Brig. Gen. John Ferrari

When militaries and private companies worldwide want to try a new weapon, blow something up, film a movie, heat something to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, test a novel space vehicle, search for UFOs, or hack and take control of a drone, they come to White Sands Missile Range.

Located about an hour’s drive north of El Paso, White Sands is the largest U.S. military installation. You can fit all of Fort Bliss inside White Sands twice and have room left over. When you add it all up, it’s about 3,000 square miles.

Brig. Gen. John Ferrari has commanded White Sands for the past year – a year of dramatic change for the range. Now the general will take a new position at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

“We are sitting at the precipice of a remarkable shift that is taking place in our security strategy driven by a global financial crisis and the ending of a decade of war,” Ferrari writes in his 2015 strategic plan.

Right now, the U.S. Navy is testing a system at White Sands that would better protect its carrier fleet from missiles from Iran. The Air Force is testing a gigantic bomb that could penetrate nuclear weapons programs buried deep underground, he says.

The United Arab Emirates will test the latest Patriot missile system in September, intercepting a Juno rocket that will descend on White Sands from space.

Local officials and colleagues often describe Ferrari as intelligent and a thinker and say they expect he could someday be Army chief of staff. He approaches his job not as much as a senior officer or bureaucrat but as the CEO of a company.

Ferrari has a sense of humor and keeps a large bowl of red-hot Atomic Fireball candy on his conference table – a historical reference to the range being the site of the first detonation of a nuclear device in 1945.

After World War II, the range would become the birthplace of American spaceflight, where Wernher von Braun would launch his rockets. Von Braun, the German rocket scientist who joined the Americans, would later become the chief architect of NASA’s Saturn V launch vehicle, the rocket that would carry the first humans to the moon.

Ferrari, 47, has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania. He also graduated from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

Now Ferrari is headed to the Pentagon where he will work as director of joint and futures for the Army. That’s his real job title. In general, he says he will be responsible for reconciling what the Army wants to buy, what the other services are buying and what commanders say they need.

Ferrari sat down with El Paso Inc. in his office at White Sands Missile Range and talked about hacking drones, intercepting missiles, bombing bunkers, purity of spectrum and some pretty special air space.

Q: In El Paso, we talk a lot about Fort Bliss and its impact but not so much White Sands Missile Range. What is it you guys do here?

When they created White Sands they did something they didn’t do anywhere else and it only exists in two places in the United States – they permanently withdrew the airspace from civilian use. We have 6,000 square miles of airspace. The only other place in the United States where the airspace is permanently withdrawn is over the White House.

We have permanent possession of that airspace from zero to infinity, which means we can put rockets into space, we can collide missiles into each other, and we can fly Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) that are armed.

On Sept. 13, we are going to do our missile shot from Gallup, N.M. We are going to launch a Juno rocket from the northwest corner of New Mexico. We will send it up into space, we’ll bring it onto the range and then we will have a Patriot missile intercept it and destroy it.

White Sands was joint before being joint was the “in thing;” we were born joint. So we have an Army test center, Navy test center, Air Force test center and NASA test center.

Q: Let’s take them one by one. What do the test centers do?

The Navy’s got two aircraft carrier battle groups floating in the Middle East and the Iranians have low-flying, high-speed missiles, so it’s a big threat right. We are doing the big test for the next generation systems that will help detect those missiles and then intercept them.

The Navy test center actually has a Navy “desert ship” at White Sands; it is a landlocked Navy ship. It has the most advanced firing control system, the next generation going into the fleet.

The Air Force test center is the world-class expert in electromagnetic spectrum denial.

Q: What is that?

Everything you own that has a computer chip or uses electricity, and what doesn’t, operates on the electromagnetic spectrum and that spectrum becomes very crowded at times. You hear the stories, right. An aircraft carrier pulls into port and people’s garage doors open up.

Well, with so much open land and no commercial aircraft flying over, we have a purity of spectrum here that you don’t have anywhere else in the United States and we can test how different systems react to jamming attacks for example.

Last month, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin hacked a civilian drone here and overrode its GPS signal. The GPS tells the drone, as it does your iPad even, where it is and what time it is. Well, if you override that signal, it is easy to convince the drone to go a different direction.

Q: And the NASA test center?

The NASA test center does rocket propulsion testing really for anybody who wants to go into space. They are also the world-class experts on fire. They had a lot of work for the space shuttle, but, as the space shuttle went away, now a lot of private companies are coming to the center for expertise.

Q: Militaries from around the world also use White Sands?

Yes. The Japanese Air Self-Defense Force will be here beginning Sept. 11 to do testing. The United Arab Emirates is here. They’ve bought the newest generation of Patriot missiles, and it is that new system we will be testing Sept. 13. It is the most modern Patriot ever built. Other White Sands customers include Singapore, the Brits, Germany, etc.

Q: I imagine there must be an incredible amount of coordination to make all this work.

There is. I found out early on that some of the most important people on the range are the range scheduling team; they’re the ones that have to fit everyone in.

Q: How has training and testing here changed with the U.S. defense strategy and defense budget cuts?

We are a business up here at White Sands. Unlike Fort Bliss, which the Army gives money to, then they go out and train, we have to bring the customers in and they pay us; that’s how we meet payroll.

The federal government is hurting for cash and we are entering another period of budget stringency, which means we have to drive down our costs because our customers now have less money and they are becoming very cost conscious.

In addition to the budget stringency, the defense strategy is changing – it’s changing away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan towards the Middle East and Asia. So when you think of the Middle East and Asia and the new defense strategy, think North Korea, China, Iran, missiles, more traditional threats, more long range, etc.

So we’ve got to diversify our customer base to replace the work we’re losing for the current war to be able to accommodate all these other tests.

Q: I read recently that the military is testing massive bunker-busting bombs here. Seems particularly relevant since Iran is thought to be pursuing a nuclear weapons program, which it could be moving deep underground.

It’s called a Massive Ordnance Penetrator and is sponsored by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. So we bury facilities and they attack them and we see how well they work.

Q: How have you cut costs?

One of the ways is through scheduling. You can create more range so to speak by pulling tests together and doing them on the same day. So we will, say, offer a buy one test, get one free deal, or steep discounts for doing the test in a certain week. In the past, our customers would hold out for the date they want but now they’re all over it.

If you look at how the government is attacking the budget, it’s looking at civilian manpower in the government. So even though we are a business and we are bringing in work, we have to bring down our overall headcount.

Organizations have a tendency to grow high-grade positions over time and so we wound up reducing our top-graded positions by 25 percent and the number of supervisors by 22 percent. When you do that you have to put more responsibility and flexibility in the hands of the workforce and it turns out innovation happens a lot faster.

Q: How many are employed here now?

Remember that White Sands is about a dozen different organizations. Altogether on White Sands there are about 9,000 people. On the Army test center side, we have roughly 944 people; it had been up more than 1,000. On our installation side, we have roughly 490; it had been at 550 people.

Q: I imagine having a degree in computer science and an MBA have come in pretty handy commanding White Sands.

One of them allows me to talk to all our technical people and, on the business side, it’s marketing, it’s how do you get the word out, it’s management, how do you get all the pieces working together. We have a brand new range scheduling process using the Lean Six Sigma business approach.

Most government bureaucracies have an inflexible process of how they do things: “You want to use my organization? Here are the rules to use it.” We’ve turned that around up here, focusing on the needs of our customers.

Q: Reminds me of experiences I’ve had at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Right. (Laughs) So as we go through range scheduling we go out to the customer and ask how they want this place run.

Q: The commanding general of Fort Bliss speaks about the “triad” of Fort Bliss, White Sands and Holloman. Strengthening those partnerships is a key part of his vision for the decade. Do you agree with his vision?

Yeah. Not only do I agree but when we talk about the region up here, we talk about the Southern New Mexico testing and training complex – that’s Cannon Air Force Base all the way out in the far eastern part of New Mexico, Kirtland Air Force Base up in Albuquerque, Holloman, White Sands, Fort Bliss. It is knitting together that entire region to test and to train.

Our point is we can’t survive without being part of the larger community, because we aren’t big enough to do the testing and training we do. We need land and air and spectrum – and other people need us.

Fort Bliss is going to get 36 more UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or drones). In order for them to effectively train those UAVs, and for us to test everything else we need to here, we’ve had to expand our airspace to the west and that is one of the initiatives we are working on.

Q: What are some of the ways White Sands Missile Range supports the Army at Fort Bliss?

We help them with airspace and airspace management. They also do Network Integration Evaluation here, what we call NIE.

Q: A key piece of the Army’s modernization effort.

Over the past decade we have been getting equipment into the hands of soldiers in the combat zone and getting feedback from them very quickly. Well, the wars are winding down and the question is: How do you keep that cycle of innovation? How do you get that soldier feedback?

The premise is if we put soldiers into the field at White Sands twice a year and we provide a venue to bring all that stuff together, not only will you find out if the stuff works and how soldiers like it, which is interesting and important, but how all those things operate together.

Q: Is it working as advertised? The military has at times been criticized for buying stuff soldiers don’t need or aren’t trained to use, developing systems that become out of date before they’re in the field or running over budget.

Yeah, it is. In some ways, we are relearning how to field stuff and, by doing that, we’re also learning the lost art of design. You’re iPad doesn’t come with instructions; it is intuitive to use.

Turns out. a lot of these military systems, people have no idea how the heck they work – that’s just poor design.

We think technology is digitizing the manuals; technology is designing the darned thing so it doesn’t need a manual. So how do you get there?

That is where the real power of NIE is going to come; companies that are designing these things bring them in and get to spend time with soldiers and see how they use them, how they mess them up and when the can’t figure out how to use them.

Q: Is the funding for NIE in jeopardy?

No. I think the Army at the corporate level is committed to funding it through 2017. And I only say 2017 because the Army looks five years out. It’s funded in the current five-year program.

Q: I was surprised to learn they’re testing a way to wirelessly charge devices? Whenever you perfect that technology, I’d like to buy it.

It’s not that far fetched when you think of cell phones and iPads, which are science fiction, really. The technology has been there for a long time – the question is just commercializing it, ruggedizing it.

It is a neat trick but you also have to consider that the energy has to come from somewhere. Can it be engineered so that I’m generating energy while driving or walking, capturing it, and wirelessly transmitting it to my devices? That’s the trick.

Q: Are you surprised to be leaving after only a year?

I am. Not as surprised as my family is, though. We have certainly fallen in love with Southern New Mexico and the region. My kids go to school here on post. We’ve traveled extensively in the region, but we had only finished half of our travel adventure agenda.

Q: Where did you go?

We’ve been out to Deming and Silver City and up to Albuquerque and Santa Fe and Taos and Gallup and Carlsbad. We’ve been out to Sierra Vista, Ariz., up through Tucson and Phoenix and Flagstaff and Navajo Nation. We’ve been out to the Grand Canyon and then Bryce and Zion National Park and then through Page, Ariz., up through Las Vegas, up through Denver, up to Rapid City and did Mount Rushmore and the Badlands, then up to Glacier, down through Yellowstone…

Q: That was half of your travel agenda? In only a year?

Yeah. Well, there is so much to see and it is a neat area.


E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.