Mission
critical

The next generation of missile defense
and the team that keeps America safe

At a government location in Colorado Springs, Scott Alexander stood alongside a team of technicians, data analysts and engineers. The mission: to launch a guided exoatmospheric device with the precision to continuously adjust in flight and intercept an incoming ballistic missile thousands of miles away in space with the force of a 10-ton truck hurtling at 600 miles per hour.

For Alexander, the executive director for integrated missile defense solutions at Raytheon Missiles & Defense, a business of Raytheon Technologies, test flights like these are among the most demanding moments of his job. Deploying a kill vehicle built to neutralize a long-range ballistic missile is a mission not so different from shooting a bullet into space to intercept another bullet.

As the interceptor launches, displays light up with visual and infrared footage. Gigabytes of data pour in, tracking air speed, altitude and trajectory. As it takes off, the interceptor falls away in stages to reveal the kill vehicle, a kinetic-force device designed to sense and maneuver through space to seek out its target.

These tests are designed to gauge the reliability and readiness of the complex technologies that are the nation’s first line of defense against long-range ballistic missile threats. Each day, Alexander and his team design and build the sensors and devices that allow the United States military to surveil and protect the atmosphere from foreign threats.

Detecting a nearly
Invisible threat

While missile intercepts take place in low earth orbit, defense against foreign threats starts on the ground. Jennifer Hubbard, Raytheon Missiles & Defense executive director of strategic sensor systems, and her team work alongside the U.S. Department of Defense, serving as the eyes of the U.S. military.

Those eyes have to be powerful enough to spot an object potentially as small as a mini-fridge sometimes from half a world away, to distinguish it as a national security threat within seconds and to track it with fatal precision as it zips through the exoatmosphere at thousands of miles per hour.

Traditional ballistic missiles have a clear, predictable trajectory. Like the arc of a baseball, they terminate at a foreseeable destination, Hubbard said. But this summer, another country launched a hypersonic missile: a new and different kind of threat that traditional sensors can’t always see or apprehend — one that is faster, stealthier and far less predictable than its predecessors.

As foreign weapon capabilities advance, she said, so does Raytheon Missiles & Defense technology.

“The way that we are countering the threat is evolving rapidly,” Hubbard said. “In the past, the focus has been on monolithic sensors, fixed out of sight and placed strategically around the globe, in different areas where we would expect some of these threats to originate.”

But, over the past several years, the company has been dedicated to developing sensors that are even more sensitive, farther-seeing, and smarter. Hubbard’s team is leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to develop next-generation defense, to enhance global coverage, and to link its ground, undersea and space assets together into one comprehensive, worldwide network. This way, she said, the U.S. military can track the threat from start to finish as it travels around the globe.

Watch an exoatmospheric device from Raytheon Missiles & Defense intercept a threat in space.

Building the next
generation
of defense

Interceptors themselves are becoming more advanced, too. As adversaries across the globe continue to accelerate their technology, Scott Alexander said, the U.S. is developing new programs designed to stay one step ahead and evolve with changing threats.

“We can take interceptors we’re developing and seamlessly apply new technologies to continue to meet future threat complexity,” Alexander said. “These interceptors are being built to not only match threats that are becoming more and more complex, but threats that we may not even be able to predict at this point.”

Jennifer Hubbard on Latency
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00:00 / 00:46

Latency is basically the amount of time between when you see something and when you have the ability to do something about it. So if you think about a sensor that is in space, if it senses something, a threat, it would have to send that data back to something on the ground, process the data to understand what it is, and then send a signal back up to space. When sensors send threat trajectory and object information back to the battle manager, if it takes too long, staleness can be a problem, especially if you've got something like a hypersonic, something that is flying really fast in an unpredictable way. If you're taking more time to compute that data, you can understand how it would become much, much more of a problem to be able to react to it. So when we look at threat evolution and non-ballistic trajectories like hypersonics, latency can be a much, much bigger problem.

Building the next
generation
of defense

Interceptors themselves are becoming more advanced, too. As adversaries across the globe continue to accelerate their technology, Scott Alexander said, the U.S. is developing new programs designed to stay one step ahead and evolve with changing threats.

“We can take interceptors we’re developing and seamlessly apply new technologies to continue to meet future threat complexity,” Alexander said. “These interceptors are being built to not only match threats that are becoming more and more complex, but threats that we may not even be able to predict at this point.”

While envisioning missile defense systems may be difficult work, it’s worlds more challenging to make those visions a reality. Even one tiny component of a kill vehicle—a single computer chip or sensor—may take a team of hundreds of experts to conceive, thousands of hours to produce and vast, highly specialized facilities to test.

Jennifer Hubbard on Latency
cc
00:00 / 00:46

Latency is basically the amount of time between when you see something and when you have the ability to do something about it. So if you think about a sensor that is in space, if it senses something, a threat, it would have to send that data back to something on the ground, process the data to understand what it is, and then send a signal back up to space. When sensors send threat trajectory and object information back to the battle manager, if it takes too long, staleness can be a problem, especially if you've got something like a hypersonic, something that is flying really fast in an unpredictable way. If you're taking more time to compute that data, you can understand how it would become much, much more of a problem to be able to react to it. So when we look at threat evolution and non-ballistic trajectories like hypersonics, latency can be a much, much bigger problem.

While envisioning missile defense systems may be difficult work, it’s worlds more challenging to make those visions a reality. Even one tiny component of a kill vehicle—a single computer chip or sensor—may take a team of hundreds of experts to conceive, thousands of hours to produce and vast, highly specialized facilities to test.

Some of this complexity is due to the environment of space, which presents a universe of obstacles for engineers to overcome. Alexander and his colleagues are tackling these challenges at facilities like the Raytheon Missiles & Defense Space Factory in Tucson, where kill vehicles are assembled and tested in virtually zero-oxygen, zero-particulate, vacuum-sealed “clean room” environments before deployment. At Raytheon Vision Systems in Santa Barbara, engineers are put to the test designing highly complex focal plane arrays—extremely precise light sensors in the lenses of infrared cameras, built to stand up to blinding solar refractions.

“We’ve been doing this kind of work since the 1990s, and there have been a lot of lessons learned while successfully conducting more than 47 exoatmospheric intercepts,” Alexander said. “We’re on the edge of technology here. We have the processes and the expertise in place.”

It’s not only a matter of cutting-edge technology, however; it’s also a matter of talent and experience.

Some of this complexity is due to the environment of space, which presents a universe of obstacles for engineers to overcome. Alexander and his colleagues are tackling these challenges at facilities like the Raytheon Missiles & Defense Space Factory in Tucson, where kill vehicles are assembled and tested in virtually zero-oxygen, zero-particulate, vacuum-sealed “clean room” environments before deployment. At Raytheon Vision Systems in Santa Barbara, engineers are put to the test designing highly complex focal plane arrays—extremely precise light sensors in the lenses of infrared cameras, built to stand up to blinding solar refractions.

“We’ve been doing this kind of work since the 1990s, and there have been a lot of lessons learned while successfully conducting more than 47 exoatmospheric intercepts,” Alexander said. “We’re on the edge of technology here. We have the processes and the expertise in place.”

It’s not only a matter of cutting-edge technology, however; it’s also a matter of talent and experience.

Armed with
world-class talent

John Zedro, Raytheon Intelligence & Space vice president of space systems, said the company’s largest differentiator is the expertise of its team. Raytheon Technologies engineers and scientists hold advanced degrees and dozens of patents and have designed, developed and delivered diverse capabilities that cut across every space mission imaginable.

“We have people who can be tasked with a problem, say figuring out how to understand something we’ve never seen before, and they’ll come up with a solution almost immediately,” Zedro said. “We’ve developed extensive models to identify and track some of the most advanced threats facing us today, even the ones we can barely see that are traveling at incredible speeds, and deliver the right mission solution.”

Once you can track threats with mind-bending precision, the next critical piece of the puzzle is knowing what to do with that information.

“The information we gather is critical to national security, full stop,” said Roger Cole, Raytheon Intelligence & Space executive director of strategic systems. “All of the data from across the mission leads to action against critical, emerging threats.”

Jennifer Hubbard on National Security
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00:00 / 00:28

Raytheon Technologies' mission is to make the world a safer place, and that mission is very near and dear to my heart being former military. And I try to communicate to my teams all the time that what they're doing is contributing every day to our national security. When you see things in the news like we saw last summer where China launched a hypersonic glide vehicle, they did test launches of hypersonic glide vehicles, it really hits home and makes it all the more urgent why what we do is really important.

While their day-to-day work might be laser-focused on the mathematics, engineering or data points, Hubbard and her colleagues say that they do often stand back and appreciate how their work protects the lives of U.S. service members and citizens.

“I’m former Army, and I have friends who use these systems every single day, so the mission is near and dear to my heart,” said Jennifer Hubbard.