TROY, Alabama — The crown jewel of U.S. missile defense systems comes from an unlikely place: a 4,000 acre compound nestled in the quiet woods of a southern Alabama town.
For the first time, Lockheed Martin opened to the media its heavily guarded compound in Troy, Alabama, where it builds and breeds America's THAAD, or terminal high altitude area defense system. The process to open up the facility took more than a year of security approvals and was conditional that no photography or recording devices could enter the complex.
"No other media has been back here in the manufacturing area," Jason Crager, Lockheed's site director, said earlier this week during the drive up to a nondescript building tucked into the trees. "And not too many people in the world can say they have stood either in front of or beside a THAAD missile."
THAAD, one of the world's most advanced missile systems, can target and blast incoming missiles. Once fired from its truck-based launcher, each interceptor uses kinetic energy to deliver "hit to kill" strikes to ballistic threats instead of traditional warheads.
"Think of it this way, it's like a bullet hitting another bullet," explained Lockheed spokesman Mark Johnson, using a pointed finger from each hand arcing toward each other in a way to mimic the strike.
In 2008, Lockheed Martin delivered the first THAAD battery to the U.S. Army. Since then, the system has been deployed to Guam, South Korea, Romania and Israel. The U.S. has secured multibillion-dollar deals to sell the missile defense system to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Last month, Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson explained THAAD's capabilities to President Donald Trump and posed for a photo with a launcher during a Made in America products showcase at the White House. According to Lockheed Martin, the THAAD program supports more than 18,000 jobs across 40 states.
"It's a great system, it's American-made, and we're very proud to be here today," Hewson said in a video that was later tweeted out by the White House.
Back in Alabama, the THAAD missiles come to life in a windowless facility with slick floors, high ceilings and neatly organized bins of electronic cables. It's here where more than 450 classified missiles were assembled and tested before joining the U.S. Army's colossal arsenal.
The noticeably quiet THAAD production line begins with the missile's booster and propulsion assembly. Next comes the interceptor's sophisticated avionics and what Lockheed calls the lower-mid body, which is dubbed the brains of the missile.
The missile's unnerving maneuverability comes from the DACS, or divert and attitude control system, which uses thrusters to precisely steer the kill vehicle to its target during the final moments of flight. The last component of the missile is the cone-shaped shroud, which holds the seeker, also described as the vehicles eyes.
After testing, each THAAD missile is placed inside of a railed canister where it lives until launched. From start to finish, assembling one of the world's most prized missile interceptors takes approximately six weeks.
"It's amazing what we do here and even more impressive to think that not very many people know what exactly we are building in this facility," Dewayne Henderson, a THAAD production supervisor, told CNBC.
"We'd like to keep it that way," he added with a laugh, noting the gravity of security surrounding the missile program. "Every now and then you'll hear about THAAD on the news, but really, only a handful of people get to see this being built from start to finish."
There are more THAAD systems to come, too. Brenda Davidson, a director for the firm's missiles and fire control unit, wouldn't comment on future international customers, but said Lockheed Martin is preparing for an increase of about 50% in THAAD production.
Similarly, the Troy facility is slated to expand by approximately 225,000 square feet in the next year.