Australia

The Australian farmers tending to sheep and dodging rockets

The discovery of a huge rocket embedded in a sheep paddock was only mildly surprising to pastoralist Peter Whittlesea.
“We just didn’t expect to find something so big, in the middle of nowhere,” he says after recently buying into a half-million-hectare sheep station on the largest land-based weapons testing range in the Western world.

The Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) – formally known as Woomera Rocket Range – briefly launched Australia into the space race during the Cold War when Britain, and later the United States, sought to capitalise on the vast space and electromagnetic quietness of the South Australian outback.

The Whittleseas recently discovered this rocket, believed to be launched in the 1950s, at a former military rocket testing range in South Australia. Source: SBS News / Stefan Armbruster

The 122,000 square kilometre testing range 500km north of Adelaide turned 75 this year. It’s now a globally significant weapons testing and evaluation site, and home to around 20 pastoral businesses, a thriving resource sector, tourism and a national highway.

The WPA is also home to six Indigenous native title groups which don’t live on Country but visit the land when the range is inactive.

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“The rockets went off in the 1950s, so it’s got to be 70 years old plus,” Mr Whittlesea says.
“It’s probably 20 to 30 feet into the ground.”

And it’s not the only relic from the past the Whittleseas have discovered. They’ve also turned a mid-century bomb shelter into a wine-bar tourist attraction.

Woman standing in front of disused bomb shelter.

Pastoralist Margie Whittlesea has turned a disused bomb shelter into a wine bar. Source: SBS News / Stefan Armbruster

“The bunkers came in when the Woomera Prohibited Area was opened up to keep pastoralists safe,” Peter’s wife and pastoralist Margie Whittlesea says, pointing to the fairy lights in the cavernous bunker.

These days, those living in the firing line are required to evacuate when the range is active, an inconvenient reality when you have 23,000 sheep to take care of.
“If we have to be evacuated for three or four days and we have water issues our stock go without water,” Ms Whittlesea says.
“Our property is just too big not to be here during summer. It’s crucial for us.”

While the pastoralists acknowledge this only currently happens a few times a year and the air force base does its best to work around peak farm activity, “it doesn’t always go to plan like that either”.

Woman standing on top of disused bomb shelter.

Margie Whittlesea has turned a mid-century bomb shelter into a wine-bar tourist attraction. Source: SBS News / Stefan Armbruster

With testing predicted to ramp up, land users want the Department of Defence to find a modern-day solution.

“I’m just thinking with the Ukraine war there’s going to be countries out here wanting to test lasers and drones for pinpoint accuracy,” Ms Whittlesea says.

I’m just thinking with the Ukraine war there’s going to be countries out here wanting to test lasers and drones.

Margie Whittlesea, Pastoralist

“They just have to. There’s nowhere else in the world as big and vast as what we have here.”

The Department of Defence anticipates testing will increase, “steadily and substantially” over the next decade, according to a 2018 review of the WPA. The federal government is investing $900 million to fire up the facility to meet future demand.

Map showing the Woomera Prohibited Area.

The Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) – formally known as Woomera Rocket Range. Source: 2018 Federal Government report titled “Coexistence in the Woomera Prohibited Area”. Source: Supplied

Wing commander Gary Rains – a commanding officer of the Air Force Test Ranges Squadron who oversees the WPA – says it was a significant capability for the Australian Defence Force, allies and partners.

This range really is limited by the technology associated with it,” he said.
So what could we see tested at Woomera?

The Department of Defence says the area will become critical for the development, testing and evaluation of new capabilities, particularly high-speed, long-range and non-kinetic weapons, which require increasingly large and secure test facilities.

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Missiles with speeds of up to 10,000 km per hour have already been successfully tested on the range.
Mr Rains points to recent developments in Russia, where a hypersonic Zircon cruise missile was recently test-fired over a 1,000km distance.
Hypersonic weapons can travel at nine times the speed of sound.

“Even though we’ve got hundreds of kilometres or range, that can be eaten up very quickly at those speeds, so the answer is we don’t know how fast or how well they’re going to perform,” he says.

Aerial shot of a disused rocket.

A rocket believed to be fired in the 1950s during testing still lies in the South Australian outback. Source: Supplied / Mt Eba Station

“But that’s the purpose of this place to do those tests, to understand those things and make sure we understand hazards so we can eliminate them before they go into general use.

“What it really is, is being a world-class leading range that allows us to do a range of activities in support of the whole of government in a safe, repeatable, and defensible manner, that ensures that we have the minimal impact on the stakeholders.”

Remembering the rockets

As a child, grazier Ryan Rankin at The Twins Station, a cattle property close to Mt Eba, remembers spotting missiles from the roof of this family’s blast shelter.
Rockets now stack like disused garden pots in the family’s yard and in a back paddock lies the remains of a deserted British tracking station.
Mr Rankin wants the Department of Defence to build modern-day bunkers so pastoralists can remain on their properties during testing periods.

“It’s a big ask to lift families off properties for maybe four or five failed attempts in a week,” he says.

Farmer standing outside cattle station property.

Grazier Ryan Rankin at The Twins Station, a cattle property close to Mt Eba, remembers spotting missiles from the roof of this family’s blast shelter. Source: SBS News / Stefan Armbruster

Evacuation involves a five-hour return trip to Coober Pedy for Mr Rankin, his wife and four children. During the drought in 2019, it was particularly tough to drive back and forward to ensure the cattle had water, he says.

He’s floated the idea of on-property underground bunkers.
“We need something on these properties, especially within the line that they’re firing them on. We need something that we can go into at say five o’clock this afternoon.”
Mr Rains says on-farm bunkers were an option under consideration.
“Being able to stay on their properties during a test, obviously minimises the disruption to their lives and their livelihood. So it’s something we would certainly look into further.”

“But it’s very difficult to construct something which would guarantee the safety of somebody staying in the range at that time.”

A man and a woman inspect a makeshift bomb shelter.

Ryan Rankin wants the Department of Defence to build modern-day bunkers so pastoralists can remain on their properties during testing periods. Source: SBS News / Stefan Armbruster

The Department of Defence is also considering evacuating land users to one of the underground mines in the WPA where there are already deep tunnels underground.

But Mr Rankin says that would still involve travel and time off the land.
“I don’t envy the job,” he says.
“There are people shearing at different months of the year. There’s cattle and sheep, everyone’s running on different schedules.”
“If it’s going to go forward we need something that’s going to work for us.”
SBS News has contacted the department for comment.
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