Last Updated: 09/16/2013*

Deep inside the factory where Patriot defense systems are made, Ken Arruda stopped beside a rolling cart and pointed to a white card sprinkled with what looked like grains of sand.

They were chips for the Patriot’s radar system – parts that since 2006 have shrunk to one-eighth their previous size.

“Now they’re as small as a speck of pepper,” said Arruda, operations director for Raytheon’s air defense programs. “That’s how far Patriot has come in the last few years.”

Patriot Time Lapse Montage

Patriot Time Lapse Montage

And tiny chips are just the start. From the tip of its nose cone to the base of its radar, designers have invested more than $400 million into Patriot in the last four years as part of a massive program aimed at making the legendary air and missile defense system faster, smarter and tougher.

Miniature components have replaced racks of equipment. Touchscreens have replaced control panels. New machines in Raytheon’s Andover, Mass. factory are making parts lighter, stronger and longer-lasting.

A U.S. dime dwarfs components for the Patriot air defense system

A U.S. dime dwarfs components for the Patriot air defense system.

The U.S. government and other partners in the program have helped fund the modernization, but it was an order for new Patriot systems for the United Arab Emirates that gave designers the chance to reengineer Patriot from the ground up in late 2008.

The system had already gone through several upgrades since its debut in the first Gulf War. But designers now gave the Patriot missile a faster, more accurate guidance system known as Guidance-Enhanced Missile – Tactical, or GEM-T. They rewired circuits in the radar and command stations, shrinking and speeding up components.

The missile’s mobile control room got a major makeover, with huge touch screens, faster computers and sleek black keyboards replacing banks of controls.

New way of building

Work crews ripped out whole sections of the factory and installed brand-new machinery to build the redesigned system.

In the brightly lit circuit card department, sleek “chip shooter” machines, each capable of installing 30,000 components an hour, now hum away beneath a white banner emblazoned with a Patriot missile.

White radomes are made of a new ceramic material

White radomes are made of a new ceramic material.

The machines make cleaner, more consistent connections, said Tom Thrower, the operations manager for the department. That results in faster and more reliable electronics for the Patriot.

In the radar, one assembly that took 435 circuit cards is now down to five, Thrower said. Sixteen power supplies were combined into one. Wiring that used to require 31 cables now takes 10.

In the factory’s cavernous assembly bay, manager Maria Bonnin opened the side doors of an olive-green Patriot radar to show a refrigerator-sized void where circuit cards used to go.

“It created all this added space, these slots, for added future capability,” Arruda said.

In a nearby corridor, white radomes made of a new ceramic material waited to be fitted over the sensors of new GEM-T missiles.

Elsewhere in the plant, new computer-controlled tools have taken over the high-volume, high-precision work of cutting beams to support the radar’s antenna. The machines can make microscopic adjustments, even compensating for tiny variations in room temperature that could cause miniscule differences in each part.

Added space in Radar Digital Processors leads to added future capability

Added space in Radar Digital Processors leads to added future capability.

“In the end it all improves the reliability of what we’re making,” said Steven Warshafsky, a manager in the metal fabrication department.

New advances have also made the Patriot easier to maintain, Warshafsky said. Antenna elements no longer have to be sent back to the factory for repair. They can be replaced right in the field.

Taking flight

The first new GEM-T missile streaked into the sky at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in August 2011, followed by a test firing of the first complete, new-production Patriot system in March 2012.

Engineers are now giving Patriot the ability to see further by connecting it to Raytheon’s system of radar-carrying airships, the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS. In April, a Patriot missile used information from a JLENS to smash a target out of the sky at a test range in Utah.

Successful GEM-T missile test

Successful GEM-T missile test.

With so much new technology under the hood, designers are confident the new Patriot can take on any threat in the world, said Glenn Walker, a business development manager for Raytheon’s Integrated Air and Missile Defense.

“Patriot was state-of-the-art in 1982 when it was delivered into the U.S. Army inventory, and Patriot is state-of-the-art in 2012 when it was delivered to the UAE inventory,” Walker said. “How we have prepared it for success in the future is really remarkable.”

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