There are so many bases, test and evaluation units, ranges and state of the art facilities, the U.S. defense research and development apparatus but the Missile Engagement Simulation Arena (MESA) is one of the strangest. Essentially, the U.S. Government built a giant sound stage to shoot films only missiles are ever going to see.
This amazing facility, located at NAWS China Lake, is one of America's most advanced weapons laboratories, used primarily for testing and validating missile seeker and fuse designs, both of which have changed greatly since the days of the original guided air-to-air missile, the AAM-N-7. The massive 85,000 square foot soundstage like structure, sometimes referred to as "The Box," allows for full scale examples of aircraft to be slung from the ceiling and slowly maneuvered, while a sensor on an elaborate boom system reenacts the missile's terminal flight in slow motion. By doing so, fuse timing and a missiles ability to hit the target in a fatal area can be continuously evaluated.
Evaluating a missile's "brains and eyes" under strict laboratory-like conditions also allows for computer models to be made that extrapolate a seeker and fuse's effectiveness and thus a munition's overall killing abilities. Additionally, the survivability of a particular target, under various conditions and engagement scenarios, can also be gauged in the MESA. Even enemy weapon systems can be tested inside MESA to better understand how effective they could be against allied aircraft.
Today, imaging infrared seekers (like those found on the AIM-9X and other late generation missiles) have the ability to recognize their targets by comparing the image it sees with the 3D models stored in its memory banks. This allows programmers to actually instruct the missile as to where the most vulnerable part of the vehicle is so that it can pinpoint that area and detonate beside it, or collide with it, depending on what type of fuse the missile is equipped with. Additionally, modern radar guided missiles, like the AIM-120 AMRAAM, have advanced proximity fusing capabilities that demand incredible timing. Most air-to-air missile engagements occur with closure speeds measured in the thousands of miles per hour, at least in real world use, so being able to test a missile's "endgame solution" under various geometry and at very slow speeds within the MESA has its clear advantages.
It would be most eerie watching the cycloptic seeker head of a missile, mounted to a moving gantry, slowly make its way to the part of a suspended MiG-29′s fuselage where it thinks the highest probability of total destruction lies and then stops the second the fuse thinks it's time to detonate. All the while the MiG maneuvers slowly in three axis via MESA's elaborate suspension system. Such a sight would amount to the world's slowest dogfight I would imagine...
The MESA facility can also do other types of testing such as radio frequency and infrared signature evaluation, as well as ground vehicle, and even sea-going target engagement work. Subjects of interest can be full scale or miniaturized, with scaled down remote controlled ATV sized vehicles being used as moving ground targets.
Even large swarms of miniaturized aircraft can, and probably have, been tested in MESA's cavernous and highly secure interior. NASA has also used the facility to test components of its Mars rover programs. Parachute and even small blimp development work has also occurred at the facility. Even the outside of the giant MESA structure has been turned into a testing apparatus as a large right angle black shape is painted against a bright white background on one side of the building so that that an optical sensor's "edge response" fidelity can be measured.
Although the MESA facility cost millions to build, it is actually a huge money saver for America and its allies. Its ability to run hundreds of simulated engagements in a single day results in massive cost savings when compared to live testing or airborne simulations using a surrogate test aircraft. The list of weapons programs that have been tested at MESA reads like a menu of the world's most advanced munitions. These include AIM-9X, Phoenix, Evolved Sea Sparrow, SLAM-ER. Roland, Patriot and the list keeps going. Additionally, the fact that the sheer volume of the structure can be used for so many different testing concepts makes it a truly multi-role installation.
MESA, built in the early 1990s, and the vast constellation of other state of the art and often highly exotic installations which also support US weapons research and development, are one of America's most significant strategic advantages. The level of technological vetting that goes into American and European weapon designs is unprecedented. This can become almost an obstacle when it comes to massive, overcomplicated defense programs, but when it comes to things like sub-systems and expendables, such as radars and missiles, American industry's attention to detail and unique validation capacity results in more deadly and reliable weaponry.
For more information on MESA check out the video and the links below:
Images via the Howland Company and NAVAIR.