissance over the Soviet Union.
  • A-12 Project Oxcart developed America’s first stealth plane.
  • A-12 Operation Blackshield located missile sites in North Vietnam.
  • Projects Tagboard and Senior Bowl produced drone technology.
  • MiG-21 exploitation project Have Doughnut revealed the reasons for U.S. air combat losses over North Vietnam and prompted the Navy to create the Top Gun Weapons School.
  • MiG-17 exploitation projects Have Drill and Have Ferry further expanded on reasons for U.S. air combat losses over North Korea, and led the Air Force to initiate the Red Flag Exercises and added aggressors to the Weapons School.
  • Project Have Blue produced the F-117 Stealth plane.

The most successful CIA program produced the fastest and highest-flying manned jet plane ever. The most amazing part was that it remained a secret from our enemies.

Area 51 Is Known for Space Aliens’ Landings

Many Americans believe space aliens were kept hidden at Area 51. The truth is there were “UFOs” at Area 51. They were the U-2, SR-71, A-12, D-21 drone and other oddly-shaped aircraft for high-altitude flights. Pilots had to wear special pressurized suits, which were uncommon in that era.

Area 51 was highly successful because the CIA developed stealth technology, evaluated proof of concepts, exploited our enemy’s technology and flew reconnaissance flights over denied territory. Today’s cyber defenders could learn from their example.

About the Author

James R. Lint recently retired as the (GG-15) civilian director for intelligence and security, G2, U.S. Army Communications Electronics Command. He is an adjunct professor at AMU. James has been involved in cyberespionage events from just after the turn of the century in South Korea, supporting 1st Signal Brigade to the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis as the first government cyber intelligence analyst. He has 38 years of experience in military intelligence with the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army, government contracting and civil service.

Additionally, James started the Lint Center for National Security Studies, a nonprofit charity that recently awarded its 43rd scholarship for national security students and professionals. James was also elected as the 2015 national vice president for the Military Intelligence Corps Association. He has also served in the Department of Energy’s S&S Security Office after his active military career in the Marine Corps for seven years and also served 14 years in the Army. His military assignments include South Korea, Germany and Cuba, in addition to numerous CONUS locations. James has authored a book published in 2013, “Leadership and Management Lessons Learned,” a book in 2016 “8 Eyes on Korea, A Travel Perspective of Seoul, Korea,” and a new book in 2017, Secrets to Getting a Federal Government Job.