This story was first published at 11:39 a.m. on Feb. 27. It has been updated to clarify a statement made by a Raytheon executive.
ANDOVER, Mass. — Raytheon's bet on a new radar for its Patriot air and missile defense system is now fully functional and ready for its public debut at the Association of the US Army's Global Force Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, in March, company officials said.
Raytheon executives took a few reporters on a tour of the company's Integrated Air Defense Center, where they build Patriot systems and the radar technology they pitched as the future of air and missile defense: Gallium Nitride (GaN) Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. The facility houses a foundry for GaN and its predecessor Gallium Arsenide.
It's a sizable bet. Raytheon has invested over $200 million to develop GaN technology over 16 years, augmented with US government investment over time, Ralph Acaba, the company's vice president of Integrated Air and Missile Defense, said Wednesday.
The Patriot system was fielded to the Army in 1982 and Raytheon has continuously upgraded the system with investments from the US and 13 partner nations. The system is expected to stay fielded until at least 2040.
But Raytheon has not been able to rest on its laurels. Lockheed Martin developed a competing air and missile defense system called the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) and is directly competing with Raytheon stateside and abroad for future deals.
"The future is about how do you continue to put in capability, how do you continue to allow for the growth of the system, how do you continue to bring the cost of the operating system down, the reliability up, how do you prepare it for the future of air and missile defense where it's plugging into a network to be compatible with the Army's [Integrated Air and Missile Defense] concept that is the future," Acaba said. "Active arrays are key to that [and] GaN is the next technology that those arrays are going to be built out of."
Patriot radars currently use Gallium Arsenide (GaAs), a semiconductor material. Raytheon believes GaN will bring exponentially more capability to the Patriot system and double the system's reliability. Moving to a GaN radar also frees up space in the system to add redundancy, or future capability like the Integrated Battle Command System, the command and control for the Army's future air and missile defense system.
And the "beauty of the active array technology, you've got distributed elements so that anyone of them dies, no big deal, you've got plenty of redundancy," Acaba said.
Additionally, the GaN radar integration into Patriot required very few new software changes. "It wasn't zero changes, but it was miniscule," Acaba said, "and we were up and tracking targets, I think, within a few days."
Raytheon didn't decide to develop GaN technology to answer any future Army requirements, Acaba stressed. "It was really around continuing the process of always looking ahead, what's next, not just take the next order, but where should we be headed and how should we be positioned so when the Patriot partners are ready to take the next step we've got the solution."
The US Army and several foreign countries appear to be ready to take the next steps when it comes to bringing on new capability in air and missile defense.
The Army is funded in fiscal year 2017 to hold a competition for an IAMD radar. It hasn't publicly laid out requirements or how it might conduct a competition.
Raytheon is waiting for the service to detail its plan and is "positioned to respond to anything from an immediate upgrade to the current radar to a clean-sheet, brand new radar to everything in between," Acaba said.
Raytheon spent the last two years building a demonstrator and expects to be ready to get into a government test program within two years. "We've started burning not just technical risk, but started burning down schedule," Acaba said. "I think we are less than two years from getting this capability ready to get into a [government] test program."
The GaN-based Patriot's trip to Huntsville in March will likely be one of the only times it's displayed in public in the near-term. Afterward, it is set for tests, including field tests as early as late 2016.
"Once we get that into the test program we really do want to use the time wisely, so we are not going to put this radar on the road to go to a bunch of different shows," Acaba said. The radar will "come back here and go deep into tests" with plans to get it out into field testing as early as later this year, he added.
The GaN radar development also comes at a time when other countries are taking serious looks at either upgrading missile defense capabilities or buying something new. Raytheon received export approval for the GaN AESA radar last year.
Acaba noted that Japan, Spain and Greece are looking into upgrading their Patriot systems while Sweden, Romania, Czech Republic and Finland are potential new customers in addition to Poland and Turkey.
Poland announced in the spring of 2015 that it had picked Patriot for its new air and missile defense program, called Wisla. Lockheed was also in the running but the Polish government excluded it from the competition because MEADS was not yet a fielded system.Germany and the MEADS team have since begun working to mint a continuing development contract while looking for more countries to partner with.
Poland and the US government began negotiations to purchase Patriot, but a Polish presidential election that ousted those in office when Patriot was picked has created uncertainty over the program's future there. The Polish Ministry of Defense has re-initiated discussions with the MEADS team.
Before news that discussions between Poland and the MEADS team had restarted, Acaba said Wednesday that Poland was "conducting its assessments," and said a new government re-examining decisions from a previous government is a "natural process."
He said the company and the US Army are working to provide all requested information about the Patriot deal to the Polish government and said he expects the government to finish its assessments in a couple of months.
"I've seen no indication this is going to be a six-month or a year assessment. I think they just want to do their due diligence on the process that was followed and what exactly the requirements are of the system that they are going to procure," he said.
Turkey is also weighing its options after dropping an earlier decision to acquire the country's first long-range air- and anti-missile defense system from a Chinese contractor. Both Patriot and MEADS are back on the table there.
In Sweden, "we've been talking with them for the past year or so and they've expressed significant interest," Acaba said. "They see similar threats as others and so I think they are getting closer to identifying specific requirements, both dollars and funding, and I think they are close and they are closely following what is going on in Poland."
Whether Sweden decides on a competition or to conduct a study, "is unclear to me, but I see enough evidence that they are looking, [but] they are not just talking to us," Acaba added.
Romania, Czech Republic and Finland "are further behind," Acaba said, but, "they have expressed interest."
Acaba noted that Belgium has also shown an interest. And the countries listed as potential customers is not exhaustive, he added.
While it appears that Germany will develop the MEADS system, Acaba said the country is serious about upgrading the Patriot systems it already has in its inventory. Germany has said it plans to keep its Patriot systems until at least 2030 while it develops its next-generation system.
The Patriot Configuration 3+ is the latest version of the system. It includes a new radar digital processor, the "Modern Man" control station considered more comfortable for the operators, and a modern adjunct processor.
"I think they are headed down the Configuration 3+ path and in fact they have already started taking delivery of items to get there," Acaba said of Germany.
Acaba said he expected Germany to make Patriot upgrade awards in the fiscal 2017 or fiscal 2018 timeframe.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.