In terms of missile defense, many have been eyeing Europe, thanks to major acquisitions happening along the eastern flank and a rather unpredictable adversary in Russia. But the threats that permeate the Pacific region remain, with both China and North Korea advancing their own capabilities at a rapid pace.

Defense News spoke to Mitch Stevison, vice president of air and missile systems with Raytheon, to see where efforts to counter the threats stand.

Europe and the eastern flank have dominated conversation in terms of missile defense lately, but obviously Asia remains a vulnerable region. How would you frame the threat in that region?

Right now Europe is getting more visibility. Certainly there’s many reasons for that, but I think all of us who are students of history will understand that the visibility is driven mainly by events that change day to day; the threat posture is equally significant in the Pacific realm.

Obviously we see China as a major adversary out there, who is developing systems at a very rapid rate — testing them, building them. That gives all of us pause. Some of their activities, with respect to expanding their geographical presence in the Pacific, is causing a lot of countries concern, including Japan.

And we’re very fickle sometimes in the general population about the way we look at threats, but in the defense industry and with our customers, certainly no one has forgotten about North Korea. They’re being quiet right now, but what does that really mean? I don’t think any of us believe that the current quiet mode will last for a long period of time. Now, we’re all very hopeful, and I want to caveat this very carefully to say we all want peace. We all want a very calm environment in all of the regions of the world. But the history, history will tell us that that’s just not the reality of what happens continually.

The United States’ position on North Korea as a threat has evolved under President Donald Trump. From the industry standpoint, does that shift the tactics and solutions you’re developing?

No, from the standpoint of what we’re doing to work with customers to build a capability, the path is the same. I think you’ve seen quoted out there from many of our national defense leaders that they are 100 percent confident that the systems that we have in place today can handle that threat today. And that we are continuing to make sure those systems stay ahead of that threat, moving forward to not create any additional risk on our country or our allies. So, that path remains very consistent in my mind.

Michael Griffin, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, recently spoke about an idea gaining traction, involving a patrol of high-altitude drones, or even F-35 fighters that would fly above North Korea, ready to shoot down missiles fired in their boost phase. Does that open up a different world of systems?

Here’s what I would say: The current systems that we have that we are evolving through our efforts with the government, and some of our own internal efforts in building capacity in the current systems to continue to make sure that we’re staying current in the environment that we are today, that’s still a very big part of our strategy.

We also are very focused on what I refer to as leapfrog technology, and I think that’s what Dr. Griffin is probably referring to. At my root, in my simplest form, I’m an Army guy. I joined the Army very early in my life, where I spent a large amount of my time, and there’s some very fundamental concepts that I learned in the Army, and that is: Who has the high ground has the advantage.

Now the high ground becomes these types of alternatives, like high-altitude drones or space. So our work and our focus in those areas is very direct and diligent across all of industry. I’m not just pointing out Raytheon here, but we certainly are part of that.

Dr. Griffin also talks about plans for a sensor network in space as a necessary response in particular to hypersonic missiles. Is that evolving at the industry level as well?

Absolutely. We are putting in concepts all the time and working to support both near-term and far-term efforts, in ensuring that we have complete sensor coverage out there. It really comes down to not just ensuring that we have complete sensor coverage, but to ensure that we have space dominance. And that we maintain space dominance in what we’re doing because effectively whether it’s navigating, or guiding missile systems, or providing C2 and ISR capabilities, space is the key.

China has made great developments in terms of artificial intelligence. Does that, or machine learning in general, have a place in terms of missile strategy and/or missile defense?

Without a doubt. I don’t know how to answer that any other way. These man-machine interfaces — and the decision space and latency in the systems that exist today — are one of the challenges we have in being able to address these high-speed threats. We have to be able to take that decision space and that latency out of the system, and artificial intelligence is certainly, in my mind, a means to do that. Again, it gets into very complex system constructs, and into the art, not just the science, of how you then place it. There will be some sensitivity in the risk posture in using artificial intelligence in some of these areas where we need rapid decisions made, but certainly it’s got to be part of the construct for the future. We have to be looking at where to employ those opportunities sooner rather than later.

Japan selected Lockheed Martin’s Long Range Discrimination Radar for its Aegis Ashore installations — an opportunity Raytheon was competing for. Any comment on the decision?

I’m not, was not, directly involved in that part of the equation. Certainly the selection of Aegis Ashore was huge for my portfolio with SM-3, and we can certainly go back and talk about that. But what I will say is we at Raytheon are always first and foremost supporters of customer decisions, but we also want to be thoughtful and continue to engage to make our offerings and our capabilities fully understood by the Japanese government in this case, as they continue to look at the evolution of the system and how our capabilities from the radar standpoint could still fill some of the potential gaps that will come in the very near term. And we’re very proud of the AMDR radar, which was the competitor in that competition. It is a very, very capable radar, and we will continue to directly market that capability to the security of Japan in the future.

Give me an update on other high-priority opportunities in Asia.

Well for me, clearly the high nail is the SM-3 IIA program — that cooperative development program between the United States and Japan, which we’re the integrator for and now the prime as far as delivering the hardware. We had a very successful test. That was a major deal, and we’ve got another test coming up here real soon that starts solidifying the SM-3 IIA as the next major contributor in the missile defense system construct in the exo-atmospheric regime.

Certainly we’re very excited about the partnership with Japan, both as a country and an industry, which has been tremendous. We’ve learned so very much from that. There’s no such thing as a perfect development program when you talk about very sophisticated systems that are on the cutting edge of technology. But what it was, was a sharing of capability and resources that brought about a system that both countries, and probably many other countries, will benefit from, that was less costly to the individual country than it would’ve been if they would’ve tried to take it on individually. And it benefited industry across both countries.

We are looking at opportunities in Japan now to try to determine what that next big cooperative development program is. It could be in the area of hypersonics. I think that is an area where we have had some discussions with Japanese industry to say: “You have some very good capabilities that we learned about through this SM-3 IIA program. We have some unique capabilities, and why don’t we try to look together at how we can advance this construct of hypersonics and hypersonic defeat together, versus separately?”

I don't know where that's going to go, but it certainly is an opportunity that we're going to explore a little bit further.

Obviously the Japanese are the first and only international SM-3 shooter, and their leadership role from an international standpoint is going be very important in the Asia-Pacific region. But it’s also going to be very important in the European region because there are countries, such as the Netherlands, who are looking at that and saying" “We’d like to now become an SM-3 shooter.” So when you look at what the Japanese were able to initiate, they were a leader, from an international standpoint, in being able to go take on and address exo-atmospheric missile defense. We’re very proud to be part of that.

The other thing from an opportunity standpoint really is Standard Missile 6, in Australia, Japan, South Korea. In those maritime nations in this big Pacific realm area, they all are relying on being able to protect their ships at long range. SM-6 opens up that aperture for them.

And by the way, South Korea is also very interested in buying SM-3s, too. That’s a recent development.

In terms of closing out the SM-3 conversation, ahead of the successful test were a couple of failures. I know one was just basically due to accidental triggering; but how did the subsequent failed test influence and contribute to the success of the latest one?

It’s an interesting thing about how we classify a test success or failure. I’ll go back in history a little bit. I now reside in Huntsville, Alabama, and I’m reminded frequently of the initiation of the missile capability in the U.S., which was primarily grounded here in Huntsville, Alabama, under Wernher von Braun when he came out of Germany. Their methodology was test, test, test, test. They went through significant failures because they learned so much. They were able to develop that capability that we as a nation now have not only in the defense world, but in our NASA world. They were able to develop that simply because they weren’t afraid to test and fail.

Watch a successful test of the SM-3 Block IIA, following two consecutive failures.

In our more recent history, we’ve got to the point because of our heavy analytical capabilities, away from wanting to test, and we worry so much about failure that sometimes we slow programs down.

Now back to your question. I will tell you, the [first] test failure, the missile performed perfectly all the way to where it was told to destroy itself. And it destroyed itself. It’s not often you get to test a self-destruct system, but we got to test it that day, and it worked. In the other test we did have the failure of the ignition of our third stage. You can go back to some of the quotes that Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves said; we learned more from that test than had we actually intercepted the target.

I can’t get into the details of all the things we learned because some of it was very significant; but I’ll just give you kind of a conceptual thought piece to consider: Because it didn’t intercept, it operated for a significantly longer period of time. So from that additional time of operation, we learn a lot about the edges of the envelope of what the system can do. Certainly that gets folded back into the system, and we have now, because of that failure, more knowledge, and, therefore, more capability, in the system than we would have understood before.