Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to visit Northrop Grumman’s facilities in Huntsville, Alabama to see some the company’s latest innovations at its Global Air and Missile Defense facilities.
The city—which became the incubator for America’s rocket and missile programs under the leadership of former German scientist Wernher von Braun—is the central hub of innovation for the Pentagon’s ballistic missile defense efforts.
As retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Kenn Todorov, Northrop’s director of Global Air and Missile Defense and former deputy director of the Missile Defense Agency explained, the company does not built the hardware for America’s missile defenses, rather it integrates all of the disparate pieces of the system together.
Indeed, everything Northrop showed reporters during the trip this past Wednesday showcased the company’s ability to integrate different systems together into a coherent whole. One of the most interesting and innovative technologies on display was Northrop’s Virtual Sandbox—which is a planning tool.
The Virtual Sandbox is a table with a high-resolution touchscreen display embedded into its surface. Instead of using sand to represent terrain and various toy soldiers to represent units, the Virtual Sandbox allows a commander and his staff to upload local terrain data and information about the equipment available to him in order to virtually plan out the deployment of an Army air defense unit.
Though it should be noted, Jason Corrigan, one of the Northrop representatives demonstrating the system's’ capabilities, said that it could theoretically be used for planning and rehearsing missions for any Army or Marine Corps ground unit.
Along with the Virtual Sandbox, Northrop also demonstrated its Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System, which integrates data and allows Army operators to manage multiple types of air defense systems such as a Patriot battery or Northrop’s own Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar (C-RAM) defensive gun simultaneously.
The company has also developed a virtual artificial intelligence training tool that allows soldiers to practice their skills at their own pace called the Synthetic Adaptive Intelligent Entity or SAnDIE.
Somewhat unexpected was Northrop’s line-up of military robots—the company showed off three different types. One version—which is currently operational with U.S. forces—is a machine that is designed for bomb disposal. My colleague James Drew from Aviation Week and Vivienne Machi of National Defense Magazine both tried their hand at controlling the robot.
But while the bomb disposal robot was impressive, Northrop’s Carry-All Mechanized Equipment Landrover or (CaMEL) is likely a harbinger of the future. One version is designed to carry an infantry squad’s gear while another version is a weaponized variant that can be armed with anything up to a 30mm cannon. But as Northrop’s Scott Beasley explained, the CaMEL platform is just a demonstrator, for the company, the important features are the command and control system that enable the machine to work.
In addition to its lower-tier missile defenses, Northrop showed off its regional and global ballistic missile defense tools. Indeed, the advanced planning and simulation tools are intuitive and easy to use. In many respects, they resemble video games both in terms of graphics and the interface. Work on the project is ongoing and the systems will be further refined before its is delivered to the military.
Overall, Northrop’s facilities in Huntsville are extremely impressive.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.
Image Credit: Reuters.