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Inside the "Skylab"

Electronic-warfare engineers wage mock battles in a rooftop lab high above L.A.

Raytheon engineers test airborne electronic equipment in the skylab, which stands atop an office building in Los Angeles.

They call it the "skylab," and it's packed with everything an electronic-warfare engineer could want: A high-tech flight simulator, computers, large-screen monitors — and, perhaps most importantly, a brand-new coffee maker.

Then there's the view. This bright, sunny workspace is built on the rooftop of a three-floor office building in Los Angeles — just the kind of place Raytheon's Airborne Information Operations team wanted for dreaming up breakthroughs in the quickly evolving arena of electronic warfare.

"The idea is that people can be collaborative — they have the resources in case they want to experiment,” said Amanda “Chester” Kammier, a former Navy electronic countermeasures officer who now leads the rooftop warriors. They also get breathing room, she said: “Freedom to be creative. Freedom to be innovative."

On a recent morning, the crew was working on "notional mission scenarios," a term that in this case means mock battles. A team of colleagues in Fort Wayne, Indiana, had cooked up a combat challenge and left it to the L.A. squad to come up with a battle plan.

“At its core, it’s an innovation center,” said engineer Dan Gomez. “Any engineer can bring any radio frequency or electromagnetic-spectrum project they want to experiment on up here. The skylab is about new ways of solving problems.”

Raytheon engineers test airborne electronic equipment in the skylab, which stands atop an office building in Los Angeles.

Old business, new approach

Electronic warfare uses focused energy, usually radio waves or laser light, to confuse or disable an enemy's electronics. The technology has become more important in the age of asymmetric warfare, in which traditional militaries face unpredictable enemies.

“The modern asymmetric adversary does not play by certain rules. You start out thinking you’re playing chess,” said Niraj Srivastava, another skylab engineer. “You sit down to play and they start playing checkers. You sit down to play checkers, they want to play tic-tac-toe.”

Raytheon has been an innovator in electronic warfare for more than 50 years, dating back to World War II when the company developed magnetron tubes that were a crucial part of the Allied Forces’ radar defenses. For the last 15 years, the company has been developing and promoting the use of gallium nitride, a substance that can be used to amplify radio energy for radars.

Current projects include the U.S. Navy’s Next Generation Jammer, an innovative attack pod for the EA-18G Growler jet.

Room for innovation

In the rooftop lab, plasma screens cover the walls, projecting the battle scenes in vivid colors. A three-monitor, surround-sound flight simulator stands in the corner, giving a pilot’s-eye view of the high-tech battle. The dress is casual, the Keurig coffee machine keeps the crew fueled, and anyone who needs a break can step outside and watch planes take off from Los Angeles International Airport. 

The skylab's engineers designed the space themselves with the aim of making it a relaxed and modern place to work — "mentally ergonomic," Kammier said.

"You set up that environment that begs the question, 'What are my next challenges?'" Kammier said. "And we work together to figure out what those solutions are."

Last Updated: 08/19/2014

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