Feature: Denel Overberg Test Range targeting growth


The Denel Overberg Test Range (OTR), which conducts on average 40 test campaigns annually, is looking to expand its turnover by up to a third over the coming years and is eyeing new customers and projects both domestically and abroad.

Denel OTR has completed over a thousand test campaigns since 1991, with on average 46% of the Range’s turnover coming from the domestic military market and 42% from foreign customers. Around 8% is from commercial activities such as satellite launch support and 4% is from other Denel divisions, according to Abrie van der Walt, CEO of Denel OTR.

Wilhelm Wessels, in charge of Business Development for Denel OTR, said the Range was targeting ministries of defence that are either developing weapons or lack the space or environment to test weapons in their own countries. He said that the Range offers a turn-key solution as it can assist with import and export permits and logistics, accommodation, transport, storage etc. It can also arrange for subcontractors and give access to organisations like the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which can help with client projects.

The Range was established at a cost of around R500 million in the 1980s, with construction beginning in 1984 and the first operational test being conducted in 1987. The new range, replacing the previous missile range at St Lucia, was developed partly as a guided weapons test range as well as a launch site for low earth orbit satellites, achieving full qualification in 1991.

Wessels told defenceWeb that commercialisation of the Range started post-1994 at a time of reduced military spending, with the first commercial business in 1995. Things were slow to begin but took off after the German Taurus air-launched cruise missile contract in 1999. This was followed by the German Navy using the range from 2000.

OTR’s main client is the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), which is “why we are here”, according to van der Walt. For instance the SANDF does its annual Starstreak ground-based air-defence system exercises at Overberg. The SANDF also uses Armscor’s Alkantpan Test Range in the Northern Cape, but Wessels said that OTR and Alkantpan are complementary and not in competition – they often refer work to each other. For instance, Alkantpan has referred sea level artillery work to the Range.

Various South African clients make use of OTR, including Rheinmetall Denel Munition (which recently hosted its Defence Day there), Fuchs and Advanced Technologies and Engineering (ATE – now Paramount Advanced Technologies). Naturally Denel Dynamics is a big user of the range – some of the Denel weapons tested at Overberg include the A-Darter air-to-air missile, Umbani/Al Tariq guided bomb, Ingwe and Mokopa anti-tank missiles, Raptor glide bombs and the Umkhonto surface-to-air missile. Wessels said the increase in new product development mean a bright future for the Range – for instance, Denel Dynamics is working on the Marlin missile family, improvements to the Umkhonto and other projects, which will all need to be tested at some stage.

At the moment Germany is a very large and enthusiastic customer, in the form of the German Air Force and Navy and defence companies. For instance Diehl has used the Range to test its IRIS-T surface-to-air missile. Wessels said that he hopes the Range will do any follow-up programmes that may come after the IRIS-T programme. “I can with pride say Germany regards us very highly,” Wessels said.

Another large and regular foreign customer is the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), which uses the range to conduct air defence exercises involving the firing of various missiles. The Singaporeans were at the range earlier this year and have been coming to South Africa since 1998.

Other notable clients include Saab, the Italian Air Force, BAE Systems, ST Aerospace, Aero Vodochody, the Turkish Navy and Spanish Air Force. The Turkish Navy came to the range for the first time in May last year where it made use of the capabilities and the sea area off the Range.

Although weapons testing is OTR’s primary function, it is also promoting its electronic warfare offerings as it can use its radar sensors in different modes other than simply tracking targets. Wessels said electronic warfare is a logical extension of the Range’s capabilities, with much experience gained from working with the South African Air Force.

As it is designed to test weapons, OTR typically evaluates the in-flight performance of short-range guided munitions, stand-off weapons and aviation systems, both for new weapons and systems being developed and for requalification and certification following upgrades. Weapons testing includes carriage and release tests of aerial weapons, on fixed-wing aircraft and on helicopters, and launch, flight, target acquisition and target tracking and engagement testing of air-to-air, air-to-surface, surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles.

OTR also offers large ground, air and sea space for the testing and evaluation of avionics, other aircraft systems and electronic warfare systems fitted to aircraft, and of ground-based and shipboard radars. Another role is to support avionics evaluation and certification, and to test systems such as aircraft communications equipment, aircraft and UAV-mounted sensors, electronic support measures (ESM) and countermeasures systems (ECM).

Although it forms a very small part of the business, the Range is involved in space programmes. OTR has supported launches by NASA, the United Launch Alliance, the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) and Space X. For this it uses a ground station with a 10 metre tracking antenna working in both the S and X-Band (ideally located for supporting sunsynchronous and polar orbit space craft), and two mobile S-Band telemetry tracking stations configured to allow deployment as air cargo on civil aircraft to any remote site. Satellite support services have been offered since 2003, and the mobile telemetry stations have been deployed in Australia, Cape Verde, Ghana, Namibia, New Zealand and French Guiana.

Weapons and aircraft testing is done over the 43 000 hectare site with 70 kilometres of coastline. The area can also be extended over the sea with no height restrictions. Van der Walt said the Range is a great place to test weapons as the area has a low population density, good weather, good visibility (especially outside summer) and low electromagnetic interference.

The De Hoop nature reserve lies in between the Eastern and Western sections of the range while Air Force Base Overberg, incorporating the SAAF’s Test Flight and Development Centre (TFDC), is on the Western edge. The airbase has a three kilometre long runway able to accommodate most aircraft.

As the range is managed as part of the Greater De Hoop conservation area, it is home to a number of wild animals, such as 300 bontebok, a hundred Cape mountain zebras, 300 eland and ostriches. The range is accredited to ISO 14 000 environmental standards, something which van der Walt said is a big advantage as many clients need to show they are sensitive to the environment during testing.

Denel OTR has a wide array of facilities it can call on in support of tests, and it uses a mix of radar and optical systems and various targets to support test programmes. Radar systems include three C-Band monopulse tracking radars with ranges of up to 700 km (2 800 km for targets with transponders) and a mobile continuous wave Doppler radar. Other equipment includes two fixed and two mobile telemetry stations, six cinetheodolites, high speed video and infrared cameras, air and marine search radars, a weather station and a fully equipped control centre.

Various targets are available such as parachute targets, towed targets, low and high-speed drones, moving targets etc. The Range has also built various target structures for weapons tests – for example it has built a real concrete bunker and even a road bridge, used for a cruise missile impact test. The bunker is repaired and re-used since weapons being evaluated are fitted with inert warheads – the aim of OTR is not to explode ordnance but to test flight performance. Although targets can be supplied, customers may choose to bring their own – for instance drones operated by Airbus Defence and Space and towed targets, typically towed 6 to 8 km behind Learjets.