On the ocean's edge at Point Mugu, a giant metal door slowly rolled open in a secret laboratory where the Navy tests its most advanced warplanes.
As heavy surf pounded a seawall four stories below, a test model of an F-14 Tomcat poked its nose out and began scanning the horizon for a target.
Behind the Tomcat, in a room with metal walls and roof to block electronic eavesdropping from Soviet spy ships, a high-level team of Pentagon observers watched as $20 million worth of computers went quietly to work.
On this Friday morning, the Navy was beginning one of the thousands of tests it conducts each year at Point Mugu on the missiles, planes and Space Age laser weapons providing its current and future air-strike capability.
There was a high-tech glamour to the morning's test. But on other projects of equal sensitivity at the Pacific Missile Test Center, there were contrasting scenes of nuts-and-bolts practicality.
Sgt. York Tanks
Elsewhere at the test center, Navy engineers were working on projects involving discarded $32-million Sgt. York anti-aircraft weapons picked up at Army salvage and even one homemade device designed to help U.S. pilots duck enemy missiles.
As the Tomcat peeked out from its high-security perch, however, the Navy's focus was on a new infrared tracking system designed to locate enemy planes by the heat of their engines. It is scheduled for installation on all U.S. fighters in the next decade.
Scanning the test center's vast ocean range, the Tomcat homed in at random on military and civilian aircraft flying along the Southern California coast.
The new system--a backup for times when heavy electronic jamming makes radar tracking difficult--stayed with every target. For the Navy, the test was one with a happy ending.
Normally, the details of such matters at Point Mugu are never publicly revealed. But last week the Navy provided a rare glimpse of what goes on inside its most advanced air weapons test center.
Much of the secret work is on the cutting edge of U.S. and Soviet technology, and many of the most sensitive projects involve electronic warfare--the countermeasures and counter-countermeasures that dominate modern military strategy.
In a sense, Point Mugu is the setting for an endless military game of cat and mouse--where the Navy's top civilian engineers spend lifetimes devising war scenarios continuously testing U.S. weapons against Soviet capabilities.
One of those engineers is Allen Dahl, 42, who arrived at Point Mugu as a high school graduate in 1964 and literally grew up working on the computer software programs of the F-14, the Navy's primary air-to-air combat plane.
Dahl, who now heads the computer software branch for the F-14D, an advanced version of the Tomcat just emerging from the development stage, is assembling the engineering team that will be responsible for the new plane during the next decade.
Sent by the Navy to the UC Davis for his engineering degree, Dahl says most of his education has come from on-the-job training. "Unfortunately, all you can get from college is an engineering degree," he said. "You can't get an education in weapons systems or warfare."
The father of six, Dahl keeps a daughter's giant painting of actor Jack Nicholson in his office, where he and others will map war scenarios testing the more than 30 on-board computers on the newest Tomcat fighters.
With Nicholson looking demonically down from the wall during a recent interview, Dahl outlined some of the war games played by Point Mugu's Electronic Warfare Directorate in the center's high-tech Systems Integration Test Station, known as the SITS lab.
Already inside the lab are two test models of the original F-14A Tomcat, Dahl said. Construction is under way on an adjoining $50-million laboratory where additional F-14D models will be placed.
Hooked up to the most sophisticated electronic gear and military computers available, the planes can be made to perform inside the labs just as they would in actual flight conditions, Dahl said. The planes in the labs, in other words, are often made to think they are in actual combat.
"The most sophisticated stuff we do, where the rubber really meets the road, is associated with electronic counter-countermeasure testing," Dahl said. "That would be where we have a jamming simulator and two or three attacking targets."
The primary role of the F-14 is defense of Navy aircraft carriers in combat, Dahl said. About 500 F-14As are in use throughout the Navy, and about 300 of those will gradually be redesigned to meet F-14D configurations.
In one typical combat scenario anticipated by Pentagon planners, Soviet bombers flying outside the Tomcat's range could turn on powerful jamming devices, allowing planes and missiles to be launched down the jamming path toward Navy ships, hoping to blind U.S. radar during the attack.