Goldwater Range critical to Luke, Air Force mission

  • Published
  • 56th Range Management Office
The Barry M. Goldwater Range complex is the Air Force's premier training range used by military pilots since September 1941. It is the busiest Air Force range with more than 55,000 sorties flown each year and essential for developing and maintaining the combat readiness of the tactical air forces of the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy and Army, as well as allied pilots.

The BMGR is the military's third largest land reservation with 1.7 million acres of relatively undisturbed Sonoran Desert. The range complex totals more than 5.4 million acres of airspace that includes the adjacent Sells Military Operating Area where pilots practice air-to-air maneuvers and engage simulated battlefield targets on the ground. More than 50 aircraft can simultaneously operate on the range while performing independent training missions.

Roughly the size of Connecticut, the immense complex allows for concurrent training activities on seven air-to-ground and two air-to-air ranges. The 56th Range Management Office manages the eastern 1.1 million acres and Marine Corps Air Station, Yuma, oversees operations on the 700,000 acres west of the Mohawk Mountains. It is southwest of Luke between Yuma and Tucson south of Interstate 8.

The range is within the unrefueled flight radius of 12 military installations and U.S. Pacific Fleet carriers. Combat pilots from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force active duty, Guard and Reserve use it to hone their skills. All of the F-15E Strike Eagle and A-10 Thunderbolt II aircrews and nearly all of the F-16 Fighting Falcon pilots that flew during the Gulf War were trained on the Goldwater Range. The Navy's F/A-18 Hornet and Marine Corps' AV-8 Harrier pilots trained on the range as well.

Seventy years of military training has insulated the range from intensive human intrusion. Less than six percent of the land is used for roads, targets and support areas, and the land is minimally disturbed during annual target area cleanup. Its great unpopulated expanse and superb flying weather allows pilots to safely push their aircraft to the limit.

What remains is virtually undisturbed Sonoran Desert that thrives under natural conditions. Flora and fauna flourish and the archaeological record of 10,000 years of human activities lies mostly undisturbed. Together, the Goldwater Range, the Pinacate Biosphere Reserve in Sonora and the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument make up the largest unfragmented protected area in Mexico or the United States outside of Alaska.

Pilots employ full scale weapons against five live ordnance targets; however, 98 percent of the weapons dropped in the complex are inert practice bombs. Most of the land is used as a safety buffer for low-flying fighter aircraft. The safety zones provide refuge-like conditions for the animals, including a number of protected species, such as the Sonoran pronghorn antelope, cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, flat-tailed horned lizard and lesser long-nosed bat.

Natural and cultural resource protection is an important part of the Defense Department's use of the range. Congress entrusted care of the natural and cultural resources to the Air Force and Marine Corps as the federally designated land managers for the Goldwater Range complex in the 1999 Military Land Withdrawal Act.

In November 2001, the 56th RMO became the responsible steward for the Air Force's segment of the range, employing an environmental team to protect the habitat within the boundaries of the complex.

Staff biologists, archaeologists, environmental planners and geographic information system specialists specifically trained in the ecology and culture of southwestern Arizona, have developed comprehensive programs to monitor protected species like the endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope and have inventoried Native American cultural sites inside the range's boundaries.

The Air Force does allow limited public access to portions of the range complex (outside of weapon-impact areas) which can be visited by obtaining a recreational permit. While required by Air Force regulations, the permitting process provides visitors information and maps to help protect the safety of visitors as well as protecting resources.