For Patriot, precision pays
Missile defense system picks off targets in test for international audience
It was early morning in the New Mexico desert. Inside a trailer, a team of experts in air and missile defense listened intently as the countdown wound down.
Hundreds of meters away, two missiles erupted from a Patriot™ launcher. The interceptors kicked up clouds of gypsum sand as they climbed toward a surrogate tactical ballistic missile target approaching in the distant sky. The roar of the launches echoed off the distant San Andres mountains. Inside the trailer, vibrating from the force of the launch, Raytheon engineers huddled over tactical display screens and watched the target explode. The room filled with shouts and high-fives.
This was the scene at a high-stakes test for the Patriot Air and Missile Defense System. Military leaders from around the world looked on as the system’s newest upgrade, called Post Deployment Build 8, or PDB-8, passed the third of four flight tests before a final U.S. Army evaluation. Some of the global audience were evaluating Patriot for possible purchase; others came from countries that already own the system and co-funded the upgrade, which is in demand because it fully activates the radar’s digital processor and other new technology.
The test was a major victory for Patriot, and for the engineers who exercise the system rigorously throughout production.
“Nothing is more satisfying than knowing you hit the thing out of the sky,” said Steve Faulise, the engineer in charge of the test .
Patriot is an integrated radar, launcher and command and control system that protects against aircraft, drones and ballistic or cruise missiles at relatively low altitudes. Seeing Patriot intercept its target brings “instant gratification,” said Jermu Kuokkanen, one of the test leads.
But the road to that test was anything but instant. Every time Patriot gets an upgrade, it goes through multiple pre-flight and live-fire tests. The system now stands at more than 1,400 flight tests – and counting.
The test team are a special breed. Many jobs require great attention to detail, but these engineers take that to the extreme.
“We don’t make assumptions. We don’t like imprecise language. It’s not okay for most of the settings to be right,” said Ron Slaga, who is responsible for test analysis. “We look at every contingency, pull every thread, even to knowing where people will be standing during the test.”
Before the sun was up on test day, Dave Hathaway, the test conductor, stood in a trailer listening to the mission commander announce the launch countdown over his headset. Hathaway knew better than anyone how Patriot would perform; over the past few months he had spent most evenings running pre-flight tests deep within Raytheon’s factory in suburban Boston. Each day he reviewed the results with Patriot experts, ensuring the team had all the possibilities covered.
“On any given day, I’m tapping into the knowledge of the entire Patriot team,” said Hathaway. “We’re looking at every variable – what if the target speed is different from what we expect? What if a sudden wind comes up? We work through countless scenarios so we can characterize system behaviors thoroughly in the pre-flight walk-up.”
No Patriot configuration leaves the lab until the test engineers say it’s ready. They pore over mountains of data from more than 200,000 simulations. They want the flight test to succeed, knowing that the system’s real-world users are soldiers deployed in unpredictable conditions. So they exercise Patriot across a staggering range of variables and give the data to engineers who can make the system even stronger.
“Every test re-grounds you,” Faulise said. “It makes you think about what’s at stake for someone using Patriot in a tactical combat situation.”
Once they’re satisfied, they sign off on a readiness report for Raytheon program leaders and government analysts. Then they go to the desert and put their work on the line.
“Each flight test is a stepping stone”, said Shawn O’Reilly, the flight test lead. “It’s awesome to experience a successful intercept firsthand because it validates all our hard work. But the larger satisfaction is knowing that our efforts, and all the precursor activities by the entire Patriot team, will lead to a better system.”
“Ultimately, it will provide better protection for our soldiers and allies. That’s our job in the Patriot community. That’s what gives us pride.”
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