The Origins of SecureMax
Posted on Sept. 15, 2021 by Jim
Last year I published a new four-book series titled The Blacksword Regiment. In the second book, one of the main characters visits an ultra-secure prison facility located on a remote military base. I named the prison SecureMax and I’ve had a few readers ask where I got the idea for that facility. The short answer is Kirtland Air Force Base located outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. But that answer is certainly incomplete, and by no means tells the entire story.
In the 1980’s I worked for a company that did a lot of government contract work, and for several years I was involved in designing experiments for the Airborne Laser Laboratory; ALL for short. The ALL was a testbed for examining the aero-optical effects of firing a laser weapon from an aircraft in flight. It was operated by the Air Force Weapons Laboratory—AFWL, pronounced “Affwul” by those in the know—located at Kirtland. The ALL was basically a weapons-grade laser housed in a KC-135, which is the military transport version of the old Boeing 707. As you can see in this photograph, the modifications to the basic KC-135 structure were extensive. They included a Pointing and Tracking Turret that screwed up the aerodynamics of the aircraft so badly they added a large faring behind it in an effort to mitigate the difficulties it caused.
To put that into perspective, the turret had a diameter of about 10 feet, and included a 1-meter output aperture for the laser. And to provide energy for the laser, it burned highly explosive rocket fuel in a 2-dimensional rocket nozzle. That fuel was stored in heavy, large, stainless-steel pressure vessels with extremely thick walls. Given the enormous weight of the equipment and screwed-up aerodynamics of the aircraft, there were only two runways in the world from which the ALL could safely take off: the Rogers Dry Lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and Kirtland. Rogers worked because they could bull-doze and grade a runway several miles long, giving the ALL plenty of time to build up enough speed to get airborne. Kirtland worked because the pilots used ground-effect aerodynamics to get the aircraft airborne before it had enough velocity to sustain flight, which meant that shortly after it cleared the end of the runway, it started to drop. But at that point the landscape, and the plane, descended into the Rio Grande River Valley. With the aircraft’s engines firewalled, the pilots used that descent to build up speed before they crashed in the river, then they slowly climbed up out of the valley. It was a rather gut-wrenching way to get airborne.
I should also mention that the rocket fuel they used for the laser is a class of fuels that rocket designers are not allowed to use. It’s so dangerous that when ignited, it tends to simply explode, disintegrating the launch pad, launch gantry, payload vehicle—probably with a bunch of terribly expensive satellites—and of course the crew. In fact, the first time they fired up the ALL laser, they did so remotely with no crew on board, and with the aircraft sitting at a very isolated location in Kirtland. And the first time it was fired up with a crew on board, they tested it while sitting on the ground at that remote location, and afterward every member of that crew was awarded the Air Medal just for parking his butt in the airplane.
So how does Kirtland connect to SecureMax in my story? Here’s an excerpt from A Dirge for the Damned, book 2 of The Blacksword Regiment. In it, one of the main characters, a young female officer in the Kelk Supremacy named Nikaela Vreekande, is travelling with her superior, Brigadier Skalde Kristdokar, to Erikdeg Military Base, and she doesn’t know the reason for the trip. Note that in the Kelk Supremacy skalde is a flag rank equivalent to general or admiral.
The pilot of their aircraft began its descent shortly after sunup. On Nikaela’s previous trip to Erikdeg, her view had been confined to the interior ribs and struts of a military transport. But now, sitting at a window, as they approached the base, she watched a barren landscape of empty prairie slide past beneath her. In Nikaela’s experience, one or more nearby towns or communities supported even the most remote of bases, but not Erikdeg. It stood stark and alone in the middle of a vast plain, surrounded by a plast wall studded with guard towers and automated gun emplacements.
Their transport settled down on the runway at Erikdeg, then taxied slowly across the airfield. Nikaela hoped the skalde would now enlighten her further as to the purpose of their trip, but Kristdokar remained stonily silent. The aircraft came to a stop inside a hangar at the far end of the field, where to one side a black grav car waited for them.
As they stepped off the transport the car’s driver emerged from the sedan, stepped around to one of the car’s rear doors, opened it, and stood holding it for them. He said nothing as Nikaela and the skalde settled into the rear seat of the sedan. He closed the door, walked around the front of the car, and slipped into the driver’s seat. Then he looked over his shoulder at Kristdokar. “Mistress, SecureMax, right?”
Nikaela thought she did a very good job of hiding her reaction.
“Yes,” Kristdokar said, “SecureMax.”
Like everyone else, Nikaela had heard of SecureMax: the military prison where the Larscom confined only the most treasonous and despised offenders. But like most, Nikaela had always believed such stories were simply legend and myth. And now it appeared she was about to learn the truth of the matter first hand.
The driver guided the sedan out of the hangar, then down a long access road running parallel to the main runway. He seemed to be heading to an end of the field with no structures or facilities, just an unobscured view of prairie in the distance. He drove past the end of the runway, then turned down a single-lane road that snaked toward the horizon. They never passed through a gate to exit the perimeter of the military base, but after twenty minutes of driving, Nikaela could no longer see any sign of it.
A few minutes later a separate facility with a cluster of square, boxy buildings appeared on the horizon. It had its own perimeter of guard stations and automated gun emplacements, but all aimed inward.
The driver stopped the sedan just outside a security gate manned by guards in full combat armor, which was unheard of for a simple gate guard. The driver turned his head about to look over his shoulder. “I’m sorry, mistress, but I can go no further.”
In the story SecureMax is the place where they lock up a prisoner and throw away the key. Nikaela and the skalde visit a prisoner there and try to recruit him as a double agent.
To my knowledge, there is no prison facility on Kirtland Air Force Base, let alone one like SecureMax. But the base is enormous, occupying about 40 square miles of the high New Mexico desert just outside Albuquerque. Because of the dangers presented by the weapons-grade laser on the ALL, the aircraft was housed and maintained at a separate hanger far from anything else on the base. It was not completely out of sight of the main facilities, but far enough away that no one needed to concern themselves with the danger of pieces of exploding airplane rocketing their way. But the base is large enough that you can drive to locations where nothing is visible but empty prairie, though one is not allowed to simply do that on a whim—that’s a good way to lose base privileges. And that was my inspiration for Erikdeg Base in the book.
Kirtland’s history is rather interesting. Originally established as a U.S. Army airfield in 1941, it trained pilots for World War II. But much of that changed in 1944 because Kirtland was the closest major airport and military base to Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, which was the heart of the Manhattan Project, and the top-secret location responsible for design of the first atomic bombs. Since then, Kirtland has played a major role in our nuclear arsenal. One of Kirtland’s long-standing responsibilities has been flight testing atomic weapons.
I haven’t been on the base for about twenty years, and the whole ALL program has long since been shut down. But in the 1980’s there was a two-lane paved road that led from the main Kirtland facilities to the remote ALL hangar. Not far from the hangar the paved road intersected a gravel-strewn dirt road. At that point there were railroad-like barriers that could be lowered to stop traffic on the paved road from crossing the dirt road, though it was remote enough that I don’t ever recall actually encountering another vehicle on that road. Interestingly enough, while there were railroad barriers present, there were no railroad tracks, just that dirt road, but we all knew what that road was for.
During newbie orientation to Kirtland, we were all warned that if those barriers blocked the road, you should not even consider going around them, even though, like most railroad barriers, they didn’t completely block the road, and one could easily get around them if one wanted to. We were warned that the penalty for that could be swift and immediate execution. If you saw a truck on that dirt road accompanied by a couple of jeeps with armed guards, if those barriers were down, the weapons the guards carried were locked and loaded, and the guards had orders to shoot on-sight if anyone trespassed on the dirt road. I never heard any official word on what the truck contained, but it was common knowledge that that dirt road was used for only one purpose: to transport nuclear weapons from storage to the airfield—the air force guys we worked with confirmed that on the quiet. Lesson #1: when the nukes are out and about, duck and run for cover.
I suspect those trucks didn’t carry actual nuclear warheads with fissionable material, though for all I know they may have. I don’t believe Kirtland has ever been a Strategic Air Command Base in the cold-war sense of fielding actual nuclear warheads. It is home to the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center, which is “. . . responsible for testing, under operationally realistic conditions, new systems being developed for Air Force and multi-service use.” Now regardless of whether a device is conventional or nuclear, one thing bomb makers must do is make sure that when a plane drops a bomb, it actually drops, as opposed to being swept up by the aerodynamic forces surrounding the aircraft and then slammed back into the plane itself. They have to test for a lot of other things beyond just that, but that can cause unpleasant ramifications for the crew of the plane. So I wouldn’t be surprised if, more often than not, the devices on that truck were dummies intended to test the release aerodynamics. Or perhaps they needed to test fuses, timing mechanisms, and other “. . . non-nuclear components associated with nuclear bombs.” But all of that would still be ultra-top secret.
So there you have it. When I wanted to come up with a remote military base to house SecureMax, Kirtland immediately came to mind. Since it’s next door to Albuquerque it isn’t as remote as Erikdeg, but if you approach it in an airplane from the south, it looks quite desolate and remote. On the other hand, the very existence of SecureMax is top secret, so if it actually existed there, I wouldn’t know it.