January 22, 2016 - The United States today is the world’s dominant air power. It achieved this position of advantage, in part, by developing and acquiring many of the world’s best military aircraft, weapons, sensors and communications systems. In part, too, this is a product of extremely rigorous and realistic training, the development of superior operational concepts and the ability to conduct large-scale and complex exercises.
The development of modern aircraft and air-delivered weapons requires an enormous amount of experimentation and testing at very specialized places. The same is true when it comes to training pilots and aircrews, developing combat tactics and operational concepts, and conducting large-scale exercises. These activities require large amounts of land and overhead airspace free from intrusion. They also require a great deal of technical support, instrumentation, safety systems and high-end communications.
The United States maintains a unique array of ranges, bases and test facilities devoted to the development and maintenance of the world’s best military air capabilities. Largely because they require so much land and airspace, the majority of these facilities are located on federal lands in the Southwest United States. In the words of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, “in the southwestern US all four services have training, test and evaluation ranges that provide a land, airspace, sea area, and offshore supersonic operating domain that could accommodate a major portion of our joint test and evaluation needs.”
One of the most notable of these facilities is California’s China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center. It is one of only three Navy open air test ranges and that service’s premier land range and weapons development laboratory. Situated in the Western Mojave Desert, north of Los Angeles, China Lake encompasses more than 1 million acres, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. It’s more than $3 billion worth of infrastructure and installations include two of the world’s best fully-instrumented ranges, airfields, dozens of high-tech laboratories, mission planning and support centers, fabrication facilities, hangers and offices. At China Lake, the Navy works on advanced capabilities and concepts in such areas as airborne electronic attack, directed energy, materials, explosives and propellants, munitions guidance systems, the suppression of enemy air defenses, robotics, software and even countering improvised explosive devices.
China Lake is close to other important Southwest defense area assets, notably Edwards Air Force Base and the Army’s Fort Irwin. Edwards is a center of excellence for research and development of flight and for the testing and evaluation of aerospace systems. It hosts the Air Force Test Center, the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School and NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. Fort Irwin is home to the National Training Center, the Army’s best and largest training center where brigade combat teams are prepared for deployment overseas and where foreign concepts of operations, tactics and military systems are tested against our own.
These three entities jointly-administer the R-2508 Special Use Airspace Complex. This complex contains Edwards, China Lake and Fort Irwin along with a large amount of intervening land. The R-2508 Complex includes bombing ranges, supersonic corridors, low altitude high speed maneuvering areas, radar intercept zones, and refueling areas. All of these need lots of airspace and several require open lands distant from people and buildings.
As threats to U.S. national security mount and the demands for new platforms and weapons grow, so too does the importance of China Lake, the R-2508 Complex and the entire set of training and test facilities in the Southwest United States. Unfortunately, a number of these facilities are under stress due to encroachment from civilian and commercial activities, federal land management regulations and a lack of adequate resources for infrastructure maintenance and upgrades. In addition, the Navy only has a 25-year lease on China Lake from the Bureau of Land Management which can make it difficult to do long-range planning. Efforts to expand the area covered by China Lake to better match the R-2508 Complex and to make permanent the Navy’s ownership of China Lake have so far been rebuffed.
Without the array of facilities, laboratories, ranges and training bases located in the Southwest United States, the U.S. military will not be able to maintain its dominance of the air domain over the next several decades. There needs to be agreement among stakeholders on the importance of maintaining and even expanding these facilities in order to insure future U.S. national security.