'Radar Ranges of the Mojave Desert' by Tom Mahood
by Tom Mahood

Full-scale mockup mounted on low-RCS pylon for radar cross section measurement.

For several years in the 1990s, the best internet resource for anyone interested in learning more about outdoor RCS ranges was "Radar Ranges of the Mojave Desert" on the Bluefire web site, created by Tom Mahood. Tom is no longer maintaining those pages, but has graciously allowed The Howland Company to re-post them. So, here they are, with some editorial notes and updates.

Update: Tom has returned to the web with OtherHand.org, chronicling his investigations of RCS ranges in the US southwest as well as many other of his eclectic interests. He has reposted his original "Bluefire" pages with some updated photos.


Radar Ranges of the Mojave Desert

No, I'm not talking about microwave ovens in the desert. What I'm referring to are also known as radar cross section (RCS) facilities. Why should these things be of any interest? Well, a segment of the UFO community has firmly latched on to the idea that these installations are simply covers for "underground bases." The stories go on to describe multiple levels (with the requisite genetic engineering labs) and discs zipping in and out through surface openings. And we don't want to overlook the underground tunnel systems that connect the facilities with Edwards AFB and even Area 51 (Ah, at last a connection!).

It would be pretty cool if it were true. But is it?

Personally, the first time I saw one of these weird things (the McDonnell Douglas installation at Gray Butte) while exploring in the desert, my reaction was "What the hell is this place??!" I have a pretty good mechanical aptitude, but I couldn't make much sense of the sharply angled pylons (some kind of odd antenna??) the massive microwave dishes and the strange, tall building without two sides.

This is the result of my research into these facilities. It includes a number of lurking visits to the facilities, an aerial overflight, combing of public records, a lot of digging into technical journals, books and capabilities brochures, and even a perusal of some of their construction plans. Some of the personnel at the facilities are even willing to talk with you if you don't appear to be a nut (Apparently I fooled them). While I found nothing to support the underground base premise (although at one facility there are some very impressive underground structures), it did become obvious how some of the stories may have arisen, given that the storytellers seem to have done little research. All of the info I collected is available to anyone willing to spend the time to ferret it out.

The wild stories are a bit unfortunate as some of the facilities are interesting in their own right. That said, there are some stories and oddities involving one of the facilities that I can't explain and do find a bit unusual. Those will be discussed as well. Since a picture is worth 1k words, you'll find lots of photos of various details of the installations.

There are four of these thingamabobs in the Mojave, in relatively close proximity. There is Northrop's facility in the western part of Antelope Valley. Moving east, there is the McDonnell Douglas facility at Gray Butte. Moving further east and north, there is Lockheed's supremo-high tech installation just north of Helendale. Finally there is a little known RCS facility run by the Navy at China Lake called the Junction Ranch RCS facility.

What is an RCS Facility? - RCS 101

The following is a really brief introduction to how RCS ranges work. It's intended to be a summary, so I've left out a lot of nasty details. Also, I'm tremendously far from being an expert on radar, so all you radar gurus out there.....unless I'm saying something totally stupid, cut me some slack!

Pretty much everyone knows how radar works. A radar beam (a high frequency radio wave) is sent off toward an incoming object. Some of the beam bounces back off the object and is picked up by a sensitive receiver. The distance to the object can then be figured by comparing the difference in time from when the beam first went out to when a bit of it got bounced back.

The key here is "bounced back". Picture a Greyhound bus flying through the air (now there's an image!). Its big flat metallic sides will bounce a lot of signal back to the radar receiver making for an extremely strong signal. It will also make the radar operator say "What the hell is that??!" Now picture a Volkswagen flying through the air. Its smaller size and curved surfaces will reflect a lot less radar signal back, so its "blip" on the screen will be a lot weaker. To produce the same intensity of blip as the bus, the Volkswagen would have to be much closer to the radar unit. That is because the Volkswagen has a smaller radar cross section (RCS) than the bus.

The RCS of an object is usually expressed in square meters and is defined as:

The projected area of a metal sphere which would return the same echo signal as the target if the sphere is substituted for the target.
Confused as to what that means? I thought so. Here's a brief explanation in two parts.

First, when a radar pulse is directed toward an object, it hits the object with a certain amount of radar energy. The amount that hits the object is equal to the cross sectional (or projected) area of the object. So an object with a cross section of, say 10 square meters, will absorb the same amount of energy be it a sphere, flat plate, cube, or whatever. It's the object's cross section that matters as to how much energy is absorbed.

The second part of the explanation is where it gets interesting. After absorbing a radar pulse, the object immediately re-radiates the energy as an echo. This energy is primarily radiated at right angles to the object's surface. In the case of a sphere, it radiates the echo equally in all directions. But in the case of a flat plate, it all radiates off the front and back flat surfaces. If one of those surfaces happens to be facing the radar transmitter, a huge signal will be radiated (or "bounced", if you prefer) back, tremendously larger than a sphere of the same cross sectional area. Depending on the frequency of the radar in use, the return from a flat plate can be 1000 times larger than that of a sphere of the same cross section, and thus seems much "larger" to the radar receiver. To make things more complicated, the RCS values will change depending what frequency they are being measured at. But you can easily see the tremendous value of angling surfaces so that the radar beam is directed away from its source.

Just for chuckles, Figure 1 shows some typical RCS values for different objects from the Radar Engineer's Sourcebook by William Morchin.

Comparison of RCS values for typical radar targets, in square meters.

Figure 1. Radar Cross Section values, in
square meters, for typical radar targets.


To interpret the illustration, let's use the bicycle as an example. Based upon our definition, the bicycle has a radar return the same as that of a sphere with a cross section of 2 square meters. To spare you the math, that would be a sphere about 1.6 meters in diameter.

The very essence of stealth technology is to shape the object is such a manner that incoming radar beams are radiated every which way but back toward the radar receiver. It's an amazingly simple concept, but the trick is its implementation.

Every object, even stealth aircraft, can be picked up on radar. The important thing is how close the object has to be before the signal it's reflecting toward the radar receiver is strong enough to register. Our bus would likely be spotted a hundred miles out, leading to early deployment of anti-bus missiles. But a stealth fighter might only start registering a mile away, leaving the radar operator only enough time to put down his coffee cup before his facility is destroyed.

So, the goal is to minimize the RCS of our aircraft to ensure their survivability. That's where RCS facilities get into the act.

The most reliable way to find out how much radar signal a new aircraft design will reflect is to simply try it and find out. And there's no need to use an actual aircraft, a smaller size model will work just fine. Reduced to basics, what RCS facilities do is to put a model on a pole a few thousand feet away, and bounce radar pulses off it to see how much comes back.

Of course there's much more to it than just that. The pole, properly known as the pylon, must itself not bounce any signal back. If it did, it might be confused with the signal from the model. To prevent this, the pylons have beveled faces that radiate the radar pulses away from the receiver. Also, the pylons lean toward the radar receiver, the more lean the better (The amount of forward tilt is usually limited by the pylon's structural considerations). In effect, the pylons are stealth shapes, the very earliest implementation of the concept.

The model also needs to be able to rotate on the pylon. Getting back to our flying Greyhound, the amount of radar reflected from the bus when it's pointed head on toward the radar unit will be less than if the bus is sideways. There's simply less area to reflect the signal. By rotating a model on the pylon, the radar reflectivity can be measured from all angles, thus identifying any problem areas that might require reshaping.


An RCS facility must allow for testing of models at different frequencies. Sometimes these frequencies are also referred to as lettered bands (Table 1). Long range search radars operate at lower frequencies and targeting radars operate at higher frequencies. This is because higher frequency radar establishes the position of the object with much greater accuracy. The drawback to higher frequencies is that the atmosphere tends to absorb them more, so their range is not nearly as great as lower frequency radar. RCS facilities usually have a broad range of testing frequencies available. It's possible to get an idea of what types of frequencies are in use simply by looking at the radar dishes. The high frequency targeting radar dishes will be small, while the long range, low frequency radar require much larger dishes.

Table 1. Frequency Bands.
Frequency band table.


The ground between the radar transmitter and the model is a concern too. As the radar pulse leaves the antenna and shoots downrange toward the target, a portion of the beam bounces off the horizontal surface of the range and also strikes the target. This is called the "ground plane effect" and can create problems in some instances. Designers of radar ranges either try to eliminate this ground plane bounce, or incorporate it into the overall operation of the facility.

In most cases, designers simply pave the area with asphalt. This will also prevent the growth of vegetation, a big no-no. The paving gives an RCS range the appearance of a very strange landing strip. But a landing strip it is most definitely not.. The paving is typically only a few inches thick, too thin to support anything heavier than a very small light plane. Then there are the pylons sticking up in the middle of the range, providing quite a surprise for an incoming pilot.

Security considerations at RCS facilities are a major concern. State of the art stealth shapes must be kept from prying eyes on the ground, as well as spy satellites. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. It's possible to simply inflate a large opaque plastic dome over the model while it's on the pylon. The plastic is generally transparent to the radar beam, and what little signal is returned from the plastic bubble can be factored out. Some RCS facilities have large buildings (also known as target shelters) on tracks with roll-up sides. These can quickly scoot over the pylon and hide the model if necessary. These buildings also have the added benefit of internal hoists to place the model on the pylon. Finally, the most high-tech of the RCS facilities have sophisticated mechanisms that retract the pylon and model into the ground. The model comes to rest in an underground room where it can be worked on and maintained.

The ultimate in security is provided by indoor ranges, where the entire facility is enclosed in a very large building. However this type of facility can be quite a challenge to make perform well, and is usually quite smaller than the outdoor ranges. For most purposes, outdoor ranges are preferred.

For further exploration into the field of RCS, I can suggest a few books. They're a bit esoteric to be found at the local library, but many college or university libraries may carry them. The first is Radar Cross Section: Its Prediction, Measurement and Reduction, by Knott, Shaeffer and Tully, 2004 (2d ed.). This book specifically describes some of the facilities in the Mojave, and their capabilities. Another very good book is Radar Cross Section Measurements, also by Knott, 1993. Eugene Knott is one of the experts in the RCS field. This second book again talks about some of the Mojave RCS facilities and also has a good chapter on security concerns and black projects. A little light reading for those boring evenings!

There is also an excellent (and even understandable) explanation on the mechanics of stealth and radar on the web. It was taken from a [1992] Lockheed publication, authored by Alan Brown, who retired as Director of Engineering at Lockheed Corporate headquarters in Calabasas, California. Having worked on the F-117 program, this guy should know what he's talking about. The piece is called "Fundamentals of Stealth Design".

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