JULY 11, 2016, FORT GREELY, Alaska – The U.S. Army Cold Regions Test Center is the Department of Defense’s primary extreme cold test facility.
Tasked with testing virtually everything in the ground combat arsenal in a natural environment where winter lows drop far below zero, CRTC has just experienced its busiest test season in several years.
Among other things, the test center completed two rigorous tests of a new variant of the Stryker combat vehicle and a M109A7 Paladin self-propelled howitzer, both of which underwent testing at CRTC’s Mobility Test Complex. At the same time, however, the track also accommodated multiple customers from private industry, something it has done hosting commercial testing since its inception in 2004.
“When we have low military workload, being able to do commercial testing allows us to maintain equipment capabilities and the expertise needed for doing those things,” said Jeff Lipscomb, technical director.
“That way, whenever a military test comes, we’re not scrambling to figure out how to support it. To me, the biggest benefit of the commercial automotive workload is that it keeps us on the cutting edge of automotive testing.”
Hosting commercial testing also ensures that the test center’s mobile snow-making machines and other specialized track grooming equipment keep moving, which saves on maintenance costs in the long run. Further, continuous use means the equipment operators skill levels on the esoteric machines don’t degrade: for instance, in unskilled hands, a mobile track dryer could ruin the track’s asphalt while melting snow and ice.
Both military and commercial customers have access to a desirable facility that boasts a 1,000 foot by 800 foot lateral acceleration pad, a 200 foot by 1,200 foot skid pad, and grades ranging in steepness from 20 to 60 percent, a dramatic difference from the 6 percent or less grades an American motorist finds on an interstate highway in the lower 48 states. No taxpayer money is used to subsidize commercial testing, however.
“We make sure we are meeting their requirements without doing something with government money for private industry,” said Lipscomb. “Commercial customers pay the whole bill for everything they use and do here.”
The track, three and a quarter miles long, can accommodate as many as 35 vehicles simultaneously, though typically there are no more than 25 at a given time. Last winter was the track’s busiest season ever, hosting testing of both military and commercial vehicles simultaneously. Though military customers take priority, there has never been a scheduling conflict in more than a decade of operation.
“There are tracks in the lower 48 that offer more than we do, but they don’t offer the low temperatures in the early and late parts of the season,” said Dan Coakley, test track manager. “By the latter part of February, there is nowhere else to go except a foreign country, which is a logistical nightmare and horribly expensive.”
Virtually every major commercial automotive manufacturer known to the American motorist has conducted testing at CRTC’s automotive track, though usually with specialized testing that doesn’t require running laps.
“They’ve done all of the distance stuff by the time they get here,” said Coakley. “They’re looking at short runs of 2,000 feet or less, braking, handling, traction control, emergency stops, cornering. The only time they’ll use the entire oval over and over again is if they are breaking in the tires: prior to testing a tire, they have to put 200 miles on it, which is the industry standard.”
Commercial car companies are eager to maintain trade secrecy with their competitors, and CRTC is happy to accommodate this desire, going so far as to carry an opaque screen alongside personnel if it becomes necessary to walk past another company’s activities. Scheduling time at the track is relatively simple, too.
“Generally, on our end we can be done in two weeks, but often the manufacturers have a long legal process on their end,” said Coakley.
Though summertime maintenance following CRTC’s extreme winters can be rigorous, the track itself was constructed with care to prevent frost heaves, a ruinous road condition in which thawing permafrost under a road surface causes the ground to soften and sink.
“The track was built to a standard of far more compaction than a highway,” said Lipscomb. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t get a frost heave. It was dug far down and re-filled with gravel to ensure there was no permafrost that would affect the track.”