Soviet and Iraqi target fleet plies proving ground ranges By Chuck Wullenjohn, Chief, Public Affairs Officer A lesson learned long ago is that nothing substitutes for absolute testing realism. This is why the Army goes to such great lengths to conduct weapon system tests in the frigid cold of Alaska, the unforgiving humidity of the tropics and the brutal heat of Arizona.
During artillery and missile tests conducted in the decades following World War II, however, managers at test centers were frequently forced to rely on mock-ups of potential enemy target vehicles to substitute for the real thing. “Surrogates were in common use for many years, making use of steel enemy vehicle mock-ups constructed by welders installed over an out-of-frontline-service American vehicle. Actual enemy vehicles were difficult to obtain and users definitely didn’t wish to destroy them. The end of the Cold War, however, brought an end to this problem. Suddenly, Soviet military vehicles became easily obtainable from numerous countries that welcomed the cash. By the early 1990’s, a ship containing a variety of armored vehicles and trucks from East Germany was on its way to the United States, bound for U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground in southwest Arizona. Today, approximately 150 vehicles of Soviet design are maintained by the Target Management Office at the proving ground, the second largest fleet of Soviet vehicles in the United States. The fleet includes T-80 and T-72 main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, armored scout vehicles, towed and self-propelled howitzers, trucks, and much more. Managers say 65 of the vehicles are operational today, with another ten percent that can be made operational if necessary. The remainder must be towed. Maintaining the fleet Randy Ehrlich oversees maintenance activities, saying the mechanics who work for him are among the best anywhere. When the vehicles first arrived at the proving ground, mechanics repaired them without consulting technical manuals, since they had yet to be translated. “Of course, there is a learning curve involved when working on foreign vehicles, said Ehrlich, “but we perform all maintenance right here. He pointed out that both the cooling and electric systems are quite a bit different on Soviet vehicles than the ones we’re used to. Also, no Soviet vehicle incorporates an automatic transmission. “Our mechanics are awesome, said Dan Schoenborn, targets manager, with a smile as he toured the large fenced compound containing the vehicles. “They can fix anything, whether it’s out in the field or in the shop. They’re the best of the best. Ehrlich says the T-80 tank, a modified export version of the Soviet tank bought right off the assembly line in Ukraine, contains a French thermal sight for the main gun which recently stopped working during a test. Mechanics removed it from the tank and sent it to Yuma Proving Ground’s electronics lab where it was disassembled. The problem was located and a replacement part identified. “Our electronics people had never before even seen a sight like this, said Ehrlich. “It just points out the knowledge and experience residing in people here. Target use When the average person hears the word “target, the assumption is usually made that the vehicle is destined to be blown up in the course of a weapon test. Since over 500,000 rounds are fired at the proving ground each year and is the center of Army long range artillery testing, this might seem a logical assumption. It is far from the truth, however. “At times we fire at the vehicles, but most often we perform sensor testing and sensor development work with them, explained Ehrlich. “We provide the real footprint of what our systems see on the battlefield. What we do is invaluable. The vehicles are very often used to form convoys amid the proving ground’s remote desert terrain. Though the vehicles are based at Yuma Proving Ground and perform most of their work there, they often are sent to other military installations. They’ve visited many other states, including Alaska, Wyoming, Washington, New Mexico, Georgia, California, Michigan, and Florida. Many things have been learned about the Soviet vehicles over the years, the most obvious of which is that they are much more cramped for crews than American vehicles. “Americans tend to be larger than Soviet troops, so size is an issue, said Ehrlich, who is five feet, ten inches tall. “I can fit, but it’s not with a lot of room left over. Ehrlich says one of the things operators must keep in mind when driving the vehicles is that the interiors get very hot. Designed for a European scenario amid a much more moderate climate, temperatures can climb to dangerous levels in the desert summer. Though the target vehicles support training exercises at the proving ground that have increased in number in recent years, the vast majority of the workload involves supporting weapon system test efforts. Iraqi vehicles join the fleet Several dozen Iraqi armored and other types of vehicles and weapons joined the target vehicle fleet in the early 1990’s after the first Gulf War. Used mostly for comparison purposes, none are operational, though many retain their Iraqi military markings. The fleet also contains several commercially available Toyota pickup trucks, typical of those used by insurgents today in Iraq. One contains a machine gun mounted in back. The vehicles are used to test the recognition systems of aircraft, both fixed wing and helicopter. Visitors include Marine Corps Harrier jets and Cobra single engine helicopters and Army dual engine Apache helicopters. “Our biggest challenge is maintaining the work tempo, which is extremely busy, said Schoenborn, “for our job is to always have forty year old vehicles ready to go. This challenge is easiest to understand in relation to your own car. Your personal vehicle may be several years old, but maintenance can be ignored only at the owner’s peril. Magnify this by a factor of ten to 20 to account for the age of the target vehicles, and you have an understanding of the maintenance issues faced on a daily basis.