report by: Danny Bonny
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Yuma Test Branch, near the present site of U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in 1943. It sits beneath the Laguna Dam on the Colorado River in south western Arizona and is one of the largest military installation in the world. Encompassing over 3,387 km2 in in the north western Sonoran Desert, the facility covers huge areas of both south western La Paz County and western Yuma County and is approximately 48km north-east of the city of Yuma. At the same time as the Test Branch was being set up, Camp Laguna was established a few miles to the west to train troops in mechanized warfare. After the war, the Yuma Test Branch remained in operation, but testing activities were turned toward the effect of the desert environment on pieces of engineering equipment, such as high-speed tractors. In 1950, the test branch closed, only to reopen one year later with a new name, Yuma Test Station, and with that, a greatly expanded mission. This new mission saw the station greatly expand the testing workload far beyond its river and desert environmental roots.
With the reorganization of the Army, the site was reassigned in 1962 to US Army Material Command. With this reassignment, it was then renamed Yuma Proving Ground (YPG). In that same year, the aircraft armament testing mission was permanently relocated from Aberdeen Proving Ground to Yuma Proving Ground. In 1971, the most highly instrumented helicopter armament test range in the United States was constructed at the Proving Ground and this has continuously been upgraded over the years. Known as the Cibola Range, it is uniquely suited to the support testing of aviation systems and munitions, armed helicopters, air delivery systems, and precision navigation systems. The Cibola Range measures 18 miles wide and 40 miles long. In 1974 YPG received the designation – Department of Defense Major Range and Test Facility Base.
The Proving Ground, in all its various guises is currently used for testing military equipment from each of the branch services in the United States Army. Within the complex today is a 42 mile artillery range and a 200 mile vehicle test facility. Testing has taken place on nearly every weapon system in the ground combat arsenal with the YPG test branch conducting on average six to eight test firings per week. Such tests like these are conducted on the latest versions of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles such as the MaxxPro Ambulance In addition, helicopter weapon systems have improved with the construction of the most highly sophisticated helicopter armament test range for airborne weaponry. One such example of the artillery range use is the culmination of the two-month Low Altitude Air Defence (LAAD) training course. The finale of this course comprises the live firing of Stinger missiles at remote controlled unmanned aircraft. YPG also houses the most modern mine and demolition test facility in the western hemisphere and using a series of constructed urban villages, the facility has been able to transform desert training, recreating the most up to date modern warfare scenarios.
Prior to the first Persian Gulf War in the 1990’s, all the primary ground weapon systems deployed to the area underwent exhaustive tests at the proving ground. The campaign’s lightning victory was partly due to the extensive testing that took place at Yuma Proving Ground. The technology at the base includes state-of-the-art fibre optics systems. The base features cargo as well as personnel parachutes. These are incorporated with guided system technologies. The site’s Laguna Army airfield has two runways, the 6,118ft-long 18/36 and the 6,000ft-long 6/24. In addition, there are multiple airstrips and 12 drop zones located at the base for unmanned aerial systems. Other proud boasts for YPG include that on average, 36,000 parachute drops take place out of the Laguna Airfield complex; these can be conducted from the various rotary or fixed wing aircraft. It is also Yuma County’s largest employer with 3000 civilians employed within the base.
Supporting this test facility is the YPG aviation branch. In the last two years Laguna Airfield has seen a dramatic change in the based fleet of aircraft operated here. The mainstay of the fleet up to 2015 had been the venerable UH-1H ‘Huey’ helicopter along with the Spanish assembled CASA 212 (known as the C-41A in US Army service). Parachute training and testing is prevalent at YPG and various C-130 Hercules aircraft can regularly be seen operating from here. In the past this role would have been assisted by the Shorts C-23 Sherpa but this aircraft type was recently phased out from US Army service with the aircraft either being sold, ferried to the storage facility at Davis-Monthan AFB located 350km east within the State or transferred to other Federal authorities such as NASA, the United States Forestry Service and the Federal Marshall Service.
With the demise of the C-23 and the due departure of the CASA 212, the US Army is moving to a recently acquired new aircraft in its inventory. Although stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the C-27J Spartan operated by the US Army’s Special Operations Command, can now regularly be seen at Laguna AAF and brings a new modern aspect to training platforms available at YPG. Over the next 12 months these aircraft will eventually replace the CASA 212’s which are now over 25 years old. August 2015 saw the first of four UH-60A Blackhawk helicopters to arrive in what was the start of the replacement program of the UH-1H at YPG. The Huey had performed its mission for the United States Army for nearly 50 years but remained a simple analogue equipped aircraft. The UH-60A has more modern digital control systems many ‘glass-cockpit’ features. The Blackhawk has a maximum load weight of 22,000 pounds compared with the Huey’s 9,500 pound limit and one of the main advantages of the Blackhawk over the Huey is the ability of automated flight control, in that it will hold its altitude, requiring only adjustments in direction of travel. On the plus side, the Blackhawk carries more, flies faster and has a greater endurance allowing more efficient testing on station although the down side is it uses more fuel and with its twin engines and multiple software systems takes longer to start and launch for each mission.
With the removal of the UH-1H from US Army service and termination of its maintenance supply chain, the Proving Ground may have lost a venerable workhorse that was efficient and easy to service but it has gained a more powerful tool for today’s modern warfare scenarios. GlobalAirPower would like to thank all the following personnel : Charles C Wullenjohn & Mark Schauer of the Yuma Proving Ground Public Affairs & Media Office