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S o you think engineering seems like pretty dull stuff?

Think again. Projects headed by Raytheon engineers could lead us to a day when high-tech tools – like the ‘pinch’ in the flick Ocean’s Eleven – are used to cut power and paralyze the enemy.

Work taking place at Raytheon Missile Systems today offers a promising future of new technologies that bring the edges of imagination to the marketplace.

“My job is to make sure we’re investing in the next generation of cool technology and take the great engineering workforce we have here and apply them to an adjacent market,” said Michael W. Booen, Raytheon’s vice president of advanced security and directed energy systems.

At a company known for missiles and a slate of weapons provided to the Department of Defense as well as international customers, the future may lead to the type of non-explosive – or non-kinetic – devices that have long been in the realm of science fiction.

“The coolest thing about this company is that we have a tremendous legacy business. We’ve been building standard missiles for decades. We’ve been building Javelins and Stingers and TOWs for decades,” said Booen, a retired Air Force colonel who has been at Raytheon for 10 years.

“Because these products are so good and they’re so profitable, we know our competitors are nipping at our heels. They try to invent us out of business. This company is so technology rich that our motto is if someone is going to invent us out of business, it’s going to be us.”

The weapons of tomorrow include directed-energy systems like lasers and high-powered microwaves, both with roots from work conducted at Raytheon decades ago.

Imagine, Booen said, the “pinch” device used in the 2001 caper Oceans Eleven to cut power to the Bellagio Casino and enable the heist. Instead of a fictional gizmo, apply that basic premise to shutting down enemy command systems.

“Instead of putting a big load of explosives into something, maybe we put a device in there that instead of blowing up the enemy command and control center, we just shut it off,” Booen said. “We’re working on the pinch – the real pinch.”

Enemies that put communication systems (or the inverse, jamming technologies aimed at communications for U.S. forces) in school yards, atop hospitals or next to mosques would no longer be able to use civilians as a shield.

“If we can get the warfighters some weapons that enable us to service that target set without any collateral damage, that’s just Yahtzee,” Booen said. “That’s what we’re skating toward, that’s where we think the puck is going to be.”

Raytheon’s purchase in June of the 330-employee Ktech Corp., one of Albuquerque’s leading technology companies, will expand the company’s directed-energy portfolio. Ktech is an expert in building non-kinetic, high-powered microwave payloads and brings valuable contacts at Sandia National Laboratories and the U.S. Department of Energy, Booen said.

“The reason we bought them is we saw a‘1 + 1 = 3 equation’ there. If you take their high-powered microwave gizmos, that becomes a payload we can put in the warfighter platforms. We build most of the platforms that the warfighters like to take to war,” Booen said. “The idea is if we can marry their payloads with our platforms, we can give the warfighters lots of new arrows to put in their quivers, minimize the collateral damage and let them attack targets they might not otherwise have been able to attack –and do it in a way that we don’t have to spend U.S. taxpayer dollars to rebuild everything after a conflict.”

Ktech’s current portfolio and proximity to Sandia and the Department of Energy will be a boon for Raytheon.

“We have a great, talented, highly educated workforce here of 11,500 people. A big fraction of those are engineers,” Booen said. “Engineers are always trying to gravitate toward problems to solve. Are there Department of Energy problems that we could be applying our technology workforce to?”

Other cutting-edge directed-energy technologies under research or development at Raytheon are laser-equipped Phalanx systems to protect Naval ships and defensive systems for aircraft known as Directed Infrared Counter Measures.

The last line of defense on most Navy warships is Raytheon’s Phalanx Close-In Weapon System, a radar-guided 20mm Gatling gun mounted on a swiveling base. About five years ago, Raytheon engineers started working on an addition of lasers, which would increase the ship’s defense capabilities with essentially an infinite magazine, Booen said.

Engineers hooked lasers up to a Phalanx mount and went out to the desert, testing the system’s capability to blow up 60mm mortars. The tests went so well they continued in 2008 with flying mortar tests at White Sands Missile Range.

The Directed Infrared Counter Measures is another defensive system that uses the speed of light, Booen said. Picture an Army helicopter flying over Baghdad when it comes under attack from a shoulder-fired missile. The helicopter currently has a detection system onboard, but it’s huge and unreliable.

Faced with that problem, Raytheon engineers looked to airtoair missiles already built in Tucson, with the capability to track, lead and hit an incoming vehicle.

“We said, ‘What if instead of trying to track a bad guy’s airplane, let’s try to track a bad guy’s missile?’ If that works, we can turn this basketball-sized, heavy, expensive scientific instrument into an air-to-air missile seeker that we’ve built more than 4,000 of. And it worked,” Booen said.

The system shot down incoming missiles in tests and Raytheon has delivered a proposal to the Army to produce a system that’s light, cheap and fast.

“In the near term, I see probably a lot of growth in this directed infrared counter measures arena, where we’ll be able to offer speed-of-light protection for helicopters and eventually aircraft. You have to take man out of the equation. The whole thing has to be automatic and it has to work every time,” Booen said. “Raytheon here in Tucson has built the production capability to crank out cool, innovative products to really save warfighters’ lives.”

A big factor in Raytheon’s ability to remain innovative is the Bike Shop, a rapid product development and experimentation lab with the motto “Envision – Create – Accomplish.”

The Bike Shop is where engineers go to tackle real-world problems brought to them from customers. They work to build and test prototypes quickly and are able to respond to urgent needs.

“We’ve got one customer, which is the Department of Defense, that operates at one speed – which is usually measured in developing programs over years,” Booen said. “But there are some things, especially when your country is at war, when warfighters say ‘The bad guys just did X,’ you really need a way to be a lot more responsive and lot faster. What the Bike Shop enables us to do is go in there with a problem and have the ability to respond fast to urgent requirements that come out of our customers and try to get something to solve the problem.”

Raytheon also employs what Booen calls the “innovation engine,” in which individual engineers can take an idea and explore its possibilities, without infringing on the company’s day-to-day work.

“We’re all busy here trying to crank out these programs and so a lot of times, a young engineer will see a different way to do something or an idea will pop into their head,” Booen said.”Well, what do they do with that idea? If you’re the boss and you’re working toward a deadline, you might say ‘Cool idea, but get back to work because we have to get his hardware out the door.’

“So we wanted to have this place where anybody could bring an idea. We’ll quickly analyze it to make sure it doesn’t break the laws of physics or anything. If it does make sense, we’ll throw a little money at it and let that engineer who brought in the idea work on it a bit until you get to the point where you can make a real business decision.

“Often for $20,000 or $40,000 worth of work, you can get it to a point where you say ‘Dang, that can really take off.’ It gives the younger engineers the idea that there’s really a place for their ideas and it makes it a more vibrant, innovative culture here,” he said.

As an engineering company, Raytheon has to work what Booen calls “the entire food chain of business.”

There’s obviously the production work to fulfill orders for missiles and other munitions. Then there’s development work on improving current technologies. Then there is work on finding new applications for basic technologies, like directed-energy weapons and tracking and sensor technology, and finding new customers by adapting defense technologies and products to non-defense purposes, like Homeland Security and counter-terrorism.

“If you’re working on technology for technology sake, that doesn’t make you a lot of money. But if you use technology to solve a problem that can’t otherwise be solved, that’s money,” Booen said.

For the company, it’s a delicate balance between making products and inventing new ones, never resting on its laurels.

“It’s a classic case of the innovator’s dilemma,” Booen said. “Ten years ago we were half the size we are today. We could’ve coasted easily through those 10 years and said ‘Times are great, stock is up, we’re making money, so we don’t need to do anything for the future.’

“If we would take that attitude, we’d be out of business in the next 10 years. This is a rich technology environment and you got to keep on your toes, you’ve got to keep inventing things.”

Published Oct. 10, 2011 in BizTucson magazine

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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