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YPG remains essential to both national security and local economy
Spirit of Yuma
Yuma Proving Ground is the busiest United States Army testing center in the nation, and a huge economic boon for surrounding communities.
YPG takes up about 20 percent of Yuma County and stretches north into La Paz County. Spanning about 840,000 acres, the test center is about one-third the size of Massachusetts.
About 1,700 employees, mostly civilians, test a wide variety of military hardware including unmanned aircraft, helicopter weapons, artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, machine guns, mortars and parachutes.
In a typical year at YPG, tens of thousands of artillery, mortar and missile rounds are fired, 36,000 parachute drops take place, over 130,000 miles are driven on test vehicles, and nearly 4,000 air sorties are flown.
YPG is the largest high technology employer in the county, and pumps a large amount of cash into the local economy.
“The financial impact is quite a bit,” said Chuck Wullenjohn, public affairs officer for YPG. “We send about $160 million in payroll dollars into the Yuma economy each year. It is a lot of money and is healthy for the Yuma economy on a year round basis.”
And the work done at YPG is essential for national security, Wullenjohn continued, noting the primary mission is to “protect the soldier.”
“At Yuma Proving Ground, our mission is to ensure that what we issue our soldiers is 100 percent effective, so that when a soldier goes in harm's way, they know their weapons will function exactly as they are supposed to in whatever climate or terrain conditions they happen to be in.”
In past wars, failing to adequately test weapons, gear and machinery before it was deployed sometimes led to disaster, Wullenjohn said.â€¨“If you read about wars going back through American history, you will see plenty of instances where the weapon systems we issued to our troops didn't work right, even as recently as World War II or Vietnam, because things weren't as rigorously tested as they are today.”
While much of the current testing is done in preparation for conflicts in the Middle East, when YPG was founded, it was the Nazis and the Japanese Empire who were the threat.
In 1943, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Yuma Test Branch along the Colorado River near the present site of YPG. The location was chosen to test portable combat bridges, Wullenjohn explained.
At the same time, Camp Laguna was established a few miles to the west to train troops in mechanized warfare. Camp Laguna was an 18,000-square-mile area chosen by Gen. George S. Patton as a training area for over one million soldiers.
Camp Laguna was deactivated and demolished in 1944, but the Yuma Test Branch remained in operation for another six years.
In 1950, the test branch closed. It reopened one year later as Yuma Test Station, a multi-purpose test center for armored vehicles, armored systems, and air delivery systems.
The test center also became an excellent place to test artillery because of unlimited airspace and a shooting range over 40 miles long.
The installation was renamed Yuma Proving Ground in 1963. In 1971, aircraft armament testing was permanently relocated from Aberdeen Proving Ground to Yuma.
That same year, the most highly instrumented helicopter armament test range in the country was constructed at YPG. At 8 miles wide and 40 miles long, the “Cibola Range” has continuously been in use and upgraded since then.
In addition, over 200 miles of automotive test courses and other test facilities have been established at YPG, including a high speed 4.5-mile paved oval track built as part of an agreement between the Army and General Motors to conduct hot weather testing.
Before and during the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, all the primary ground weapon systems used in combat underwent exhaustive tests at YPG.
In 1995, one of the world's largest and most advanced mine, counter mine and demolitions test facility went into operation at YPG.
With the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and the follow-up invasion of Iraq in 2003, YPG became heavily involved in the war effort.
“We tested numerous systems which were deployed over there,” Wullenjohn said, noting one of the most important issues facing YPG was how to eliminate the threat of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).
“We were incurring numerous casualties due to roadside bombs. Soldiers who were in the older-type vehicles were getting harmed by those explosions. That was the biggest killer of Americans in Iraq. The enemy knew that.”
To alleviate the problem, the Army began testing the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicle, which was then deployed to the front lines.
“The result of that is hundreds and hundreds if not thousands of lives were saved and injuries prevented,” Wullenjohn said.
To create further IED countermeasures, a series of facilities were built to imitate urban and rural combat zones in the Middle East. The facilities included fake villages complete with mosques that became known as “Little Baghdad.”
“We built several different villages including a section of road mimicking roads in Afghanistan in the hilly mountainous country... to test weapon systems in very realistic environments.”
But every time the military found ways to counter current IED threats, the enemy would adapt and create new ways to set off their explosives.
“It was a very difficult challenge because as we would defeat one threat, the enemy would change a little bit, and we would have to change what we did to go along with the new threat,” Wullenjohn said.
Although “it was a neverending process... an untold number of American lives were saved because of what we did in Yuma,” he continued.
And even though the United States military has pulled out of Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan is winding down, YPG will still be essential in the decades to come as new weapons systems are tested in preparation for future conflicts.
“The mission is not going away,” Wullenjohn said.
To confirm the continuing importance of YPG, on Sept. 26, the Army began construction of what will become the world's largest vertical wind tunnel. When completed, the two-story tall vertical wind tunnel will be used by YPG's Military Freefall School to train elite paratroopers from all branches of the U.S. military.
Chris McDaniel can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6849.