Stronger than ever

For the Patriot Air and Missile Defense System, the best is yet to come

Patriot Air and Missile Defense System

Patriot successfully intercepted its first SCUD missile 25 years ago

The future has arrived.

Electronic components smaller than a grain of sand have replaced the vacuum tubes that used to power the Patriot Air and Missile Defense system. Vivid color touchscreens out of a video gamer’s dreams have replaced the monochrome monitors and toggle switches of the original system. What remains is the battle-proven Patriot architecture, a flexible design that continually embraces new technologies to stay ahead of evolving threats.

“Patriot engineers designed the system in a way that lets you change the weapon system’s capabilities and performance through software and hardware upgrades,” said Dave Blackstone, Raytheon’s chief engineer for domestic Patriot programs.

Blackstone was a junior systems engineer on Raytheon’s Patriot program in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Designed to defend against airplanes and cruise missiles, Patriot had already intercepted a short range ballistic missile, or SRBM, in a demonstration. But Iraq was threatening its foes with Theater Ballistic Missiles (TBMs) – which made SRBMs look like amateurs.

“What we essentially needed to do was shoot a bullet with a bullet,” said Tony LoPresti, who helped write the radar requirements and software on early systems and now serves as director of Patriot growth. “There were lots of skeptics who said it couldn’t be done, that the physics made it impossible.”

Yet in less than 150 days, Raytheon engineers developed and deployed software and hardware upgrades to enable Patriot to take out a TBM.

They were just in time.

On Jan. 17, 1991, Iraqi forces fired a SCUD TBM at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia -- a major logistics hub housing thousands of coalition troops.

Joe DeAntona was commanding a U.S. Patriot battery defending Dhahran. He wasn’t on guard, so he didn’t realize the attack was underway until a sister battery fired. “I just recall seeing [a Patriot interceptor from] Alpha Battery taking off and thinking, ‘Holy cow, what just happened?’” he said.

Patriot had intercepted its first TBM.

“We didn’t have long to celebrate,” DeAntona said. “The next day my battery shot our first missile and we went into a protracted TBM battle.”

This is now

Fast forward to today. Patriot has missiles that fly faster and farther, with eye-watering performance. The system runs on state-of-the-art processors, smaller and faster than its original designers could have imagined. Its continually updated software keeps ahead of threats. Its mobility was recently demonstrated during a 1,200-kilometer tactical road march in Europe. And Patriot has a track record of more than 700 flight tests and more than 190 combat engagements.

Yet the opposition is changing, too. “Our adversaries are very smart and have access to increasingly sophisticated technology,” said Jack Cartland, technology director for Raytheon Integrated Air and Missile Defense. “As they do their best to make their weapons more capable, we will stay two steps ahead."

An evolutionary leap

Think of Patriot’s legacy honeycomb radar as a single, powerful flashlight shining through many lenses. Replace that with hundreds of individual flashlights operating together, and you get an active electronically scanned radar array, or AESA.

Raytheon has combined AESA with a substance called gallium nitride, or GaN, to greatly amplify its power.

“Compared to what is used in radars today, AESA GaN radars weigh less, cost less, and use less energy than radars out there today,” said Norm Cantin, Raytheon’s director of Patriot AESA programs. “AESA GaN is what is going to give Patriot the ability to see and engage aircraft and cruise and ballistic missiles in 360 degrees.”

Raytheon engineers are building a full-scale, prototype GaN-based AESA Patriot radar.

“Fifteen years ago, we started betting big on Gallium Nitride, investing more than $150 million of Raytheon funding in the technology,” said Cantin. “We are starting to see that investment pay big dividends for our customers, and are incorporating GaN technology into other systems for the U.S. Navy and Air Force.”

The next step? It all comes down to the threat.

“Twenty years ago, who would have thought that non-state actors would fire ballistic missiles at cities?” asked Ralph Acaba, vice president of Raytheon’s Integrated Air and Missile Defense. “Patriot has proven it can defeat emerging threats, and Raytheon has a technology roadmap and a robust research and development pipeline to ensure it can defeat threats 30 or 40 years down the road.”

Last Updated: 01/12/2018