While the presence of Dugway Proving Ground is already visible on the world’s battle fronts as a result of the chemical and biological testing that determines the reliability and survivability of all types of military equipment, it will soon be known for another reason entirely.
Military dignitaries broke ground Wednesday morning on a new Rapid Integration and Acceptance Center to the west of the installation’s Michael Army Airfield. The center will be used for the development and testing of Unmanned Aircraft Systems [UAS], which are sent overseas to provide soldiers with an aerial view — via video feed — of combat situations.
“What is happening here is not the core mission of Dugway,” said Major General Roger Nadeau, commanding general of the U.S. Test and Evaluation Command. “But it very much belongs here.”
Dugway was selected after a yearlong search for a location where the Army could consolidate UAS project efforts going on at various military bases across the country. It was selected as a front-runner because of its large unrestricted airspace, unprecedented 10,000-foot long runway and lack of radio frequency interference that may be present in more populated areas.
“We can accelerate interoperability by having all the equipment and the experts in one place, to test to improve, to deploy,” said Col. Gregory Gonzalez, project manager for the UAS program.
Gonzalez said what’s unique about the program is that new technologies are often determined by the warfighters themselves and not high-ranking military officials.
“Who knows better the tools needed in the theater than the warfighter serving there today,” he said. “If a soldier says ‘Col. Gonzalez, I need to fly more air vehicles at the same time with just one ground system,’ then it becomes my job to figure out how to make that happen. I should tell you that it doesn’t bother me a bit to have those young soldiers tell me what to do. It is my pleasure to take those orders and deliver what they need.”
Not only will the program’s relocation to Dugway benefit soldiers, it will also be an economic boon for the surrounding community, Gonzalez said. “This will bring in up to 250 total contractors and government workers from both the local community and other locations,” he said.
Dugway Commander Col. William King echoed Gonzalez’ view saying more jobs means more money spent locally to boost the economy.
“Having the UAS program come to Dugway is strategically and economically smart,” he said. “The local economy benefits with the influx of UAS employees who live and spend their paychecks in the region, and the hiring of additional local contractors to support the programs. This is a win-win for all.”
The first drone to relocate to Dugway was the Shadow, which made the transition in June. Gonzalez said other drones will arrive in December or by late spring 2010.
Aircraft tested at the new center will range from those with 55-foot wingspans that can operate as high as 25,000 feet, fly all day, and weigh 2,350 pounds down to the Raven, which has a wingspan of 4.6 feet, can reach 4,000 feet and weighs a mere 4.2 pounds. These varying characteristics allow for the different needs of soldiers to be met, whether flying into uncharted territory or marching in with 100 pounds of gear on their backs.
Smaller drones are launched with only the fling of a human arm, while heavier and bigger craft are sent airborne via a sling shot-type launching device. Smaller drones aren’t equipped with typical landing gear and instead break apart when making contact with the ground, but are easily reassembled in a minute or less. After launch the drones are piloted remotely with hand-held video gear. “Any time you can do anything unmanned we protect our special resources,” said Brigadier General William Crosby, UAS program executive officer. “Those resources are our soldiers.”
Crosby said Dugway’s location along the original Pony Express trail makes for an interesting comparison between times when riders wrote history as they blazed new transcontinental roads and the new technologies being developed today.
“In the same pioneering spirit those passionate and dedicated riders served their country, we serve our country and our warfighter today,” Crosby said. “The RIAC will allow us to serve our soldiers faster and that’s what they deserve.”
While there’s no absolute time period for how long testing and development of military drones will take place at Dugway, Crosby said it is likely to maintain a local presence for years to come.
“This is not a drive-by fielding,” Crosby said. “When we made this decision we knew it would be long term.”
On hand to take part in the ground-breaking ceremony, Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell said he was proud to be present in the west desert when Dugway was putting Utah on the map.
“It’s quite touching and overwhelming that we are going to these ends to protect our [soldiers],” he said. “It is a brave new world out there with lots of risks. We have to be out there and we have to be quick. Thanks for cutting the red tape and making this happen.”