WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. (May 30, 2013) -- A target system has gotten an upgrade at White Sands Missile Range to become a more accurate, flexible threat representation for use in future training and testing missions in place of real vehicles.

In a joint project between the Army Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation -- Program Manager Instrumentation, Targets and Threat Simulators-Targets Management Office, and the Army Test and Evaluation Command's Systems Engineering Directorate at White Sands Missile Range, or WSMR, engineers have taken a set of simple plastic targets normally used for acquisition and gunnery exercises, and upgraded them to become realistic, mobile, remotely operated target vehicles.

To best represent a threat vehicle for these test and training events, a vehicle made by another foreign country is required, thus requiring the test agency to incur the expense of both acquiring the vehicle and keeping it operational. Additionally some tests require these vehicles to be destroyed as part of the event, making the expensive actual foreign target an expended asset as well.

Not only does the vehicle have to be the right variant, and be operational, but in some cases it must also be able to be driven by remote control. As you can see, readying a real vehicle for use as a target can be an expensive proposition. So, typically for advanced testing or training, a surrogate target that has the physical appearance of an enemy foreign vehicle that is visible on radar or thermal imaging equipment is needed.

Starting with a simple plastic tank model that's commercially available for use as a simple static target, project engineers were able to create something more real, but without the expense of an actual foreign tank. While the basic target has the outward appearance of a tank in it's off the shelf form, for the purpose of testing an advanced sensor or weapon system the plastic target often isn't enough.

Taking the target to the next level the engineers installed heating units to give the target a proper thermal signature for testing heat sensing equipment. Metal stripping, foil and plating were installed to make the vehicles appear on radar properly.

"We have right here a T-72 (tank target.) Once we are done with the program it'll resemble closely an actual T-72 radar cross section and infrared signature," said Eric Hoffman, a program manager from the Targets Management Office. For that final element of realism, the target is mounted on a light utility vehicle chassis similar to those used by golf course and park maintenance personnel and the whole kit converted to be driven by remote control.

The end result of this work is going to be a family of targets that can allow for a wide variety of testing or training with a significant reduction in the cost of the targets.

"The environment that we live in now we're looking for threat targets that are cost effective, and the things that we are working on are a lot more inexpensive then using the real thing. This gives testers the opportunity to go out and say 'OK, I can actually test against something that is equal to what the real thing looks like but costs tremendously less," Hoffman said.

While the exact cost of a test can vary widely depending on the exact requirements, the cost difference of using one of these remotely operated targets could provide a cost saving of $100 or thousands of dollars.

While the initial target developed at WSMR is representative of a Russian T-72 tank, by replacing the outer shell the target can also be used to represent other armored vehicles like the Russian BMP infantry combat vehicle, or the BTR amphibious armored personnel carrier.

For the next phase of target's development, the target is being taken to Edwards Air Force Base where it will be evaluated to confirm it's an appropriately accurate representation of the intended vehicles before being used to evaluate a new system under test there. However, the new target systems will not be limited to the upcoming test at Edwards.

"The nice thing about this is that this is going to give WSMR and the Target Management Office the ability to do this here on site at White Sands," Hoffman said.

The Systems Engineering Directorate at WSMR was selected to help develop this target system to leverage their experience in the research and development of new technology for range use and their existing experience working with the Targets Management Office.

"We have several assets that are located out here. We have Orogrande Base Camp, we do aerial flight testing for various customers, and we felt that it would be nice to do more partnering with WSMR and try and build a stronger relationship," Hoffman said.