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By Thomas McMahon
Naval Surface Warfare Center Port Hueneme
First in a three-part series
The White Sands Detachment of Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division (NSWC PHD) is branching out — far beyond the desert of New Mexico.
From linking up with ranges in other states for long-distance missile tests to launching sounding rockets for allies overseas, the Navy team based at White Sands Missile Range has been broadening its reach around the globe in recent years.
Thanks to their expertise in testing naval weapons, building targets that mimic real-world threats and launching rockets for scientific research, White Sands personnel often work in far-flung locales — the rugged Hebrides archipelago in Scotland, the deep blue waters off the western coast of Kauai, and a French military site on the Bay of Biscay, to name a few.
Even with the uptick in remote work, White Sands Detachment maintains a busy slate of high-flying activities at its home on the range in southern New Mexico. The detachment’s headquarters sits at the foot of the Organ Mountains — whose soaring spires resemble the pipes of a cathedral organ.
Officer in Charge Cmdr. Adrian Laney said that the workforce of more than 100 civilians, two dozen sailors and 50 seated contractors brings a unique set of skills that tie in neatly with NSWC PHD’s mission to deliver capability to the warfighter.
“We have world-class experts in live-fire Test and Evaluation (T&E), logistics, rocket science and contracting, just to name a few,” Laney said.
White Sands Missile Range covers a vast expanse of high desert terrain — including the brilliant white dunes that inspired its name.
By leveraging its rocket work with NASA, the White Sands team is making connections in the local community to spur students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math careers. The goal is to build a pipeline of future rocket scientists, engineers and other personnel that will be critical for the detachment to keep supporting the future needs of the Navy.
“We’re trying to light that spark in the younger generations,” said Abie Parra, department manager and site director of White Sands Detachment, and a New Mexico native.
With no shortage of open-ocean testing areas at the Navy’s disposal — such as the Point Mugu Sea Range in NSWC PHD’s backyard and the Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands in Kauai — White Sands Detachment often addresses a common question about its landlocked location.
“Does anyone wonder how the Navy came to be flying rockets in the middle of the desert?” Laney asked a group of NSWC PHD leaders from Port Hueneme during a recent visit.
The answer to that question hearkens back to the aftermath of World War II, when the U.S. brought hundreds of rail car loads of German rocket components — and a renowned German rocket scientist — to White Sands.
Deploying the ‘Desert Navy’
For years, NSWC PHD’s White Sands Detachment has been testing generations of firepower for the fleet — from early guided missiles to lasers to hypersonic weapons — in the clear skies above the high desert range.
“It’s rare to see a weapon that the Navy has developed that hasn’t come through here,” said John Winstead, a technical adviser who has worked at White Sands for more than 40 years.
The detachment’s roots reach back to when the Navy stood up a presence at White Sands in 1946, shortly after the Army established the range as White Sands Proving Ground.
At the end of World War II, the U.S. captured a trove of German V-2 rockets — the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missiles — and eventually brought them by train and truck to White Sands to study and test them. The Navy joined the Army in that effort.
German V-2 architect Wernher von Braun, who had surrendered to the Americans in Austria, and a group of his fellow scientists helped assemble and launch the imported rockets at White Sands. Von Braun went on to become a leading figure in the U.S. space program.
The V-2 program paved the way for the Redstone rocket that launched the first American astronauts into space, and it led to White Sands Detachment’s ongoing work on sounding rockets with NASA.
Along with that storied history, the geography of White Sands helps explain why the Navy maintains an outpost in the desert.
Wide open space is one of White Sands’ most prominent features. The range spans about 3,200 square miles — more than twice the size of Rhode Island. Extending from the ground to space, the Department of Defense-restricted airspace is the largest in the country.
One benefit of testing over land at White Sands, rather than over the ocean, is the ability to retrieve missile and rocket parts after they descend into the desert, which allows for forensic analysis that aids in research and development (R&D).
“We don’t have to go swimming to recover the hardware,” Parra said.
Instrumentation is another key selling point of White Sands. The range is flanked by mountains, some of which serve as prominent posts for the range’s radars and other telemetry instruments.
“The range’s radars, telemetry receivers and optical equipment provide data to programs throughout flight at a lower cost than at sea,” Laney said.
In this ideal environment, the “Desert Navy” — as a sign in front of its headquarters says — operated as its own command for about half a century before becoming a detachment of NSWC PHD in 2001.
Winstead, who started in the engineering department in 1980 and eventually took on the role of site director, said the shared T&E mission was the primary factor for the Navy to connect NSWC PHD with White Sands Detachment. The difference, he said, is that White Sands Detachment typically tests new systems earlier in the development process.
“PHD works more with what’s on ships as a system,” Winstead said. “We work more with what’s coming.”
In other words, before naval weapons go to ships at sea, they go to a vessel in the desert — the aptly named USS Desert Ship.
A ship in the middle of the desert might seem like a mirage. Not so at White Sands Missile Range, where one of the Navy’s rare landlocked ships (LLS) looms over the dry landscape.
White Sands Detachment operates USS Desert Ship — designated LLS 1 — a concrete blockhouse designed to simulate shipboard conditions.
The Navy built the facility in the early 1950s, originally to test the Talos missile. Since then, Desert Ship has served as the fire control center for testing numerous missiles.
Desert Ship shoots off missiles from a Mark 41 Vertical Launching System (VLS) module. The team also works with other types of launchers, such as Rolling Airframe Missile systems and other VLS variants.
A recent trend for Desert Ship is conducting what Parra calls “capability exploration testing.”
“It’s about what we can do with existing programs to stretch the limits of what they’re capable of doing by design, not necessarily by requirements,” Parra said.
Desert Ship is one branch of White Sands Detachment’s surface weapons division, working primarily with Standard Missiles. The other branch, special projects, takes on “whatever’s not Standard Missile,” said Lynn Erwin, surface weapons division manager.
The special projects team often travels to remote locales to take part in military exercises, such as Valiant Shield in Guam and Northern Edge in Alaska.
The division’s expeditionary capability enables it to “pack up all our toys and take them somewhere to support the mission,” Erwin said. For instance, the team once transported its VLS module by truck and barge to San Nicolas Island, which is part of Naval Base Ventura County in California.
Erwin said that both of his branches take pride in their work supporting the fleet and the security of the country.
“We’re the first to shoot,” Erwin said. “We’re the first to test what hopefully will end up in the fleet, which benefits the sailors and Marines on ships.”
White Sands Detachment has long been at the forefront of R&D for new weapon technology. One recent example is a rail gun, which uses electromagnetic force to fire a projectile at hypersonic speeds. In February 2022, White Sands Detachment executed a rail gun shot that Parra said was the longest ever.
Sharpening the spear
The Missile Assembly Facility, built in 1991, looks like a run-of-the-mill warehouse from the outside. But a sign at the entrance that reads “Keeping the tip of the spear sharp” hints at the nature of the work within its walls.
Demand for the Missile Assembly Facility’s services is sporadic, Parra said. To bring in a steadier stream of work for the facility, White Sands Detachment is targeting Standard Missile recertification capability. That would involve retesting and maintaining SM-3 and SM-6 production rounds whose initial certification has expired.
“It’s a sustainability priority for the detachment to put recurring, relevant work into the Missile Assembly Facility,” Parra said.
Part 2 of this series focuses on White Sands Detachment’s work with sounding rockets and how it launched a new line of effort to support the fleet — building targets to test naval weapons against real-world threats.