The World's 18 Strangest Military Bases

The world's hodgepodge of military bases run the gamut from hazardous mountaintop forts to seemingly impenetrable underground bunkers. Then there are bases on remote islands tracking objects in deep space and high-tech laboratories probing the most lethal microbes in existence. The design of a base needs to address the immediate needs of a military while still being versatile enough to remain useful as threats and technology evolve. We tracked down some of the most interesting active military facilities and spoke with Brad Schulz, vice president of federal architecture at HNTB, about why they're notable. [via popularmechanics]

Thule Air Base

Qaasuitsup, Greenland:

Background: Thule Air Base sits within 800 miles of the Arctic Circle, making it the northernmost U.S. military installation. Among the many challenges posed by the region's climate is that the base's port is only accessible for three months each year, so major supplies need to be shipped during the summer. The base may be frozen and remote, but the 12th Space Warning Squadron operates an early warning system for Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles from Thule, while the 21st Space Wing is in charge of space surveillance operations.

How It's Unique: Brad Schulz, vice president of federal architecture at HNTB, who recently worked on a dormitory replacement project at Thule, explains that construction crews essentially need to build on the most stable layer of permafrost they can get to. With temperatures dropping below minus-60 F, keeping troops warm is crucial. One of the more interesting weather-specific features is that all of the utilities are above ground, because it would be too hard to quickly access them if something went awry. "You don't bury any waterlines, communication lines or even sanitary lines," Schulz says. "They're all insulated and triple-heat-taped." Schulz also notes that all the buildings on the base are equipped with so-called arctic vestibules, which provide 24/7 access to shelter while ensuring the buildings remain secure.

(Photo by Peterson Airforce Base Photos)

Dugway Proving Ground

Great Salt Lake Desert, Utah:

Background: Within two months of the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set aside the first 127,000 acres of Dugway Proving Ground in Utah's Great Salt Lake Desert. Over the past 60 years, the site has expanded to nearly 800,000 acres, roughly the size of Rhode Island.

How It's Unique: Dugway's massiveness allows it to be the premiere site for testing defense systems against chemical and biological weapons, as well as military-grade smoke bombs. During World War II, the facility played a vital role in the development of incendiary bombs. In order to test the fire-causing weapons, crews at Dugway built replicas of German and Japanese villages, even going so far as to fill the model buildings with furniture that would be similar to that found in the respective country. Today, the remains of the German village are eligible to be included on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Navy Support Facility Diego Garcia

Diego Garcia BIOT, Chagos Archipelago:

Background: This joint U.S. and U.K. operation is situated on a tiny atoll about 1000 miles from India and tasked with providing logistical support to forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

How It's Unique: "There's a certain amount of logistical difficulty" with ultra-remote facilities like Diego Garcia, Schulz says, and shipping materials can be costly. Diego Garcia's remoteness, though, allows it to be a key hub for tracking satellites, and it is one of five monitoring stations for GPS. Additionally, the island is one of only a handful of locations equipped with a Ground-based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance system for tracking objects in deep space. As an atoll, the land itself is rather oddly shaped, too. From end to end, Diego Garcia is 34 miles long, but its total area is only 11 square miles.

(Photo courtesy of the Images Science & Analysis Laboratory)

HAARP Research Station

Gakona, Alaska:

Background: HAARP, or the High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, is a collaborative project involving the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army and the University of Alaska. Researchers at the facility use a powerful high-frequency transmitter and an array of 180 antennas to temporarily disrupt the ionosphere in hopes of yielding potential communications and surveillance benefits.

How It's Unique: HAARP has been the centerpiece of countless conspiracy theories, ranging from rumors that it will be used for mind control to claims that it can manipulate the weather of individual countries. The project's website says that the equipment can only function properly if it is located in the auroral region, and Alaska happens to be the only U.S. state that fits that criterion. A quiet electromagnetic location is needed for the system to operate, which further explains the removed location of HAARP. In past interviews, HAARP's operators readily admit they're researching potential defense applications. HAARP is not classified.

Forward Logistics Base

Siachen Glacier, Kashmir:

Background: For more than 25 years, India and Pakistan have been battling for control of the nearly 50-mile-long Siachen Glacier. Both sides have set up military installations in the imposing Karakoram range, where 3-mile-high mountain peaks are the norm.

How It's Unique: Troops stationed in this barely inhabitable war zone face endless peril. While a 2004 ceasefire has been adhered to, soldiers on the world's highest battleground still fight altitude sickness, deadly temperatures and bone-crushing avalanches. There are no precise figures on how many lives have been lost during the conflict, but some estimates put the death toll as high as 5000, many of which are attributed to climate-related events. Due to the lack of infrastructure in the region, helicopter pilots are placed in harm's way as they navigate unpredictable winds and poor weather to delivery basic necessities.

(Photo by Fred W. Baker III/

Cheyenne Mountain Complex

Cheyenne Mountain Complex Air Force Station, Colo.:

Background: This iconic underground base has been inspiring science fiction writers and awing engineers since 1966. Located nearly a half mile under a granite mountain, the labyrinthine facility is run by Air Force Space Command. The base earned its place in pop culture when the television version of Stargate made Cheyenne Mountain the HQ of cosmic time travel.

How It's Unique: One-of-a-kind bases like Cheyenne pose countless construction challenges and need to satisfy seemingly impossible requirements, like being able to withstand multi-megaton attacks. "It would be hard for a contractor to bid a project like this, because you might be using new construction techniques, new construction technology," Schulz says. Aside from sitting under a mountain of granite, an extremely hard rock, the base is protected by 25-ton blast doors, and some rooms sit on massive beds of springs to better absorb a blast. "It's certainly not a very secret installation, but it's well-protected."

(Photo courtesy of Norad)

Devil's Tower Camp


Background: Certain geographic locations will never lose their strategic importance. Case in point: Gibraltar. British control of the territory dates back to 1713, when Spain ceded the land in the Treaty of Utrecht. Nowadays, the Royal Gibraltar Regiment watches over the territory from its Devil's Tower Camp headquarters.

How It's Unique: The location's strategic importance stems from the Strait of Gibraltar, which joins together the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, but the area also provides unique training opportunities in parachuting, diving and tunnel warfare. Under the streets of Gibraltar is an extensive 35-mile-long tunnel system carved through limestone. On the southern tip of Gibraltar is the Buffadero Training Center, which includes two live firing ranges, an obstacle course and a mock village that mimics warfare in an urban environment.

Joint Defence Space Research Facility Pine Gap

Lingiari, Australia:

Background: Near the hot, desolate center of Australia, just outside of Alice Springs, is the Joint Defence Space Research Facility Pine Gap. Australia and the U.S. agreed to build the compound in 1966, but desert flooding, blistering heat and a lack of paved roads slowed initial construction efforts. The site officially opened in June 1970 and has been a joint U.S./Australian operation since.

How It's Unique: Pine Gap's collection of eight or so radomes and its remote location have sparked many UFO-related rumors, both in Australia and abroad. The main function of Pine Gap is to monitor any missile activity in the region and relay intelligence to U.S. and Australian forces. Schulz points out there are certain military installations, like Pine Gap or HAARP, that can only operate effectively in certain geographical areas. "Even though they're in terrible environments, some portion of that land is strategically important," he says. In 2009, the Australian Department of Defence announced plans to upgrade antiquated equipment at the facility, indicating that Pine Gap has a long future ahead of it.

(Photo by STF/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases

Fort Detrick, Md.:

Background: Anthrax, Ebola virus, plague and monkeypox are just a few of the deadly microbes handled by researchers at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, commonly known as USAMRIID. Over the years, the institute has made significant contributions to the development of vaccines, diagnostics and treatments that have both military and civilian applications.

How It's Unique: USAMRIID is the only Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory under the purview of the Department of Defense. Facilities like these are all about redundancies, Shulz says, and the safety requirements needed for BSL-4 certification are extensive and complex. A few of the more notable precautions include double-door airlocks, sophisticated filtration systems capable of catching microscopic particles, fumigation chambers and a completely air-tight building. According to the National Institutes of Health, many of the BSL-4 facilities build buffer corridors around the laboratories to help mitigate damage from any potential blasts.

Naval Air Station Jacksonville

Jacksonville, Fla:

Background: The new Hangar 511 at Naval Air Station Jacksonville is the largest hangar in the Navy's inventory, capable of storing 33 P3-C Orions, four C-130 Hercules and a helicopter unit. In the coming years, the hangar will be instrumental in housing the P-8 Poseidon and its 120-foot wingspan.

How It's Unique: Hangar 511 is one of only three hangars, military or civilian, to achieve LEED Silver certification. Schulz says HNTB fitted sections of Kalwall—a translucent, polymer panel—into the southern wall so natural light could illuminate the hangar and curb energy consumption. The designers also avoided using conventional sliding hangar doors and opted for Megadoors, which are made from fabric and pulled vertically, similar to blinds in a bedroom. "It has, I think, the largest fabric hangar doors ever constructed," Schulz says. "There are two of them that are 60 feet tall by 450 feet long. The truss that spans that 450 feet is 15 feet wide and 35 feet tall. Those are very interesting pieces of equipment."

(Photo by AFP/Newscom)

Raven Rock Mountain Complex

Adams Country, Penn.:

Background: This notoriously cryptic facility is built under Raven Rock mountain near the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland. The site was birthed during the Cold War and goes by many names, including Site R and the underground Pentagon.

How It's Unique: Site R's mission is to facilitate the Continuity of Operations Plan, a blueprint for how the government would reposition itself if a major catastrophe strikes. Should the country find itself in peril, defense communications and planning will allegedly be handled here, but the utility of such a strategy has been hotly debated. Not too far away, in Virginia, is Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center, which is the FEMA-controlled, civilian-centered counterpart to Site R. "Everyone knows it exists, but I would say folks are probably not aware of its complete function," Schulz says.

(Photo byMichael Bryant/Newscom)

Temporary Deployable Accommodations

Iraq and Afghanistan:

Background: Temporary Deployable Accommodations, or TDAs, are the brainchild of global engineering firm KBR. These on-the-fly facilities can be large enough to host 600 troops and take less than a month to set up.

How It's Unique: Each eight-man tent is built from PVC-barrel cover and a composite insulation liner. Air conditioners help U.K. and U.S. forces counter the sweltering heat of the region. Andrew Jeacock, a marketing director for KBR, boasts that the real tech gems of a TDA are its vacuum waste-distribution system and the waste-water treatment plant. The filtration system is so effective, Jeacock says, that it renders waste water nearly potable. For next-generation TDAs, KBR is looking for ways to improve fuel and water efficiency.

(Photo by

Edwards Air Force Base

Edwards, California:

Background: America's first jet, the Bell P-59, made its debut flight on Oct. 1, 1942 at Muroc Dry Lake, now known as Edwards Air Force Base. A mere six years later, at the same site, Chuck Yeager busted through the sound barrier in a Bell X-1, marking the first time an aircraft had traveled faster than the speed of sound. Today, Edwards is home to the Air Force Flight Test Center and NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, both of which are molding the future of aviation.

How It's Unique: Edwards' legacy of speed is due, in part, to the fact that it's built adjacent to Rogers Dry Lake, a large salt flat that can be used as a natural extension to a runway. "The uniqueness comes from just how large it is," Schulz says. "Even when you get to the main gate and show some identification, your drive from there to the airfield is significant." The immediate benefit of the base's size is that it provides plenty of space in case an aircraft (or spacecraft) gets a bit out of control, but Schulz also points out that it helps cut down on noise pollution for nearby civilian populations.

(Photo by DigitalGlobe/Getty)

Lajes Field

Azores, Portugal:

Background: Lajes Field, on the small, Portuguese-owned Terceira Island, is an important refueling station for aircraft that can't clear the Atlantic Ocean in a single shot. In 1953, the U.S. established its first presence on the island when it positioned the 1605th Air Base Wing at Lajes. Today, the 65th Air Base Wing is stationed at the facility, providing support to U.S. Air Forces in Europe and to a variety of allies.

How It's Unique: Lajes Field is on a small chunk of volcanic rock about 1000 miles off the coast of Portugal, a location that can be stressful for first-time navigators. About 11 miles long from north to south, the island is not capable of supporting more than one airport, so the field is split between civilian operations and military operations. "All the military support facilities line one side of the runway, and the passenger terminal, if you will, is very small on the other side," Schulz says.

(Photo by TSGT Fernando Serna)

Nellis Air Force Base

Nellis AFB, Nevada:

Background: Nellis Air Force Base is a revered training facility and the location of the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center. The base has been operational since the 1940s.

How It's Unique: In 2007, officials at Nellis cut the red ribbon for North America's largest solar power plant at the time. More than 6 million solar cells are laced throughout 72,000 panels, feeding the base about 30 million kilowatt-hours of clean energy each year. Upping the eco-ante of the project is the fact that the solar farm is built atop a capped landfill. The Air Force estimated that the array would help it shed 24,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, while saving upward of a million bucks.

Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility

Anniston Army Depot, Alabama:

Background: The U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency's Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility is one of six locations that stores chemical weapons. During the 1960s, 7 percent of U.S. chemical weapons were stashed at Anniston, including stockpiles of VX nerve-agent munitions.

How It's Unique: Operations at Anniston have shifted from storing chemical weapons to safely destroying and disposing of them. Mustard-gas-filled munitions can't just be chucked in the garbage or buried, so the facility is equipped with high-tech robotics that disassemble weapons and powerful incinerators that help destroy certain waste materials. Workers at the site have recently started using a Linear Projectile Mortar Disassembly machine—a six-axis, remote-controlled robot—to extract the explosives from mortars filled with chemical agents.

Defence Training Estate Salisbury Plain

Wiltshire, England:

Background: The now defunct British War Office started snatching up land in this region of southern England back in 1897. Salisbury, location of the contentious Imber Live Firing Range, is still used regularly to put Royal Marines through the wringer.

How It's Unique: Fewer than 10 miles from Salisbury is the wildly famous architectural site Stonehenge. A crew of researchers led by Chris Pearson of the University of Bristol just published the book Militarized Landscapes: From Gettysburg to Salisbury Plain, which examines how the training facility has helped keep the architectural and ecological legacy of Salisbury intact. "Army training leads to pollution, bomb craters and other forms of environmental damage," Pearson said in a recent press statement. "But military ownership of certain sites, such as Salisbury Plain, has kept intensive agriculture as well as tourism and urbanization at bay and encouraged the preservation of ecologically outstanding habitats."

Naval Submarine Base

Kings Bay, Georgia:

Background: Around 1980, the Navy began overhauling Kings Bay to be the East Coast location for Ohio-class nuclear submarines, a project that took nearly a decade and cost $1.3 billion, making it the largest peacetime construction project for the Navy at the time. Spread over 16,000 acres, about a quarter of which is protected wetlands, this submarine base is the habitat of 20 threatened or endangered species.

How It's Unique: When a submarine needs a little TLC, there's not a better place than the Trident Refit Facility at Kings Bay. The 700-foot-long covered drydock, one of the largest in the world, is impressive, but what really stands out is the state of the art Magnetic Silencing Facility. The entrance of the silencing facility is designed as a drive-in, like a Jiffy Lube for Naval vessels. After a sub is in place, it is subjected to a deperming treatment, which basically erases the sub's magnetic signature, allowing it to remain as stealthy as possible during future voyages.

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