two years of talk, Woomera is set for a major revamp. PTE
John Wellfare reports on the road ahead.
F-111 flies over the Woomera test and evaluation facility
during a recent systems trial.
names have come to be embedded in Australia’s military culture
as instantly recognisable icons. Names such as Hercules, particularly
for members of the Air Force, don’t conjure an image of the Greek
hero but of C-130s.
Likewise the name Woomera, for most of Australia’s past and present
servicemen and women, does not refer to the Aboriginal weapon,
nor the more recently infamous detention centre, but to the largest
land weapons range in the world, which spans 127,000 square kilometres
of South Australian desert.
Later this year the Woomera Capability Development Plan (CDP)
will be released after two years of discussions.
The plan will outline a multimillion dollar program for the rejuvenation
and continued development of Australia’s only instrumented air
weapons test and evaluation range.
Bordered by familiar opal and uranium mining sites such as Coober
Pedy and Roxby Downs, the Woomera range is potentially far more
lucrative than most vast expanses of desert and in the past has
attracted interest from mining corporations and the South Australian
Squadron Leader Peter Ibbotson, from Air Force Headquarters, has
been working closely with the Aerospace Operational Support Group
to produce the Woomera CDP.
Like most recent projects across all three Services, the plan
to upgrade Woomera’s range infrastructure is not intended to be
a one-off event, but rolling process of continued development.
The approach aims to consider technology due for introduction
in several years and even technologies in the earliest planning
stages, before choosing the best test and evaluation systems for
“The infrastructure that’s there at the moment pretty much dates
from the ’60s and ’70s,” SQNLDR Ibbotson said.
“At that time it was owned by what is now DSTO. They had put a
couple of radars and tracking devices in there. That was handed
over to Air Force [and] we kept using it but we didn’t invest
The new CDP will be based on three phases, which will be regularly
updated and adjusted to ensure the systems acquired for Woomera
will remain useful for as long as possible and offer the best
value for money.
first phase will look at our current capabilities and work out
what we need at Woomera to perform the test and evaluation on
those,” SQNLDR Ibbotson said.
“The second phase will look at the Defence Capability Plan (DCP)
capabilities that are approved – what we’re going to buy in the
next 10 or 15 years – in order to be able to do test and evaluation
on those capabilities.
“And then the third phase is to look at capabilities that are
out beyond the DCP. “It’s going to be a rolling program – phase
two will become phase one, phase three will become phase two and
future capabilities will be in phase three.”
Air Force has taken responsibility for producing the Woomera CDP,
since Air Force manages the range and stands to gain the most
from its upgrade, but that doesn’t mean the other stakeholders
aren’t being considered.
It will also allow the rest of the Woomera Prohibited Area to
be used if and when required. SQNLDR Ibbotson said the needs of
the Army, Navy and DSTO, as well as foreign militaries and civilian
corporations – including the mining companies – were all being
considered in the CDP.
“We also involve the traditional owners in range management because
of the cultural significance of many areas of the Range. The other
users are quite happy for Air Force to take the lead because we
use it the most, but we’re also making sure that we have the other
“It would be so easy for us to steam down the path and do what
suits Air Force, but we recognise that it’s not going to help
“We work hard to keep everybody on board and keep everybody in
the loop.” One radar is already on the way to Woomera, a gift
from Germany. It will help to keep the test and evaluation facility
running by allowing for one of the two 30-year-old radars at the
site to be stripped for parts.
What other equipment will be needed is still being discussed.
“Probably in the second-half of the year, things will really start
to firm up, with a reasonable list of required capabilities.
“The only way you can justify spending money these days is to
make sure that your capability needs are backed up by analysis
“We’ll start to get a really good idea of what we need and then
it’ll be a matter of getting the money, competing against all
the priorities that Defence has. “We have some cover in that test
and evaluation is an essential part of maintaining our Defence
capabilities [and] Woomera is key to aerospace test and evaluation.
“There’s no way we can meet those mandates without some investment,
so exactly how much investment, and when, is what we need to make
a case for, once we’ve worked out what we need.”
Woomera’s rejuvenation is a high priority for the Air Force and
the broader Defence community, so much so that CAF Air Marshal
Angus Houston chairs the Woomera Prohibited Area Governance Board.
Although the specifics are still uncertain, the most important
development that comes with the CDP is that Woomera’s future as
a test and evaluation range is not only assured, it’s bright.
piece of Australian history
Woomera range area in 1947 (red) and today (blue).
has been a part of Australia’s defence since 1947 and has been
the site of rocket, missile and satellite launches, a US and Australian
joint Defence Space Communications Station and even unidentified
Initially formed as the Long Range Weapons Establishment between
Australia and the UK, the Woomera range and its accompanying township
was named after the weapon used by Aborigines to throw spears.
The original range spanned a vast area of land in South Australia
(about 270,000 square kilometres) and included a separate range
covering several hundred thousand square kilometres out to the
West Australian coastline.
The range has been gradually cut back to the 127,000 square-kilometre
area it covers today – still the largest land range in the world.
Testing of long-range missiles began in 1949, and the first rocket
launch took place in 1957.
Space launches continued throughout the 1960s, with the last satellite
launched from Woomera in 1971.
The RAAF Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU), part of
the Aerospace Operational Support Group, took control of the Woomera
range from DSTO in 1991 and continues to operate the Woomera Instrumented
Range Facility for aerospace test and evaluation.
On February 1 this year, the control of the Woomera Prohibited
Area transferred from CSIG to the Air Force. CSIG retains responsibility
for the Woomera village.