Sometimes I am just amazed with how much infrastructure surrounds the US defense research and development apparatus. All the bases, all the test and evaluation units, all the ranges and state of the art facilities. Still, the Missile Engagement Simulation Arena (MESA), one of NAWS China Lakes’ best, yet least kept secrets, really takes the cake. Within this massive concrete cube, full aircraft, often more than one at a time, are suspended in mid air via giant sliding cranes, while missile seekers, and other sensor systems, are slaved around them in three dimensions. Apparently this facility can also do some types of electromagnetic testing, as well as vehicle, and even sea-going target tracking testing. Subjects of interest can be full scale or miniaturized, with scaled down remote vehicles being used for moving ground target tracking and engaging. Even large swarms of miniaturized aircraft can, and probably have, been tested in MESA’s cavernous and secure interior.
After reading about MESA and watching the video posted above, I am reminded of Orson Scott Card’s Sci-Fi saga “Enders Game,” which also had a “simulation arena” of its own. I guess this unique facility is used mainly for air to air missile fusing and seeker tests, which has changed robustly since the days of hit-to-kill. Today Imaging Infra-Red 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 where the most vulnerable part of the aircraft is so that the missile can pinpoint this area and detonate beside it. Remember this all happens at thousands of miles per hour, at least in real world use. This facility, built in the early 1990s, is a key fixture for developing and especially validating such high-tech systems. It would be most eerie watching a seeker head of a missile, mounted to a moving gantry, slowly make its way to the part of the suspended MiG-29’s fuselage where it thinks the highest probability of total destruction lies, all the while the MiG maneuvers slowly in three axis via its elaborate suspension system. The world’s slowest dogfight I would imagine…
MESA, and all the vast constellation of other state of the art and often exotic facilities that also support US weapons research and development, are America’s most potent weapon within the weapons that give US defense technology a decisive edge over competitors. Often times I try to underline the fact that although other weapons systems from around the world are potent, America’s arms development network is a scientific institution onto itself. The level of technology and vetting that goes into American designs is unprecedented. This can be an issue when it comes to overcomplicated, overly expensive, massive weapons programs, but when it comes to things like sub-systems such as radars and missiles, American technology remains a leap ahead. Much of this comparative advantage is due to unique facilities like MESA, where millions of dollars are turned into one-of-a-kind installations where science fiction becomes science fact.
More on MESA: