It began with a test of the world’s first atomic bomb in 1945. After 76 years and more than 42,000 rocket and missile tests, however, White Sands Missile Range continues as the premier military test range in America, earning its title as “Birthplace of America’s Missile and Space Activity.”
Comprised of 3,200 squares miles (roughly the size of Rhode Island and Delaware) White Sands Missile Range supports the Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as commercial and international users on a reimbursable basis while conducting more than 3,000 tests annually.
The mission at White Sands Missile Range begins with a customer, a service developer, a foreign ally or another federal agency ready to find out if their engineers and scientists have built something that will perform according to job specifications. It ends when an exhaustive series of test have been completed and a data report has been delivered to the customer.
What testing capabilities are offered at White Sands Missile Range? We shake, rattle and roll a product, roast it, freeze it, subject it to nuclear radiation, dip it in salt water or roll it in the mud. We test its pain, bend its frame and can even gauge the effect its propulsion material has on flora and fauna. In the end, if it’s a missile, we fire it, record its performance and bring back the pieces for postmortem examination. All test data is reduced and the customer receives a full report.
“No place on Earth can conduct vital, complex testing like White Sands Missile Range,” said Commander Brig. Gen. Dave Trybula. “We expect and demand excellence from ourselves because lives on the battlefield depend on us to ensure they are equipped with test-proven materiel and weaponry.”
Army Modernization Priorities
White Sands Missile Range is a Major Range and Test Facility Base that falls under Army Test and Evaluation Command, and directly supports Army Futures Command. As such, we are in lockstep with the Army’s six modernization priorities:
- Hypersonic/Long Range Systems
- Directed Energy
- Swarming Autonomous/Unmanned Systems
- Integrated Air and Missile Defense
- Space Test Support and Satellite Environmental Testing
- Nuclear Weapons Effects Testing.
Hypersonic/Long Range Systems
Hypersonic/Long Range Systems is a collaborative effort between the Army and its Sister Services to deliver precision-strike dominance on land, sea, in the air and beyond ranging from hypersonic missiles with a range of more than 1,000 miles, to an upgraded long-barrel howitzer.
White Sands Missile Range is helping this leap-ahead technology as it transitions from the science and technology community and into the hands of operators by providing the capability to test, track, and analyze its awesome range and speed. White Sands Missile Range is the largest fully instrumented, open-air test range in the Department of Defense, providing test support to our sister services, allies, coalition partners, and defense technology innovators. Altogether, we constitute 17 percent of all U.S. Army land. All of the following Army installations combined would fit inside the boundaries of White Sands Missile Range: Fort Benning, Fort Bragg, Fort Campbell, Fort Hood, Fort Irwin, Fort Knox, Fort Polk, Fort Sill and Fort Stewart.
WSMR encompasses 3,421 square miles (roughly the size of Rhode Island) of Department of Defense-restricted airspace that it controls 24 hours a day from zero to infinity (ground to space), and can be expanded up to 7,569 contiguous square miles, making it the largest restricted DoD airspace in the country. If a test requires it, we can temporarily grow bigger with launch sites extended to 250 miles away at Fort Wingate, N.M., 435 miles away at Green River, Utah, and as far as 750 miles away at Shoofly, Idaho. The Army recently (December 2020) tested its Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) when it was launched more than 150 miles away from Fort Wingate and successfully hit the target here at White Sands Missile Range.
One might ask isn’t it simpler and perhaps safer to conduct such tests over the ocean? The simple answer is yes, but the advantage is realized when you think about the value gained by being able to assess terminal effects of the missile. WSMR testers are able to conduct a detailed forensic analysis by gathering the missile parts strewn across the desert, which provides valuable information for further research and development.
Integrated Air and Missile Defense
Another key modernization priority underway at White Sands Missile Range is an ongoing effort to help pave the way for a future Integrated Air and Missile Defense system that broadens and enhances the playing field.
The 3rd Battalion, 6th Air Defense Artillery Regiment’s Air and Missile Defense Test Detachment is permanently assigned to White Sands Missile Range to help test and field the future of air and missile defense systems: Integrated Air and Missile Defense.
Instead of selecting from among separate anti-air and missile defense systems such as the Patriot or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, successful testing at White Sands Missile Range is helping to give the battlefield commander simultaneous and instant access to a myriad of anti-air and missile defense systems and their radar sensors all linked together, or, to put it simply, “Any sensor, right shooter.”
Under the umbrella of Air and Missile Defense, in August 2020, an Army test successfully engaged multiple targets during an Army Integrated Air Missile Defense Limited User Test against an aerial threat here at White Sands Missile Range.
As with most major military technological changes and developments, it takes a small army of engineers and subject matter experts tasked with taking a project like this from the drawing board to the battlefield. The Soldiers assigned to the 3-6 are supported by a WSMR workforce of more than 6,500 highly skilled Soldiers, civilian, and contractor employees, who commute from a variety of surrounding locations to include El Paso, Texas, and the cities of Las Cruces and Alamogordo in New Mexico.
This home-grown core of workers is further enhanced by strong ties with local colleges such as the University of Texas at El Paso, New Mexico State University, the University of New Mexico and New Mexico Tech, making highly educated employees available for internship programs and full-time employment that is usually measured in decades of dedicated service, not years.
Under the umbrella of the Integrated Air and Missile Defense is development of Directed Energy Weapons, both in the form of high energy lasers and high powered microwaves.
A Directed Energy Weapon damages its target with highly focused energy at the speed of light, while reducing the logistics trail associated with conventional kinetic weapon systems. Potential applications of this technology include weapons that target personnel, missiles, vehicles and optical devices.
Leading the effort to test this emerging technology at White Sands Missile Range is the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility that has already proven its effectiveness with tests such as the use of a high-powered microwave and laser system to successfully engage and defeat a variety of real-world threats. White Sands Missile Range will continue its lead in testing Directed Energy Weapons to counter rapidly emerging foreign threats such as cruise missiles, counter-directed energy and unmanned aerial system swarms.
To better grasp the potential of emerging threats such as unmanned aerial system swarms, think back to the opening ceremony of the 2018 Olympic Games in South Korea when 1,218 pre-programmed drones illuminated the nighttime sky as they moved in sync above 35,000 spectators to portray a snowboarder in motion and a dove in flight. Now imagine if each such drone were equipped with a small weapon and you can easily understand the importance of countering such threats.
After 75 years and more than 42,000 rocket and missile tests, White Sands Missile Range continues as the premier military test range in America, earning its title as “Birthplace of America’s Missile and Space Activity.”
The origin of much of that history can be traced to the arrival of 300 rail cars filled with components of German V-2 rockets shipped in August 1945, to what was then White Sands Proving Ground at the close of World War II. They were quickly put to working aiming for the stars. The first photographs and film showing the earth’s curvature from space were taken from a V-2 rocket on Oct. 24, 1946.
It was that same year that the Navy joined the White Sands Missile Range test community to participate in research and testing of the V-2 rockets. Today, the mission of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division, White Sands Detachment, includes land-based live fire testing of naval weapon systems, missiles, guided munitions and lasers, missile and rocket assembly, research rocket launch operations and assemblies, and launch of ballistic missile target vehicles. Some of that testing takes place aboard the LLS-1 Desert Ship, Missile Assembly Facility.
On Feb. 24, 1949, a V-2 helped launch the first manmade object in space (a WAC corporal) and recorded the fastest speed of a manmade object at 5,150 miles per hour. In other tests, devices were attached to V-2 rockets to sample air at all levels to determine atmospheric pressures and what gases were present, while other instruments were used to measure levels of cosmic radiation. What seems like common knowledge now was still an unknown at the time and had to be tested in order to find the answer.
In addition to early rocket research, White Sands Missile Range was integral to the testing of the Apollo missions, and hosted the landing of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1982 at the White Sands Space Harbor.
And today, White Sands Missile Range supports NASA’s Commercial Crew Program that works with American aerospace companies to develop and operate a new generation of spacecraft and launch systems capable of carrying crews to low-Earth orbit and to the International Space Station. Commercial transportation to and from the station will provide expanded utility, additional research time, and broader opportunities for discovery on the orbiting laboratory. Testing for one of those aerospace companies at White Sands Missile Range includes the Boeing CST-100 Starliner.
Most recently, an unmanned Starliner parachuted safely at White Sands Space Harbor on Dec. 22, 2019, after an attempted flight to the International Space Station, marking the first time an American-made capsule touched down on land vs water. During its return from space, two drogue parachutes and three main canopy chutes opened from the Starliner to slow the descent of the spacecraft, followed by six landing airbags that cushioned the impact. NASA is planning a future manned mission that will also involve White Sands Missile Range.
The tie to space at White Sands Missile Range is firmly entrenched with long-standing NASA tenant organizations, and now an element of the U.S. Space Force.
Perhaps a little more down to Earth, but also aiming high is the Sounding Rocket Program launched the past 60 years from the Navy’s Research Rockets Launch Complex 36. This program, consisting of a historic hardened control blockhouse and launch pads located near the similar V-2 complex, provides critical scientific, technical, and educational contributions to universities and the nation's space program.
Sounding rockets carry scientific instruments into the lower atmosphere for brief (typically 5-20 minutes) periods at low speeds, which can be ideal for experiments at important regions of space that are too tow to be sampled by satellites
Because the science payload does not go into orbit, sounding rocket missions do not need expensive boosters or extended telemetry and tracking coverage. As a result, mission costs are substantially less than those required for orbiter missions because the Sounding Rocket Program takes advantage of a high degree of commonality of rockets and payloads flown repeatedly.
The Sounding Rocket Program continues to serve as a low-cost testbed for new scientific techniques, scientific instrumentation, and spacecraft technology eventually flown on numerous satellite missions. For example, COBE, CGRO, EVUE, FAST, ASTRO-2, UARS, SOHO, TRACE, and numerous other recent NASA satellite missions have been enabled by technology and techniques developed in this suborbital program. Furthermore, the low cost of sounding rocket access to space fosters innovation. Instruments and/or technologies which are not sufficiently developed to warrant the investment of satellite-program scale funding are often "proto-typed" with initial space testing on sounding rockets.
Nuclear TRIAD Recapitalization
Also vital to our national security is the deterrence provided by America's nuclear triad — nuclear capability delivered by submarines, ground and aircraft.
At White Sands Missile Range, we have numerous specialized labs and facilities that allow us to create nuclear and electromagnetic environments for nuclear-related testing.
Those capabilities include a Fast Burst Reactor that produces high-yield pulses of microsecond width, as well as long-term, steady state radiation, to closely simulate the neutron radiation environment produced by a fission weapon.
We are also able to simulate the effects of a blast from a nuclear explosion at our Large Blast Thermal Simulator that is used to evaluate the survivability and vulnerability of items to a simulated nuclear or conventional detonation.
Can a new or modified weapon survive the radiation, blast or heat from a nuclear blast? At White Sands Missile Range, we will test it in realistic conditions and give you the answer and the data to back it up.