The Warhead Hunters
Meet some of the engineers behind an amazing missile defense system
Warhead hunters work in mysterious ways.
Raytheon's Vic Wagner has walked into rooms where two of his engineers were staring silently at a blank whiteboard.
“They’re right next to each other. They don’t even look at each other for 10 minutes … and they’re looking at the board,” he said. “I’m like, `What are you doing?’”
These engineers know each other so intimately they often don’t need to speak. They have spent decades perfecting a science no one else can duplicate: the design of kill vehicles, rocket-powered interceptors that destroy incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“Our engineers grew up in that environment, pushing the technical state-of-the-art on rocket motors, precision accuracy of guidance and control, seeker sensitivity and marrying that into a common vehicle that can actually be produced,” said Wagner, director for Advanced Kill Vehicles. “It isn’t just paper for us.”
The kill vehicle concept dates back to the Reagan era’s Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as “Star Wars,” but the kill vehicles that Wagner and his team design now are light years away from those early days.
The Missile Defense Agency launches a Ground-Based Interceptor from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California during a flight test earlier this year.
The warhead hunters themselves work in Tucson, Arizona, in an environment designed to encourage innovation. Diagrams and PowerPoint printouts adorn floor-to-ceiling magnetic walls, equations spill across yards of whiteboards and offices are packed with missile models, miniature kill vehicles and personal touches like Marvel comics posters and Darth Vader action figures.
Vic and his team equate themselves to the characters of “The Big Bang Theory,” the TV sitcom featuring nerdy brainiacs. “That’s us,” said Rondell Wilson, chief engineer of Advanced Kill Vehicles.
Over the years, the team has done what many doubters thought impossible – honing the “discrimination” technology needed to pick out a warhead from other objects, or destroying a warhead simply through impact, known as “hitting a bullet with a bullet.”
“They say, ‘You can’t do hit-to-kill,’” Wilson said. “Yes, you can! ‘You can’t do discrimination.’ Yes, you can! ‘You can’t get the cost down.’ Yes, we can! We’re doing that today with a redesigned kill vehicle that is more capable at half the cost of the current one and will be ready to fly in 2018.”
Wagner’s engineers have also learned to tap the wide base of knowledge at Raytheon, bringing in workers from the company’s one-of-a-kind Space Factory and engineers from its radar business to help make the kill vehicles more robust and reliable.
“We bring in diversity of thought—people from different programs, different product lines, to brainstorm ideas,” said Reid Davis, strategy and communications lead for Advanced Kill Vehicles.
The camaraderie and shared challenges are inspiring, Wagner said, but what really motivates his engineers is the mission to help make the world safer.
“We’re doing something that matters, and we have a chance to influence some pretty big world issues,” Wagner said. “That all combines up to being a heck of an interesting and satisfying job.”