An M777 155 mm howitzer fires at Yuma Proving Ground’s Kofa Firing Range, America’s longest instrumented overland artillery range. (Photo by Chuck Wullenjohn)
The presence of the U.S. Army in Yuma goes back to 1850, when Fort Yuma was constructed on a hill overlooking the important Yuma crossing of the Colorado River. Soldiers at Fort Yuma maintained peace with the local Indians and protected the important Yuma crossing, which was used by thousands of travelers each year. The fort operated until 1883.
A second facility, the Yuma Quartermaster Depot, was constructed in the 1860s to act as a supply base for Army posts throughout Arizona and part of New Mexico. Supplies were delivered to the depot by riverboats and transported from there to various military outposts by wagon. The depot operated for nearly 20 years. After it closed, Army personnel would not return to Yuma on a permanent basis until World War II.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Yuma Test Branch near the present site of Yuma Proving Ground below Laguna Dam on the Colorado River in 1943. This location was considered the most desirable spot in the country for the testing of portable combat bridges because there was an abundance of swift flowing water that engineers could control as they wished.
After the war, the Yuma Test Branch remained in operation, but testing activities were turned toward the effect of the desert environment on pieces of engineering equipment, such as high-speed tractors, semitrailers and revolving cranes. In late 1944, rice and hemp plants were grown next to the Colorado River to establish realistic conditions for testing troop and vehicle movements in preparation for the expected invasion of Japan. In 1950, the test branch closed, only to reopen with a new name, Yuma Test Station, and a greatly expanded mission one year later.
This new mission saw the station expand the testing workload beyond its river and desert environmental roots. It became a multipurpose test center that took on the lion’s share of the nation’s artillery testing workload, with the longest overland artillery range (65 kilometers) in the country. In addition, many types of armored vehicles, armored systems and air delivery systems began to be tested.
With the reorganization of the Army, the installation was renamed Yuma Proving Ground in 1963. In 1971, the proving ground was designated a major range and test facility base. In that same year the aircraft armament testing mission was permanently relocated from Aberdeen Proving Ground to Yuma Proving Ground.
Numerous notable tests took place over the years. In the mid-1960s, the 119-foot, 240-ton High Altitude Research Project gun was constructed from two Navy 16-inch gun tubes to fire projectiles into the lower reaches of space. An experimental projectile was fired to an altitude of 111 miles and landed on the proving ground about 30 miles from where it was fired. The gun still remains today.
In 1971, the most highly instrumented helicopter armament test range in the United States was constructed at the proving ground and has continuously been upgraded over the years. Known as the Cibola Range, it is uniquely suited to support testing of aviation systems and munitions, armed helicopters, air delivery systems and precision navigation systems. The range measures 18 miles wide and 40 miles long. The AH-64 Apache helicopter underwent all developmental testing in Yuma, and continues to be a frequent visitor today. Beginning in the late 1970s, all developmental work on the global positioning system, which has both military and civilian applications, took place at Yuma Proving Ground.
Over 200 miles of automotive test courses and other test facilities capable of handling nearly all types of field performance and controlled engineering tests have been established at the proving ground. These include paved inclines, side slopes, obstacles, calibrated ride and handling courses, a skid pad for dry and wet pavement handling, various material mud courses with adjustable moisture content, a Middle East cross-country course and others. These courses furnish variations in road, terrain and soil conditions, offering test engineers the ability to select any degree of severity desired for endurance and reliability or desert environmental testing. More than 100,000 desert testing miles were put on the M-1 Abrams tank during its development cycle, with another 36,000 grueling road miles put on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
As a result of the 1988 round of the Base Realignment and Closure process, production acceptance testing of 105 mm and 120 mm rounds have been consolidated at Yuma Proving Ground at the Red Bluff Direct Fire Range. A relatively new facility, it is made up of a single gun position with two firing lanes. Army production acceptance testing has also been consolidated at the proving ground at gun positions on the Kofa Firing Range for 105 mm and 155 mm howitzer rounds; 60 mm, 81 mm and 120 mm mortar rounds; and 2.75 inch rockets. The testing of 8-inch rounds is conducted for foreign services.
Before and during the Persian Gulf War, all the primary ground weapon systems deployed to Saudi Arabia underwent exhaustive tests at the proving ground. The campaign’s lightning victory was partly due to the extensive testing that took place at Yuma Proving Ground. In the years leading up to the Persian Gulf War of 1991, nearly every item in the Army’s ground combat arsenal went through testing at the proving ground.
In 1995, the Western world’s largest and most advanced mine, countermine and demolitions test facility went into operation at the proving ground. Testing is conducted in a carefully controlled open field or in closed chambers and full digital data collection and analysis is provided. Today, some of the most important test programs Yuma Proving Ground testers are heavily involved with are the many variants of the Stryker interim armored vehicle, which are undergoing a series of stringent test activities.
Today, the primary mission of Yuma Proving Ground is to ensure that the weapon systems and equipment issued to soldiers function safely and as intended all the time, without fail. Each day throughout the year, numerous tests take place in the proving ground’s harsh, realistic environment on tanks, artillery, munitions of all types, parachutes, helicopters and more. In a typical year at Yuma Proving Ground’s Yuma Test Center, tens of thousands of artillery, mortar and missile rounds are fired, 36,000 parachute drops take place, more than 130,000 miles are driven on test vehicles and nearly 4,000 air sorties are flown.