Why we test
Lessons learned when missile defense tech is put through its paces
A driverless cart toting a defensive missile glides across a gleaming factory floor in Huntsville, Alabama, toward a technician operating an iPad.
This is just one of the facilities where Raytheon Technologies tests some of the elements that make up the nation’s missile defense shield. The factory tests will lead up to the “big one” – a simulated scenario that will give missile defense systems a real-world workout.
“We need to make sure they work the first time, every time,” said Scott Spence, a director at Raytheon Missiles & Defense, a business of Raytheon Technologies.
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency, or MDA, conducts the flight tests, and for several reasons. One is to show that the U.S. can defend itself against incoming ballistic missiles. Another is to help dissuade other countries from developing nuclear weapons. A third is to give crews experience operating the systems. And of course, the tests are designed to put these complicated technologies through their paces, to identify any glitches and ensure they will work when the time comes.
“Missile defense testing provides confidence...that our missiles are going to work as designed, when needed,” said Michael Orazi, a senior manager at Raytheon Intelligence & Space, a business of Raytheon Technologies. “We test across the entire missile defense system, including satellites, radars, the command and control system, the interceptor and all of the other components.”
Two categories of tests
Missile defense systems are complex and consist of many elements that require testing.
Developmental product testing is performed time and again at the component and sub-component levels, and again when systems are brought together. This testing culminates with the real-world scenario flight test.
The other category of testing is routine exercises, conducted regularly on products that have completed development and are deployed. U.S. missile defense exercises are collaborative activities that involve participation across MDA, combatant commands and often allied partners. They run scenarios that explore the limits of the missile defense system and give the military operational experience.
“You push and stretch the system and learn from that in order to start designing and developing for the future," said Bryan Rosselli, a missile defense director at Raytheon Missiles & Defense.
Before developmental testing, Raytheon Technologies conducts modeling and simulation scenarios in its engineering labs to understand how systems will perform together. Ground, or bench testing, comes next. Components are tested on a bench and installed into systems. Finally, the flight test is held to determine how the entire system will perform in a realistic environment, and with the actual people who will operate it.
“We like to employ a build-test-build philosophy, where we build some of the components of the system, test those to ensure they work, and then continue to build upon those successes,” Spence said.
The Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Navy launch an SM-3® Block IIA interceptor guided missile from the Aegis Ashore Weapon System in Kauai, Hawaii.
The lessons of failure
Sometimes tests don’t go as planned. Test challenges – or failures – are valuable teaching moments because they produce vast amounts of the data needed to improve the technology.
Celeste Mohr, a senior director at Raytheon Missiles & Defense, said she tries not to think of test results as complete successes or failures. “One part of the flight might not have met expectations, but the rest of the data we get is extremely valuable. We use it to improve our products with new technology, new software, new tactics and new techniques," she said.
It’s not until products are tested in the real world that the company can get a full picture of how they perform. Sometimes an operational test will yield unexpected, positive results — like finding out that a missile can fly faster or farther than planned.
“We take the data that we learn and we pare that back into our test structure, allowing the system to grow and expand with capabilities and effectiveness," Rosselli said.
It takes a large team to conduct flight tests, but not everyone has the chance to travel to a test site and watch in person. Engineers, mechanics, quality experts, and people who work in supply chain and the product line, gather at Raytheon Technologies facilities to watch tests remotely on expansive screens.
When a test goes off flawlessly, there is a palpable sense of both relief and excitement.
“There’s just a feeling of exhilaration," Orazi said. "We know the impact to both the customers and the nation, and everyone is looking forward to seeing the impact of an intercept on the screen."