ONCE A YEAR, the Strike Attack Operational Evaluation Unit (SAOEU) conducts a long deployment to the Naval Air Warfare Station at China Lake in California. This year’s deployment was named Exercise HIGHRIDER V. One of the trials conducted during the deployment was to assess the performance of the Paveway III (UK) weapon and fuze against a multi-layered hard target (a bunker). This involved dropping four bombs in all — one from a Harrier GR.7, one from a Jaguar 96 and two from Tornado GR.4s.

China Lake testing.

It is very difficult to conduct weapons trials in the UK — Garvie Island, just off the northwest coast of Scotland is the only range in Britain where ‘live’ 1,0001b (454kg) bombs are allowed to be dropped on land. Garvie is not an instrumented range and poor weather often prevents its use for days on end. West Freugh, owned by Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) is instrumented, and is the only range where (inert) cluster bombs may be dropped, and all air-to-air or air-to-surface missiles must be fired at offshore targets.

China Lake was first used by the UK military in the early 1990s to conduct test firings of the Air Launched Radiation Missile (ALARM) It was the requirement to drop the Paveway III that first brought the OEU, in 1996.

The Weapons Testing Facility at China Lake was actually formed in 1943, and the airfield and facilities were originally used to test rocket propellants and fire-control systems. During World War Two, the station played a role in the Manhattan Project by producing non-nuclear bomb components, a role that continued into the 1950s. During the Korean conflict, the Sidewinder missile was designed and tested at China Lake. Productions during the 1960s included a new generation of smart weapons — Snakeye, Rockeye, Shrike missiles, advanced Sidewinder missiles and the Anti-Submarine Rocket (ASROC) system. During the 1970s and 1980s, the station developed and trialled the Shrike, Maverick, Sparrow and Phoenix missiles, among many others. The latest projects tested at China Lake include Tomahawk missiles, HARM and AMRAAM. The facility is also heavily involved in Electronic Warfare development, and the resident test squadron, the US Marine Corps VX9, has recently taken delivery of the F/A-18E (single seat) and F/A-18F (two-seat version).


The aircraft due to take part in the various trials that made up HIGHRIDER V (three Harrier GR.7s, two Jaguar 96, two Tornado GR.4s and the Tornado GR.l Nightfox) deployed to the States via Lajes in the Azores and McGuire AFB in New Jersey in March. Once the aircraft and ground equipment had arrived, the complex task of unpacking all the necessary items began. Space at China Lake is tight, so everything had to be stored and logged in the most efficient way. The aircraft are operated from the ‘Transient Hot Line’ in the northeast corner of the airfield and the engineers work from several portable units just off the flightline. The aircrew and analysts operate from the ‘ALARM building’ which is located next to the Range Control Centre. Space is at a premium here too, as the ALARM building, which was originally constructed to accommodate one small trials team, now has to host aircrew from three different types, approximately ten analysts, three Trials Management Officers and some 15 other support personnel. All this, on top of the inevitable ‘mountain’ of video debriefing equipment, data analysis tools and tens of PCs and laptops.

As previously mentioned, one of the trials undertaken was to monitor the performance of the Paveway III (UK) laser guided bomb against a specially-constructed hardened bunker. The bunker took a month to build, and we were hoping to breach it in under a second! The weapons would be fitted with live fuses, but inert warheads — this would enable easier assessment of the weapon’s performance through the hard target material, and would allow several weapons to be dropped in different places on the same target. A live warhead would have meant only one drop!

On the day of the Jaguar drop, the Trials Management Officer (TMO), Squadron Leader John Mochan, held a briefing some two hours before the planned take-off time. The brief was attended by the Jaguar pilot, the range camera operator, the crew of the spare aircraft (Tornado GR.4), various scientists and analysts as well as the Boss of the OEU. The brief included the range booking times, aircraft pylon number and weapons coding for the bomb, the mode in which it would be dropped and from what flight parameters, plus the expected time of flight. In addition, consideration was given to when the radio calls would be made during the approach and drop, and what actions would be taken in the event of an emergency.

When the briefing was complete, and any questions had been answered, the Jaguar pilot and the crew of the ‘spare’ held a short ‘domestics’ brief to ensure that every eventuality had been covered. Following that, the crews ‘outbriefed’ from the ALARM building and made their way to the ‘gun butts’, slightly northwest from the usual flightline, where the aircraft had been positioned and loaded. Meanwhile, the TMO, analysts and as many other people who could make it, took their seats in the Range Control Centre (RCC) to watch the sortie. The RCC has a huge projection screen on which is displayed images from the many tracking cameras positioned around the range, as well as the camera inside the bunker itself. All radio calls between the pilot and range control are replayed through speakers to ensure that the audience benefits from the full multimedia experience! Needless to say, every second of film is recorded for later study.


The Jaguar pilot, callsign UZI 1, checked in a couple of minutes after take-off at 1600. After the radio check, and confirmation that the GPS tracking pods (fitted in the place of Sidewinder missiles), were working correctly, UZI 1 began the first of several data-gathering runs. The aircraft ran in at low level, then executed a pull-up manoeuvre at a set range from the target. This ‘Release Point Assessment’ can be used in weapon aiming and aircraft performance calculations. Once the low-level runs were complete, UZI 1 climbed up to medium level for the ‘hot’ run.

The range controller called the pilot that he was «clear master arm» with about 30 seconds to weapon release, while the GPS trackers and video cameras displayed the aircraft position to the observers. The countdown to weapon release was given by the range controller, and at ‘Zero’ the weapon fell away from the aircraft. The pilot reported “store away” and the range controller announced that the weapon was “on profile».

The bomb flew the correct profile and impacted the bunker in a huge cloud of sand. The camera located inside the bunker showed the roof caving in, before it was covered in sand and dust. Within a few seconds, the tapes had been rewound and the final seconds of the bomb’s flight were replayed in slow motion. This time, on the bunker camera, it was possible to see the bomb coming through the roof and burying itself in the floor. UZI 1reported «switches safe” and commenced his recovery to China Lake. Meanwhile, back in the RCC, the data analysis began — what airspeed was the bomb released at? What was the outside air temperature and wind speed? At what angle did the weapon enter the bunker and how deep did it go, etc, etc?

Bomb disposal experts from the UK, who were at the RCC to watch the drop, viewed the impact several times, then made their way to the target. The journey out to the drop zone is always an experience, as the range is littered with the remains of previous trials, although all live ordnance is always destroyed and the ‘roads’ are kept clear. Either side of the tracks are various collections of debris — from the wreckage of F4 Phantom drones that have been used as air-to-air missile targets, to the rear ends of concrete missiles and bombs, left sticking out of the ground where they have impacted the dirt. Various half-destroyed tanks and other specially-built targets help to create the impression of a particularly nasty war zone.

Upon reaching the target, the bomb disposal team ensured that the fuze had functioned properly and posed no residual hazard. The bomb in question had penetrated the roof neatly and stood in the centre of the bunker like some giant fireman’s pole. Although the sight was spectacular, the team had to chop the bomb in half to gain access to the fuze pocket. A shaped charge was used, and the bomb fell out of the roof, revealing damage to the fuze area that indicated that it had indeed worked as advertised.

As soon as the area was declared safe, more experts went to work on the structure itself to determine the extent of the shock induced in the bunker as a result of being struck by a tonne of concrete travelling at 1,000ft (300m) per second. Back at the ALARM building, the analysts continued their study in order to glean every possible snippet of information from the drop and impact. The complete analysis took several days, after which the drop was declared, unsurprisingly, a complete success. Once the data had been processed, the team moved on to the next event — the first Paveway III release from Tornado GR.4.

Other trials work conducted during the deployment included Electronic Warfare equipment assessment, clearances for new weapons, CRV 7 rocket firings and RBL 755 Ballistic Test Vehicle drops (Exercise Highrider 2, May 1998, p46). The data gathered and lessons learnt from the various trials will keep the analysts and tacticians busy for several months — almost until next year’s HIGHRIDER, already being planned by the Air Warfare Centre.

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