Twenty-seven years ago a decision taken by the then Armscor management saw an all-purpose test range come into existence is the dry and dusty Northern Cape.
Its primary purpose then was to test artillery, rockets, short range missiles, mortars and anti-aircraft weapons used by the then SA Defence Force.
Fast forward to the present and the Alkantpan Test Range has become a major asset for its owners. It is today not only used by the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) but finds itself hosting foreign militaries as well as foreign munitions manufacturers.
The closest town is Copperton and the town’s airport every so often hosts either an SA Air Force transport or a chartered aircraft bringing in equipment for testing as well as the people and instruments to ensure all goes smoothly.
Armscor said a variety of tests are conducted at Alkantpan varying in calibre from 5.56mm to 155 mm and in type from artillery and armour to ammunition destined for use by air forces and navies.
“Its remote location and sparse vegetation make Alkantpan well suited for its purpose. Apart from various ammunition types it is also possible to do sympathetic detonation, hazard classification tests and insensitive munitions tests on large warheads and large quantities of ammunition. Airspace at Alkantpan is restricted and this ensures the safe firing of weapons and detonation of munitions 365 days a year,” a spokesman for the state owned defence and security acquisition agency said.
Alkantpan is described by Armscor as a strategic ballistic test range for large calibre weapons that can shoot projectiles of up to 155mm calibre to about 30 km high. The test site is 85 000 ha in size with a range length of 67 km and a width of 13 km.
“The sparse vegetation, low rainfall and firing distances of up to 55 000 m, make it an ideal range for testing any type of conventional ammunition. In special cases and when ammunition without explosives is used, firing distances of up to 70 000 m can be obtained,” the spokesman said.
As a revenue earner the latest Armscor annual report points out that a number of foreign and local clients used Alkantpan for ballistic testing in the 2013/14 financial year.
“The tests were professionally conducted and contributed to higher than planned sales materialising. Of the R62 million actual sales, which reflects 8.4% above planned sales, 51% was from foreign clients, 30% from local commercial clients and 19% through the Department of Defence (DoD) service level agreement,” the report said.
Included in the foreign client list are the German Bundeswehr and Diehl Defence Bodensee Geraete Technik (BGT) Defence, also from Germany, and Italy’s Oto Melara. Rheinmetall Waffen Munition and Rheinmetall Defence of Germany as well as the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) of The Netherlands conducted tests with German and South African qualified ammunition at Alkantpan’s longer ranges.
The report also states that Alkantpan’s main foreign client, Singapore, conducted various tests throughout the year under review. The range has signed a new two year contract with Singapore.
During the course of the year tests were conducted for the South African ordnance market, including Rheinmetall Denel Munition, Denel (Dynamics, Land Systems and Pretoria Metal Pressings), BAE Systems, Reutech Fuchs and the CSIR among others. Some of the tests took the form of demonstrations for foreign clients.
Alkantpan’s siting and climate saw it selected by Denel Dynamics for flight testing of its Seeker 400 UAV, adding another arrow to its quiver of test services.
The five fixed firing sites at Alkantpan can simultaneously conduct tests, with all five designed to protect personnel and equipment against failure of weapons or ammunition.
Tests are all controlled from the firing site control room where a specially fitted instrumentation room provides real time access to data.
Alkantpan is in the process of building an insensitive munitions facility for testing foreign and local client ammunition professionally, efficiently and safety. This will reduce the lengthy set-up time for tests of this type.
The performance of munitions can now be measured to an accuracy of 20 mm thanks to the installation of a GPS. A base station receives correctional data and then re-transmits to a handheld receiver at about 30 km distance throughout the range. This enables high accuracy positional data to be obtained across the entire Alkantpan range. It will also be used to update the geographical datum system from the old Cape datum to the internationally utilised WGS84 datum system.
Suitably secure stores and magazines allow for storage of weapons, spares, equipment and ammunition while the people doing the testing are also catered for in a facility that can accommodate up to 60 people about 10 km from the range.