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Point Mugu Labs Put Space-Age Weaponry to Grueling Trials

September 24, 1989|WILLIAM OVEREND | Times Staff Writer

On the ocean's edge at Point Mugu in Oxnard, 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.

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 recently 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 measures and 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 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 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.

Confronted with such an attack, one option for the Tomcat would be to maneuver itself into a fresh angle on the attack area so its radar or other tracking sensors could lock in on enemy planes and missiles, enabling the F-14 to destroy as many targets as possible.

"In real combat, there could be dozens of planes and hundreds of targets coming in, including bombers, fighters and cruise missiles," Dahl said. "In our jamming scenarios, we use very controlled tests. Maybe one bomber. The point is to study how the plane performs and pass that along to pilots.

"Nobody really wins most of these tests," he added. "That's where the glamour goes away. You don't have an easy way of scoring."

Engineers at Point Mugu run electronic jamming tests on their F-14 models about twice a week, Dahl said. At the same time, they are constantly updating the computer data that go into the F-14. Near the end of every such update, a full-scale, multitarget combat scenario is played out.

"That's the most glamorous stuff," Dahl said. "You fire 20 closely spaced targets at the Tomcat and see if you can overload the computer, watch the computer degrade. In actual combat, under ideal circumstances, the Tomcat might take out six incoming missiles or planes. Others could take the rest."

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