WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE – Pilots flying across New Mexico sometimes refer to “the WSMR shadow.”
White Sands Missile Range, the Department of Defense’s largest open-air land test range, covers more than 3,400 square miles. It also commands 10,020 square miles of restricted airspace, expandable to 11,130 square miles – the largest in the continental United States. The range includes the Trinity site, where the first nuclear weapon was detonated in 1945.
The size of the range both on and above the ground and its varied terrains make it a testing ground for both military capability and civilian technology. Requests from the Pentagon are engineered and tested here. Branches of the armed forces jointly test assets and train units here.
Adjacent to White Sands in the Jornada del Muerto desert region near Truth or Consequences is Spaceport America, where research and testing has been underway for commercial space travel since it opened in 2011.
Two years ago, Brig. Gen. Eric L. Sanchez assumed command of this facility, which touches several New Mexico counties, and where thousands of military and civilian employees and contractors work, day and night.
On Aug. 10, Sanchez retired from the military after 35 years of service, and Brig. Gen. Gregory J. Brady took over as commanding general.
Another change in leadership this summer was the arrival in June of a new commander for the White Sands Test Center, which manages testing operations at the range.
Col. David R. Cheney assumed command of the test center from Col. Eric C. Rannow, who had been in the job for three years.
The Missouri native came with a background as a pilot and maintenance officer with additional experience in logistics, serving in Bosnia and Afghanistan among many assignments internationally and domestically.
Cheney said he actively sought the unusually complex assignment at White Sands. Referring to collaborations between military branches and federal agencies, Cheney said, “White Sands is probably the most joint, and arguably the most interagency, of all the Army’s major test ranges.”
“Some of the missions that we do here are affecting things going on in central command or Pacific command,” Sanchez said. “Things that four-star generals are asking for come here and we’re testing it within 90 days. … Next thing you know, that’s in the soldier’s hands and they are using it.”
To keep up that pace, White Sands keeps an eye on recruiting talent from the civilian sector for the future by hosting extended training opportunities for students in the sciences and technology.
“A lot of people don’t realize it’s mostly civilians that operate White Sands,” Sanchez said. Moreover, the civilian workforce often reports to work at midnight or 1 a.m. to prepare for missions that have to execute at 7:30 in the morning.
Both Sanchez and Cheney refer to the range’s community as “customers,” serving a clientele that includes private sector interests.
Cheney said the needs of various customers create a complex day-to-day process of managing priorities. Complex testing involving expensive equipment, with unpredictable mechanical failures or changing weather and atmospheric conditions, present unexpected problems every day, he said.
After growing up in Santa Fe, Sanchez began his military service in Las Cruces as a Distinguished Military Graduate of New Mexico State University and spent nearly 32 years on active duty.
Returning to southern New Mexico when he assumed command of White Sands in 2016, Sanchez had to adjust from working in operational environments to an enormous test and evaluation facility.
Sanchez said that White Sands is of tremendous strategic but also commercial importance, and that the scope of its mission is misunderstood even by people who commute to various parts of the range every day.
“We have people who have been on White Sands for 30 years in their own little niche that don’t even know what other organizations on White Sands are doing,” he said.
Days away from retiring to Mesilla, the general said he has known incoming Brig. Gen. Brady for 10 years and felt that White Sands would be in good hands.
He said, “Those soldiers will be down there doing what they do every Monday.”