The Evolution of the CIA’s Area 51

Published with Permission by:
Lint, James R., “The Evolution of the CIA’s Area 51”, In Cyber Defense, 4 Feb. 2017, Web,

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

In Cyber Defense many people believe we are the first to worry about secrecy and tool development.  In the past, this was also an issue for defenders of America. This is a story of 1950-1980 technology development. Amazingly, they had some of the same issues, as cyber defenders today. Loss of technology can have drastic consequences.

On 27 January, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) retiree gave a briefing that started with a declassified slide marked Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI).  That is a world-class attention gainer for an audience of many people who had seen it before in proper locations.

This is the first Distinguished Lecture of the 2017 year at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Mr. Thornton D. Barnes, author and veteran intelligence operative, gave a talk about “The Evolution of the CIA’s Area 51.”

The National Atomic Testing Museum is a national science, history and educational institution that tells the story of America’s nuclear weapons testing program at the Nevada Test Site and beyond. From Atomic Age culture to scientific and technological advances during the latter part of the 20th Century, the museum uses lessons of the past and present to better understand the extent and effect of nuclear testing on worldwide nuclear deterrence and geo-political history.

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

The Solution to No USAF Unarmed Aircraft – CIA

Mr. Barnes started his talk by referencing the CIA Directorate of Science and Technology History manual. He did discuss the history of how the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) evolved into the CIA. In 1950, it was found the USAF General LeMay was not interested in any unarmed aircraft at the same time Lockeed had developed high-flying reconnaissance aircraft. The CIA had been flying Air American, Inc in covert operations. The CIA became the natural choice to conduct the testing for high-flying reconnaissance aircraft.

Why Nevada for CIA Aircraft Testing Site

In 1950, Nevada had a population of 237,000 residents, and most 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 war activity. This is why the CIA chose Area 51 in Nevada to conduct flight testing for the U-2.

CIA created Area 51 facility and combined its air space with the adjoining US Air Force Nellis AFB gunnery range, creating the largest contiguous air and ground range. Groom Lake facility was announced by AEC that the construction would be for NASA weather research. The reality was that CIA would conduct flight test on a reconnaissance plane that was more highly classified than the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. This was done in the era where military secrecy was understood, respected, and valued.

The Commute to Work

The area was a rough undeveloped desert facility. The employees would fly in on Monday and fly home on Friday.  This was done via their own commuter flight program called Janet Airlines.  It was named after the wife of one of the early leaders of the facilities.  Secrecy was important.  They had mobile home trailers for years until temporary wood buildings, and later permanent housing was built.

The Special Projects team members were known by simple code names easy for customers to remember and to protect identity of Area 51 workers. Mr. T.D. Barnes was “Thunder.” Everything was focused on security and Operations Security or OPSEC.  The CIA Special Projects team was composed of many engineers with different specialties. They were often loaned out to other agencies, with most of them coming to Nevada Area 51. While it could be AEC, or a branch of the military, they were always called the customer for security reasons.

There were many stories of reverse engineering the Soviet Tall King Radar to use it to determine how US reconnaissance planes would appear on Soviet radar.  Stories about the various MIG-17 and MIG-21 flying to show US pilots would they would be up against in combat. Mr. Barnes had stories about the first stealth plane A-12 Blackbird and how the Special Projects team would evaluated it.  The US keeps track of the Soviet satellites.  They would move the test planes, U-2s and Stealth planes into hangers to protect against the Soviet eyes.

Successes, there were many

  • U-2 Projects Aquatone/Idealist overflew reconnaissance over Russia
  • A-12 Project OXCART developed America’s first stealth plane
  • A-12 Operation BLACKSHIELD located missiles sites in North Vietnam and located the USS Pueblo seized by North Korea
  • Projects Tagboard and Senior Bowl produced drone technology
  • MIG-21 exploitation Project HAVE DOUGHNUT revealed the reasons for US air combat losses in North Vietnam and sparked the US Navy to initiate the Top Gun Weapons School
  • MiG-17 exploitation Projects HAVE DRILL and HAVE FERRY further revealed the reasons for US air combat losses in North Korea and sparked the US 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 top success was the CIA produced the fastest and highest flying manned jet plane ever. The most amazing part was that they kept it secret from our enemies.

Space Aliens

It is funny how many people in America will talk about space aliens being hidden at Area 51.  The truth is that there were “UFOs” at Area 51.  They were the U-2, SR-71, A-12, D-21 drone, and other strange shaped airplanes for high altitude flight. The pilots had to wear pressurized suits which made them look strange in the 1960s. The mission was secret. In all of the stories, Area 51 was a success because the CIA developed stealth technology, evaluated proof of concepts, exploited our enemy’s technology, and flew reconnaissance flights over denied territory.  Overall, Area 51 was a highly successful area that promoted American defense. Today’s Cyber Defenders could learn from the past.

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 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 the 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 Secrets to Getting a Federal Government Job.