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Desert Rope Lassos Missile Test Savings

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M., May 30, 1997 – It flies through the air, with the greatest of ease; a rope it slides on, not a trapeze.

The National Range Directorate here conducts more than three "rings" of activities, and it's certainly no circus. But anyone visiting this vast stretch of the Chihuahan Desert can find eye-catching activities unfolding in every direction.

One such site is the aerial cable range, operated by Lockheed for the range's development subdirectorate. The range tests warning systems that alert military pilots to inbound enemy missiles. It consists of a synthetic cable three miles long, 2.5 inches thick, stretched between two mountain peaks; test platforms and targets that move along the cable; a control system to put the target in the right place at the right time; and a computer to collect and analyze data. Controllers can present moving or static targets.

"The major advantages of this system are that it provides low-cost testing, precise data and quick turnaround times between tests," facility manager George Huffman said. The alternative, he said, is overwater testing with drones. "But drones can test only one system, one time, and that's expensive, whereas we can conduct 200 to 300 tests a year and use the target platform over and over again, at a cost of about $11,000 per day."

Lockheed spent $30 million to build the range, first used in 1994. Huffman said it saves DoD $80 million to $90 million a year over more expensive testing methods.

Aerial cable targets typically are no-longer-used Apache and other model helicopters the range receives for the cost of shipping from the aerospace vehicle excess storage area at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. Weapons testers place experimental warning systems on the helicopter body, which are wired to computers in a carrier that attaches the helicopter to the aerial cable.

Once all the experiments are on board the target platform, operators activate the cable system, which works like a ski lift, slowly moving the platform up toward 8,460-foot Jin Peak. Fixed and mobile instruments prepare to capture data from the target from positions on the mountainside, in the valley and aboard the target. Testers can fire missiles from any of 10 sites a kilometer apart, stretching down the length of the mountain valley.

When everyone is ready, operators in the range control center send a signal to the cable-borne computer to launch the target and to missile launchers to fire away. Moving at speeds up to 250 knots, the cable propels the target forward until it reaches the predetermined juncture between target and missile. The missile impacts -- and target debris drops to the desert floor. Within 30 minutes, crews recover the debris, keeping the fragile desert environment clean, while already the computers churn out data, and the cable is ready for the next experiments.

"Everything about this system is extremely simple," site manager Howard Waldie said. "It allows us to easily integrate projects, and tests can be accurately and easily repeated as often as necessary."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSuspended from a three-mile-long, 2.5-inch thick Kevlar cable, a target platform laden with military missile warning system experiments sits above a White Sands Missile Range, N.M., valley. Lockheed Corp. operates the aerial cable range, testing DoD and other federal and private experiments.  
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