Missile defense – an engineering challenge that has spanned nearly 30 years – is perhaps Raytheon's key accomplishment.
To put it simply, if ‘Country X' were to launch a ballistic missile at the United States, Raytheon's products stand alone in their ability to knock it down.
"We've been called, and we consider ourselves, a national asset in knowing how to do this efficiently and how to have the level of mission assurance that a system like this needs," said Edward Miyashiro, vice president of Raytheon Company and deputy general manager of Raytheon Missile Systems. "It's a burden we bear, especially in this mission case – defending cities, states, countries, large areas and populations."
Miyashiro said that it'
s taken numerous breakthrough "first technologies" to reach the capability to track an incoming missile and launch an interceptor, which navigates itself and travels to the target, employing a complex kill vehicle that can strike and destroy the enemy.
Proposed by President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s as a way to defend against a potential ballistic missile attack, missile defense has followed a long path to fruition.
"When we were doing things in the 1980s, they were highly experimental and developmental. That laid the technological foundation for what we do. We really didn't start serious capability development until the mid 1990s," said Miyashiro, a 34-year veteran of the defense industry. "It's been a continual thing, with the early days being technologies and early concept development and research work and starting to get into more practical applications in the mid 1990s."
Raytheon Missile Systems' Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) is a ship-based missile system used by the U.S. Navy to intercept aircraft, ships and ballistic and cruise missiles as part of Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System.
"Because we are doing something rather unique, we have a depth of experience in the people we have here, who have been involved in all aspects of the development of this capa
bility, some from the very early days when we were doing research and technology development," Miyashiro said.
As a descriptive, though significantly simplified, analogy of the challenges of missile defense, Miyashiro discusses a typical pass in football.
"If you're going to catch a football, you're going to be keeping your eyes on it, you're going to be seeing which direction it's coming, you're going to be moving your body over to catch it and at some point you're going to get your arms out to grab it. Your body is an amazing thing because it can do all that stuff.
"In a way, the kill vehicle does the same thing," he said. "It has a sensor on it that can see images, so it's looking for the target at great distances. It's watching its trajectory. There's propulsion in the vehicle to push it over in the direction to intercept. It's continuing to look at the target and meanwhile it's processing all this information, considering how fast the object is coming in, how fast it's moving into its path. All that is happening in split seconds.
"It sounds way simpler when you talk about it this way than it really is. This is extremely complicated to do. We're the only ones who are doing intercepts like this in what we call the exoatmosphere – or basically space," he said. "A football might be coming in at 20 yards in five seconds, but we're talking about speeds that are on the order of two miles per second."
In the early 1980s, Raytheon engineers started tackling the challenge, not sure exactly what they needed to design or how various components were supposed to work together. Or even where to begin.
"It would be safe to say early on that it wasn't really clear how we would accomplish it," Miyashiro said. "There were some key technologies that people felt would become important and among the things we were working on in the very early days, I would say in the mid '80s, were very sophisticated sensors. Maybe at the time we didn't know exactly what we needed – but we knew we needed at least that."
Starting with the senso
rs, essentially a mobile infrared telescope, Raytheon engineers were able to develop technology that could detect ballistic missiles at a great range, with the necessary fidelity for an interceptor mission. A target has to be seen thousands of miles away, when it's basically just a single pixel on a sensor. Collecting, processing and interpreting that information becomes the next step.
"You're trying to use that information to figure out what it is, where it is and where it's going and get into position to intercept it. It's a difficult task," Miyashiro said.
But the sensor design was just one of the key pieces of technology that was necessary for designing and building a kill vehicle.
Propulsion, detection, analysis and command and control elements also needed to be incorporated. Then there was the matter of a launch vehicle and launch platform.
Raytheon has delivered more than 130 Standard Missile-3s to U.S. and Japanese navies and has additional orders for the current fiscal year. Launched in 1995, the SM-3 program has accumulated 19 successful exoatmospheric intercepts during testing. The SM-3 is currently deployed aboard the USS Monterey in the Mediterranean as of March 2011.
Miyashiro noted the flexibility of sea-basing ballistic missile defense capabilities aboard ships as a benefit. Ships come with built-in infrastructure, which makes their impact minimal, and because there's a lot of ocean, the options for repositioning are numerous.
Many of the products that enable missile-defense technology are also Raytheon's. The company plays a significant role in sensor suites, space and airand ground-based radars and other elements.
Raytheon has also developed the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, which is launched by the Ground-Based Interceptor.
Engineers are progressing on the next generation of missile defense, using as a roadmap the president's Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA), which lays out a schedule of SM-3 upgrades through 2020.
"When we first started, it was viewed as a local-theater capability," Miyashiro said. "But now what's happening is we've progressed toward more capable, faster, larger interceptors. The types of threats our missiles are now capable of engaging start to bridge beyond short and medium range into intermediate ballistic missiles to intercontinental ballistic missiles. Now we are a potential defensive capability against almost all types and all ranges of ballistic missile threats."
Currently under way, Phase One of the PAA involves the deployment of the current, proven SM-3 IA interceptor. The missiles are on ships in theater today, with more in the production and delivery phases to U.S. and Japanese defense customers.
Next, a more capable version of the SM-3, called Block IB, is in development. The missile will have improved sensors to see farther, better sorting and identification capabilities and propulsion improvements. Flight tests will begin this fall in anticipation of a 2015 deployment, Miyashiro said.
Phase Three, in the 2018 timeframe, will re
ly on a more advanced SM-3 Block IIA variant currently under development to counter short-, mediumand intermediate-range missile threats. By 2020, Phase Four will deploy the SM-3 Block IIB to help better cope with medium and intermediate-range missiles and any potential future intercontinental ballistic missile threat to the U.S. All systems are being looked at for both seabasing and land-basing.
"We're proud of the fact that we're the focal point in the administration's missile defense program. It's getting a lot of attention not only in the U.S., but pretty much all over the world," Miyashiro said. "Right now NATO is looking at what they'll do in Europe."
Although it seems easy to watch a successful SM-3 test unfold, missile defense remains an extremely complex mission, Miyashiro said. Raytheon engineers have spent years modeling and simulating scenarios, trying all the things that might go wrong to ensure the product can work through problems and still succeed.
"Although a lot of qualified defense companies could potentially do this work, we're the only ones that have really done it and made a practice of it over a large number of times, across a variety of interceptors," Miyashiro said.
"We've had a chance to take what we've learned in all cases and incorporate them into the next version, take the lessons from there and make improvements.
"It's really a privilege and a luxury to have the government put their trust in us, and tons of dollars, to build the expertise to do this. That's a huge responsibility to make sure we deliver on it and provide a product that does what it needs to do."