Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields
Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake
(Naval Ordnance Test Station, China Lake; Naval Weapons Center, China Lake)

From the Desert to the Sea: A Brief Overview of the History of China Lake

In 1943, adequate facilities were needed for test and evaluation of rockets being developed for the Navy by the California Institute of Technology (CalTech); at the same time, the Navy also needed a new proving ground for all aviation ordnance. The Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) was established in response to those needs in November 1943, forming the foundations of NWC. The NOTS mission was defined in a letter by the Secretary of the Navy dated 8 November 1943: ". . . A station having for its primary function the research, development and testing of weapons, and having additional function of furnishing primary training in the use of such weapons."

Harvey Field was commissioned at the auxiliary landing field at Inyokern, and the first facilities of the fledgling NOTS were established there while the building of the actual NOTS base at China Lake commenced. Testing began at China lake within less than a month of the Station's formal establishment, and by mid-1945 NOTS' aviation assets were transferred to the new Armitage Field at the China Lake site.

The vast, sparsely populated desert around China Lake and Inyokern, with near-perfect flying weather year-round and practically unlimited visibility, proved an ideal location not only for T&E activities, but also for a complete R&D establishment. The early Navy-CalTech partnership established a pattern of cooperative interaction between civilian scientists and experienced military personnel that, in the ensuing five decades, has made NWC one of the preeminent RDT&E institutions in the world.
Air-launched rockets, solid propellants, fire-control systems, and rocket and guided missile T&E were NOTS' primary areas of effort in the 1940s, and in the late 1940s, NOTS began research on fire-control systems that evolved into the concept of the Sidewinder guided missile. During World War II, the Station played a role in the Manhattan Project as the site of "Project Camel," which developed non-nuclear explosive bomb components--a role that continued into the 1950s. Holy Moses, Tiny Tim, and a family of spin-stabilized barrage rockets were fielded while the Station was built. After the War, the Pasadena Annex was added to NOTS, bringing with it the torpedo-development program and other underwater-ordnance RDT&E efforts.
With the advent of the Korean conflict, NOTS rapidly gained cognizance over an even more extensive catalogue of rockets, missiles, and torpedoes and an array of guns, bombs, and fuzes. The Station sent the 6.5-inch tank-killing Ram rocket to the combat forces in Korea after only 28 days in development and testing, and the ensuing years saw the development and deployment of some of China Lake's most noted products, including the Weapon A, Mighty Mouse, and BOAR rockets; a series of torpedoes; new aircraft fire-control systems ("avionics" now); and, of course, the Sidewinder. By the late 1950s, research at China Lake had expanded into such diverse fields as weather modification and satellite-delivery systems. The Station also played a significant part in the development and testing of the Polaris missile system, including studies and analyses that shaped the Polaris concept.
U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia in the 1960s quickened the tempo of activities at NOTS, and a new generation of "smart" bombs, cluster weapons, and night-attack systems was developed to meet Fleet needs. The Station had been preparing to meet conventional-warfare requirements, and the "Eye" series of free-fall weapons first saw action in Vietnam. Snakeye and Rockeye bombs, the Zuni rocket, the ASROC antisubmarine system, the Shrike antiradar missile, the TV-guided Walleye, and advanced Sidewinders were among the Station's products in the Fleet. NOTS developed and applied forward-looking infrared (FLIR) technology and systems, fuel-air explosive (FAE) devices, weather-modification systems, and space and undersea research vehicles during the decade; electronic warfare also received major attention, and the Station made significant contributions to countermeasures, special-warfare, and strategic-missile systems.
In 1967 NOTS China Lake and the NOTS Pasadena Annex were separated; NOTS China Lake and the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, Corona, joined to form the Naval Weapons Center; in 1971 the Corona facilities were closed and their personnel and functions relocated to China Lake. With the Corona activity came guided missile and fuzing expertise and a history of accomplishment stretching back to World War II. Many of the NOTS Pasadena Annex underwater-ordnance systems, such as the Mk 46 torpedo and the CURV remote recovery vehicle, continued to be supported and improved by the San Diego-based undersea-systems activities that acquired the Annex' functions; NWC has worked closely with those activities over the years on a number of projects, ranging from Vertical-Launch ASROC to a personnel-management demonstration project.
During the 1970s, the Center's direction changed along with the Navy's shift to more advanced, computer-intensive systems. Aircraft systems--avionics--became a major area of effort, as did advanced electronic-warfare systems and simulation efforts. Weapon System Support Activities (WSSAs) were developed for the AH-1, A-4, A-6, A-7, AV-8B, and F/A-18 combat aircraft, and NWC began fielding avionics software and hardware for everything from weapons integration to advanced self-protection techniques. The Center continued to develop advanced versions of the Sidewinder, Walleye, Shrike (including the original HARM program), and FAE weapons. Major support and improvement programs were also conducted for Sparrow, Phoenix, Harpoon, and Maverick missiles. China Lake research extended the technology base in optical and laser systems, advanced propulsion technologies, and antiradiation guidance.
The Center acquired the National Parachute Test Range function in 1979, adding a new area of major concentration to the NWC mission; China Lake now serves as the Navy's parachute RDT&E facility.
During the 1980s, NWC continued to expand its aircraft weapons integration and avionics activities and to further develop its simulation capabilities. New projects included the Advanced Common Intercept Missile Demonstration (ACIMD) program, which developed and demonstrated technologies for the next-generation air-to-air missile; the Sidearm and HARM Low-Cost Seeker antiradar-missile programs; the Skipper 2 laser-guided weapon; vertical-launch weapon programs, including Vertical-Launch ASROC; and advanced Sidewinder developments. China Lake's Sidewinder missiles were again combat-proven in the Middle East and in the Falklands. Parachute systems (including the Space Shuttle escape system) received major attention, as did the further development of full-scale aircraft targets, such as the QF-86 and QF-4. NWC also became a major contributor to the Tomahawk Cruise Missile program.
The Center began the '90s with significant support to Operation Desert Storm. True to its heritage, NWC was ready with quick-reaction, on-demand efforts to support the operating forces; many of these efforts were conducted in concert with the operating forces and with other Navy activities. The Center conducted efforts that modified, improved, tested, and validated various aspects of Sidewinder, Tomahawk, FAE, HARM, and Shrike weapon systems to meet the immediate needs of the troops in the Gulf. NWC developed electronic-warfare system upgrades, developed and hand-delivered operational-flight-program upgrades, and developed and fielded new/improved weapon-integration and -targeting software for combat aircraft--including the F/A-18, AV-8B, A-6E, and F-14. Major flight-test support was provided for Navy and Air Force squadrons, especially using China Lake's Echo Range electronic warfare threat environment simulation, to help validate and update avionics and tactics. A variety of threat-analysis tasks, including weapon survivability and vulnerability analyses, were also conducted and supported by the Center to help ensure maximum effect with minimum attrition, and NWC supported efforts to protect Allied forces against the potential use of chemical weapons by Iraq. Numerous small quick-reaction projects, too, were conducted in support of various aspects of the combat operations; many of these projects were aimed at improved aircrew safety.
The ability of the Center's military-civilian team to meet these challenges depended to a large extent upon the China Lake combination of research and development laboratories and test and evaluation ranges and facilities. This unique, highly capable combination of in-house technical talent backed up by operational expertise with available facilities for all aspects of RDT&E has supported the Fleet for 50 years and significantly increased the Navy's tactical flexibility.
On 22 January 1992 NWC was disestablished. The RDT&E functions of NWC were combined with the T&E functions of three other Navy activities to form the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division; the NWC facilities, military administration, and airfield functions were consolidated into the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake.
Today China Lake carries out the complete weapon-development process--from basic and applied research through prototype hardware fabrication, test and evaluation, documentation, and Fleet and production support. China Lake is home to approximately 4,400 civilian employees and about 1,000 military personnel (including tenant Operation Test and Evaluation Force squadron VX-9) and is supported by over 1,500 contractor employees.
Major China Lake programs include RDT&E and support for Sidewinder, Sparrow, and Phoenix air-to-air missiles; fuzes for the Standard Missile and a wide variety of other surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles and free-fall weapons; Harpoon antisurface weapon system; Tomahawk cruise missile; Sidearm and HARM antiradiation-missile programs; parachute systems and subsystems for aircrews and equipment; avionics hardware and software and total-combat-system operational flight programs (OFPs) for most Navy fighter and attack aircraft; and tactical electronic-warfare and countermeasures systems.
China Lake analysis and T&E capabilities and projects remain unmatched, with simulation of threat weapon systems; major electronic-warfare threat-simulation facilities; and complete test and evaluation--static, live-fire, captive-carry, supersonic-track, environmental, radar cross-section--of a wide range of antiair and antisurface systems. Contributing to and complementing these projects are broad technology-base efforts, which range from basic research in physics and chemistry to applied projects in energetic materials, embedded computers, specialized semiconductor and superconductor materials, and lasers and optics.

The in-house laboratories of the Navy are unique institutions, and China Lake unique among that cadre. China Lake brought to the Navy the advanced technologies, the engineering disciplines, and the integrated laboratory-operational perspective that resulted in the Navy-industry team that proved so phenomenally successful during the years of China Lake's growth and maturity.
Not to say that the China Lake team made no mistakes along the way. It did. The Station--the Center--learned some hard lessons over the course of its evolution. It won many battles, but it lost many, too.
In the long run, the China Lake experience proves that, "When given a certain amount of freedom within an atmosphere of technical expertise, available facilities for basic RDT&E, and close operating relationships with the military community, the individual and corporate creativity characteristic of the laboratory community can arise to resolve operational problems and meet military needs and to lay the groundwork for further developments."
This, perhaps, is China Lake's legacy: foundations well laid for the future. . . As to how those foundations are built upon, the next 50 years will tell.
Originally prepared for the 50th anniversary edition of The Rocketeer, China Lake's in-house newspaper, 4 November 1993.
Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake by globalsecurity.com

Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, the high desert home of the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, is where the Navy and Marine Corps have developed or tested nearly every significant airborne weapon system in the past five decades. China Lake is located 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles on the western edge of California's Mojave Desert. If you are arriving by air, you may fly from Los Angeles International Airport to the Inyokern Airport, about 10 miles from the main gate. There is no public transportation between the airport and China Lake.

The men and women of the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake are assigned the mission of operating and maintaining base facilities and providing base support services, including airfields, for the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at China Lake, assigned tenants and activities and transient units. China Lake supports the primary research and development, test and evaluation work for air warfare and missile weapons systems. Missiles such as Sidewinder, Shrike and Walleye are just a few of the many products at China Lake which have been developed for the fleet.

China Lake carries out the complete weapon-development process--from basic and applied research through prototype hardware fabrication, test and evaluation, documentation, and Fleet and production support. China Lake is home to approximately 4,400 civilian employees and about 1,000 military personnel (including tenant Operation Test and Evaluation Force squadron VX-9) and is supported by over 1,500 contractor employees.

The Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS), China Lake, encompases 1.1 million acres of land in California's upper Mojave Desert, accounting for approximately one-third of the Navy's total land holdings. The land, ranging in altitude from 2,100 to 8,900 feet, varies from flat dry lake beds to rugged piñon pine covered mountains. The majority of the land is undeveloped and provides habitat for more than 340 species of wildlife and 650 plant types. The area was once also home to Native Americans, whose presence here is marked by thousands of archaeological sites, and to early miners and settlers whose cabins and mining structures are still found scattered throughout the Station.

The California Desert Protection Act (the Act) of 1994 reauthorized the Navy's continued use of public withdrawn lands to support China Lake's research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) and training mission. The Act requires the development of a land use management plan for these withdrawn lands, in accordance with the requirements of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, by October 1997. Additionally, in response to military downsizing initiatives and potential influences of evolving technologies on weapons systems RDT&E and training requirements, the Navy recognizes the need to implement a comprehensive management system that integrates operational and environmental planning processes.

The Navy's proposed action is the implementation of a comprehensive land use management plan (LUMP) at NAWS China Lake for managing existing and proposed land uses authorized under the California Desert Protection Act. Proposed land uses include, but are not limited to, ongoing and future military operations, public health and safety practices, and ongoing and future environmental resources management and conservation at NAWS China Lake. The LUMP will be developed in conformance with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA, 1976).

In the midst of World War II, adequate facilities were needed for test and evaluation of rockets being developed for the Navy by the California Institutes of Technology (Cal Tech). At the same time, the Navy needed a new proving ground for all aviation ordnance. CalTech's Dr. Charles C. Lauritsen and then Cdr. Sherman E. Burroughs met and formed a pact to find a site meeting both their needs.

In the summer of 1943, while searching for the needed site, Dr. Lauritsen, in a small plane flown by Cdr. Jack Renard spotted a two-way landing strip near Inyokern. It was in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but empty desert for miles around, but not too far removed from CalTech's Pasadena base.

The Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) was established on November 8, 1943 and its mission defined in a letter by the Secretary of the Navy, "...a station having for its primary function the research, development and testing of weapons, and having additional function of furnishing primary training in the use of such weapons."

Testing began at China Lake within a month of the Station's formal establishment. The vast sparsely populated desert around China Lake and Inyokern, with near perfect flying weather and practically unlimited visibility, proved and ideal location not only for T&E activities, but also for a complete R&D establishment. The early Navy-CalTech partnership established a pattern of cooperation and interaction between civilian scientists and engineers and experienced military personnel that, in the ensuing five decades, has made China lake one of the preeminent RDT&E institutions in the world.

The Naval Ordnance Test Station had an “annex” at Pasadena staffed by professors from the California Institute of Technology who had left their classrooms to support the war effort. The group was tasked with improving performance of the Navy’s airdropped Mark 13 torpedo. The result of their efforts was a highly reliable torpedo that figured prominently in the 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf, where naval aviators launching Mark 13s accounted for the majority of the 60 Japanese ships sunk.

In the years following WW II, China Lake projects included development of the famed Sidewinder air-to-air missile, the Shrike anti-radiation missile, the Zuni rocket, a series of aircraft rockets, an entire family of free fall weapons, torpedoes and the TV-guided Walleye glide bomb. Additionally, the Polaris missile concepts were developed by NOTS weapons-planning teams, and the first submarine-launched ballistic missile motors were tested at China Lake.

NOTS and its successors were technical direction agents on all the Navy’s lightweight torpedoes—Mark 32, Mark 43, Mark 44, Mark 46 and Mark 50. Each torpedo ran deeper and farther and had more sophisticated guidance and control systems to keep step with the increasing speed and sophistication of their potential targets—Soviet submarines. NOTS also developed the Anti-Submarine Rocket (ASROC) to launch a Mark 46 or a depth charge at a distance submarine target.

NOTS played a major role in the Navy’s ballistic missile program. The Navy portion of the nation’s strategic deterrence program was a fleet of submarines equipped with long-range ballistic missiles, hidden in millions of cubic miles of ocean. The strategy was excellent, but execution seemed impossible—how to get a missile to the surface before its ignition engine was fired. NOTS set up a “pop-up” range at San Clemente Island to determine how to do that. Tests were conducted with redwood logs and steel cylinders filled with concrete to determine the best mechanism to get a missile out of a submarine tube, through the water column and far enough into the air to allow engine ignition. Success came with the first live launch of a Polaris, conducted by the Center April 4, 1960, just a few months before the first Polaris submarine was commissioned. NOTS later performed major testing on the Poseidon and Trident missiles.

In July 1967, NOTS China lake and the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, Corona, Calif., became the Naval Weapons Center. The Corona facilities were closed and their functions transferred to China lake in 1971. In July 1979, the mission and functions of the National Parachute Test Range in El Centro were transferred to China Lake.

In January 1992, the Naval Weapons Center China Lake and the Pacific Missile Test Center Point Mugu were disestablished and combined as a single command, the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWPNS). Each of the two major sites of NAWCWPNS is designated a Naval Air Weapons Station and is a NAWCWPNS host, performing the base-keeping functions.

The NAWCWPNS tenants at NAWS China Lake are today involved in programs that range from the Tomahawk Cruise Missile to the new Joint Stand-Off Weapons System (JSWO) and from the Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) to the new F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

The Weapons Survivability Laboratory (WSL), at China Lake, conducts survivability testing for all three major services and industry to provide empirical data on the vulnerability of aircraft to actual threats. In addition, a complete machine shop is on site for fast repair and modification of aircraft and test articles. Full-scale aircraft, propulsion system, ballistic impact, hydraulic ram effects on fuel systems, fire detection and extinguishing, fuel ingestion, engines under simulated full-operating conditions, warhead detonations, thermal and structural tests, infrared (IR) signature tests, static and simulated in-flight crew ejections, pool fire, communication link payout studies, aerodynamic studies. Susceptibility and vulnerability reduction are used to improve existing platforms. Testing is performed under rigidly controlled and highly realistic conditions. NAWCWD is the Navy's field activity for weapon system non-nuclear survivability, weapons lethality, and live fire testing.

The Missile Engagement Simulation Arena [MESA] is China Lake's newest and most sophisticated simulation facility. Missile fuzes can be tested in a secure, controlled environment. Full intercept engagement conditions are simulated and tested — independent of weather or other environmental conditions. MESA is the most cost effective alternative to expensive and often uncontrollable field tests. Hundreds of runs can be made each day in a controllable and repeatable fashion. MESA and its predecessor, the Encounter Simulation Laboratory (ESL), have been serving the United States Armed Forces and their contractors for over 25 years. MESA is unique. It consists of a test range and secure office and vault spaces. High-bay simulation arena is 150 feet wide, 405 feet long and 90 feet high. Interior surfaces are designed to minimize and control background clutter. Hardware includes: instrumentation radar, three-axis sensor positioner, sensor transporter, mid-range target support, down-range target support, and two controllers which can position calibration spheres in two dimensions. MESA has two overhead target supports (OTS). Each OTS has six control lines, six encoder lines, a main hoist and two dedicated computers. MESA's flexibility in target positioning permits large-scale variations in target and sensor geometry. In most cases, geometry changes can happen in less than one minute.

Copied with permission from globalsecurity.com


History (2005) by Justin M. Ruhge

Test station, air facility and barracks. The need for a large test range for rocket development was determined in late 1942 and early 1943 by the Navy Bureau of Ordnance. The effort to find a suitable location to test new rockets and Navy aircraft bombing performance was led by Captain Sherman Everett Burroughs, a combat pilot who had served as fleet gunnery officer on Admiral William F. Halsey's staff in the Pacific. On a trip to California on March 1943, Captain Burroughs and representatives from California Institute of Technology (Caltech) selected a promising site that included the Inyokern Airport site and the open land at what was called China Lake to the east. Water, electricity, telephone, railroad and highway facilities were nearby. With plans prepared by Captain Burroughs, construction began in early November 1943 on the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS). The mission of the station was to test, develop and evaluate air weapons and to train men in their use. Caltech would lead the technical developments.

Included in the construction were a machine shop for manufacturing experimental and prototype models of aviation ordnance, physical laboratory and heat treating laboratory, chemical and explosives laboratory, electrical laboratory, electronics laboratory and repair shop, precision instrument and bombsight shop, optical laboratory and repair shop, propellant plant, and controlled temperature-pressure laboratory. Costs estimated by the Bureau of Yards and Docks were $23,739,473. These costs escalated later because the personnel grew from the 1,000 expected to 10,000 by 1953 in the community of China Lake and another 5,000 in the nearby town of Ridgecrest. Many additional facilities were added between 1943 and 1948 at a cost of $54,952,221, more than would be built for the next twenty years.

The first rocket test occurred on December 3, 1943. By April 1944 the nucleus of a naval air facility appeared while Carrier Aircraft Service unit 53 serviced all aircraft at the station.

Caltech's Salt Wells Pilot Plant produced rocket propellants needed in the manufacture of the explosive charges used in atomic bombs for the Manhattan Project and its successor, the Atomic Energy Commission. Work also continued on a full spectrum of research, development, and pilot production of guided missiles, underwater ordnance and other systems.

NOTS developed the new 5-inch high velocity rocket (HVAR) and Tiny Tim by the end of World War II.

At the War's end, the Bureau of Ordnance asked Dr. L T. E. Thompson to supervise the selection of civilian personnel to work at Inyokern and then to direct its research, development, and test work, thus revealing that NOTS would be continued in peacetime even though experimental work elsewhere was largely abandoned. From a wartime station serving the rocket programs of Caltech and the rocket training needs of the fleet, NOTS became a permanent center for weapon research and development, its direction would come from the Navy, for the professors at Caltech wanted out. In any event, NOTS came under new management when Captain James Bennett Sykes relieved Captain Burroughs on August 18, 1945. Sykes presided over a program that had to refine the hastily developed wartime rockets and go forward with advanced weapons for undersea warfare, air-to-air rockets, and an entirely new ordnance discipline encompassing guided missiles.

During this period, the air-to-air missile called Sidewinder was developed under the direction of technical Director Dr. William B. McLean, as well as Mighty Mouse and ASROC.

On May 8, 1948 Michelson Laboratory was formally dedicated. It remains the Navy's most complete weapons research establishment.

On June 8, 1963, President John F. Kennedy visited NOTS while on a tour of the west coast installations. Extensive displays and demonstrations of the new ordnance developed by NOTS were presented to the large company of government experts and politicians.

In 1967 NOTS was renamed the Naval Weapons Center (NWC), China Lake.

In 1976 NWC acquired a new $3.6 million laboratory devoted to laser and other optical research and development projects. It was named in honor of Doctor Charles C. Lauritsen, a pioneer in nuclear physics and rocket research.

The Armitage Field Naval Air Station became the center of the aircraft that tested the various missiles developed at NWC. A Marine barracks provided security at the naval base.

In the 1980s to 1990s 3,850 civilians and 880 military have conducted research and development work on air warfare systems and missile weapons systems and also used the national range facility there for parachute test and evaluation. There are about 600 programs in a plant valued at $1 billion with an annual budget of $300 million.

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Updated 8 February 2016