SM-6. Credit: Raytheon

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The first model of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s newest interceptor is expected to roll off the production line at Raytheon Co.’s state-of-the art manufacturing plant here before the end of the year, a company official said Aug. 12.

The first Standard Missile (SM)-3 Block 2A interceptor, being co-developed with Japan, will be an inert model built under a low-rate initial production contract, said Angel Crespo, manager of the new plant, which is already being used to produce earlier-generation versions of the SM-3. Beginning in 2015, Raytheon Missile Systems, headquartered in Tucson, Arizona, expects to produce about one SM-3 Block 2A missile per quarter, he said.

The SM-3 Block 2A is a larger and more capable version of the SM-3 Block 1A and 1B, the munitions for the sea-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system. Designed for deployment on ships or on land, the Block 2A features second and third stages that are wider, at 53 centimeters, than those on the current SM-3 variants, giving it the range and velocity needed to engage intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

The next-generation interceptor is a key component of the MDA’s European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) for defending NATO allies, which is centered around the Lockheed Martin-developed Aegis Weapon System and a network of ground-, air- and space-based sensors. The EPAA currently relies on sea-based SM-3 Block 1A interceptors, but subsequent phases will see SM-3 variants, including the Block 2A, deployed on land under an effort dubbed Aegis Ashore.

Raytheon’s new production plant, built at a cost of $100 million on the grounds of the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal, opened in November 2012. The facility, featuring 6,500 square meters of production space, will be the final integration site for the SM-3 Block 2A.

Currently, the site produces 12-14 missiles each month, including three to four SM-3 Block 1A and Block 1B interceptors, which are designed to engage short- and medium-range missiles, and seven to eight SM-6 interceptors, designed to shoot down cruise missiles and drones. Raytheon’s previous facility, in Camden, Arkansas, produced about four to five missiles per month.

Raytheon officials say the new factory provides two key advances over the Arkansas facility.

The first is a fleet of automated vehicles that allow workers to transport the missiles throughout the factory without having men or machines lift them.

Previously, integration of each missile included 16 critical lifts, during which there is a risk of damaging mishaps. The vehicles, designed to move throughout the factory, are equipped with sensors that recognize if they range too close to walls, machinery or even plant workers.

Raytheon officials also noted that the workers at the new plant are trained for a variety of production tasks, allowing them to move seamlessly from one to another.

Crespo said he expects the plant to adopt additive manufacturing techniques within the next five years.

The various advances incorporated into the new factory will save money, Crespo said, although he declined to estimate how much. He said the company will have a better sense of that after the factory has been open three years.

Currently, the factory has about 50 employees but only operates on one shift. The addition of one or two more shifts could double the factory’s current production rate, Crespo said.

Raytheon employs more than 750 workers in the Huntsville area across its businesses, about 300 of which work for the company’s Missile Systems division.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.