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With an eye toward the North Korean threat, a 'missile renaissance' blooms in the US

Key Points
  • Raytheon is building missiles that may feature prominently in the effort to repel a possible attack from North Korea.
  • Tucked into next year's $700 billion Defense authorization is a request for $4 billion, which will go to missile defense.
  • An expert told CNBC it's a "renaissance" for missile systems, as threats abroad multiply.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides the second test-fire of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-14.
KCNA | Reuters

Tucked inside the U.S. Army's Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, Raytheon is assembling missiles destined for U.S. and Japanese warships in the Pacific.

Recently, CNBC was granted exclusive access to the operation, as part of a multi-city, multi-month tour of Raytheon's extensive missile defense operations, including access to classified factories.

Raytheon is currently cranking out about 20 of these Standard Missile (SM) variants per month, comprising a key part of the Lockheed Martin-made Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System. The SM-6s and longer-range SM-3s missiles are intended to help defend against the increasing possibility of North Korean ballistic missile attack.

Soon, the facility will start producing a next-generation version of the SM-3, called Block II-A, capable of traveling even farther and higher to better intercept an intermediate-range ballistic missile.

Raytheon won't begin delivering Block II-As to the U.S. and Japanese until sometime next year, but already more orders may be coming.

Just this week, congressional defense committees authorized a $700 billion defense spending plan for fiscal 2018. While the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) still needs to be passed by both houses of Congress and then signed into law by the president, the legislation incorporated a bigger budget for missile defense – including the White House's last-minute request to add $4 billion for "urgent missile defeat and defense enhancements to counter the threat of North Korea."

That funding will go toward expansions of both the U.S. homeland and various regional ballistic missile defense systems. That will increase spending for programs by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, and Raytheon, according to Washington-based Cowen and Co. defense analyst, Roman Schweizer.

We are seeing a very strong demand signal for increases in missile defense just because of the threat situation in the world today,
Taylor Lawrence
Raytheon's president of missile systems

Among the requests are 16 additional SM-3 Block II-A interceptors. Demand for missile defense is soaring, as threats mount from North Korea and other rogue nations.

"It's a type of missile renaissance," said Tom Karako, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and an expert on missile defense.

"Strike missile capability and missile defenses are ramping up in terms of interest, both with the United States and our partners and allies, and also among our adversaries," he explained. "There's a lot of air defenses, a lot of missile defenses out there and you see a lot of really big buys measured not in the millions but in the billions of dollars."

In addition to more funding at home, the makers of American missile defense systems are racking up big-ticket international orders.

This week, Sweden said it wants to buy a $1 billion-plus Raytheon-made Patriot system. Other allies that have missile defense orders moving through negotiations and approvals include Japan, Poland, and Saudi Arabia — which wants to spend an eye-popping $15 billion on 44 Lockheed Martin-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) launchers and hundreds of accompanying missiles.

"We are seeing a very strong demand signal for increases in missile defense just because of the threat situation in the world today," says Taylor Lawrence, Raytheon's president of missile systems.

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense element of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system launches during a flight test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, U.S., May 30, 2017.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

Analysts say Raytheon is one of the best-positioned to benefit since it has a hand in all of the U.S. missile defense systems currently fielded. There are four: Raytheon's Patriot, Lockheed THAAD and Aegis systems, and Boeing's Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD). The latter is the sole homeland platform in place to protect America against an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack.

Raytheon is the prime contractor for Patriot, but it also makes the 50,000-pound TPY-2 radar used in THAAD, the Standard Missiles used in Aegis, and the exo-atmospheric kill vehicles that enable the homeland system to "hit a bullet with a bullet."

Those kill vehicles sit inside interceptors positioned in underground fields in Alaska and California. When an interceptor launches, the kill vehicle uses "hit-to-kill" technology to target a warhead in space — then smashing into it at more than 10,000 miles per hour, pulverizing the threat upon impact.

Raytheon recently received a nearly $500 million Pentagon contract to design a new upgrade of that vehicle. It tests key parts at its space factory in Tucson, Arizona, where rooms formatted to 16-degrees Kelvin (about -460 degrees Fahrenheit) simulate the conditions of space.

Currently, missile defense receives a healthy amount of skepticism, especially the GMD, given a spotty success rate. However, Raytheon and Boeing both say the technology is constantly evolving, pointing to the two most recent back-to-back intercepts which were deemed successful.

Contractors are experimenting with new types of technology, as well, including Hypersonics, and directed energy and lasers, to name a few. The driving mantra: A "layered" approach to missile defense. Yet there is no one magic bullet, with vulnerabilities through the so-called missile defense shield.

"Missile defense serves a critical piece of a much larger portfolio and the right way to look at all of this is as buying time, creating options, reducing tension, and supporting the overall deterrence and defense posture of the United States," missile defense expert Karako explained.