For a short while, immediately after graduating from the California Institute of Technology, Dr Taylor Lawrence contemplated a career as a high-energy physicist. A US Department of Defence laser physics project quickly put paid to this ambition and sparked an interest in defence research that has driven his career for the last 27 years.
Now vice-president of engineering for Raytheon — the world’s seventh largest aerospace and defence company — Lawrence is responsible for a global team of around 56,000 engineers. Talking to The Engineer during a rare break in his whistle-stop tour of the group’s UK facilities, it’s a challenge he seems nonchalantly unfazed by. ‘what makes the job relatively easy is that I have a really good team,’ he said.
Lawrence has held his current position since last April. Before that he was a vice-president at Northrop Grumman and prior to that held a variety of scientific and research leadership positions at, among others, DARPA and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. His technical credentials are impressive, although the fact that he no longer has time to indulge his passion for research is perhaps an area of regret.
‘Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to sit down and crank through an equation in quite some time — and I miss it.’ Instead he contents himself with broader brush strokes. ‘having a degree in physics gives you a strong foundation so you can pretty quickly assess where potential problems are and bring the right resources to bear,’ he said.
Lawrence’s first visit to Raytheon’s UK operation, Raytheon Systems Limited (RSL), has been something of an eye opener he said. The home-grown company, formerly known as Cossor, has a rich and long heritage, was one of the pioneers of televisionand radar, and is today home to someof the world’s leading expertise in electromagnetics, radar and power systems, and microelectronics.
It’s a valuable asset in Raytheon’s global operation, and Lawrence is effusive on the company’s unique areas of expertise.
For instance, its facility at Glenrothes, Scotland, in the heart of what has become known as Silicon Glen, is home to one of the world’s most significant mixed-signal wafer fabs.
‘We need to preserve that,’ said Lawrence. ‘The big digital silicon industry focuses so much on digital systems, but in many of our systems you need to be able to have mixed analogues and digital components in the same area. It’s an art some parts of the commercial industry have lost because they don’t necessarily need it — but for defence we do, and Glenrothes has a unique capability.’
Lawrence has also been impressed by the UK’s materials science expertise, and revealed that Raytheon is working with scientists at London’s Imperial College on the fascinating area of MetaMaterials. These unusual materials, which gain their properties from their structure rather than their material composition, possess unusual electromagnetic properties that allow light to be bent in bizarre waves. Lawrence said that the materials have potential applications in the development of cloaking devices for military vehicles.
Though RSL is very much integrated with the rest of the company, Lawrence admits to frustration at the restrictions imposed by UK and US import and export requirements. These rules, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), are designed to prevent sensitive information passing into hostile hands but often inhibit the company’s ability to operate its global concerns as effectively as it would like.
‘At the moment if we have a particular technology that we’ve developed in the US and feel it could have application to a UK problem we have to go to the US government and get their permission to even talk about it to the UK. We have to have a technical assistance agreement in place that the US government has approved.’
With George Bush and former prime minister Tony Blair recently announcing an initiative to lower these restrictions, Lawrence is hopeful that this situation could soon change.
If this happens, he said, it will help the company become more integrated, enable a more rapid sharing process, and spell good news for the UK, which because of the red tape, sometimes misses out on projects to which it is otherwise perfectly suited. ‘If those barriers come down we will have the open ability to talk to our colleagues here as we would to other parts of our company in the US.’
Clearly, for a corporation like Raytheon, anything that enhances its ability to respond quickly to new challenges is of vital commercial importance, and Lawrence sees no shortage of new challenges in the coming years.
‘We have a very rich heritage in providing large systems for traditional military operations and we’ll continue to need that, but I think the new kinds of capabilities are what I would characterise as operations in cyberspace: carrying out the same kind of capability in the information sphere that we currently have with traditional military equipment.’
One of the biggest challenges, he said, is that of information security — the need to both protect and find information. ‘Right now most of the security threats to both our countries are using our own information infrastructure to plan operations.
‘We’re very lucky that we appear to have had some bumbling terrorists,’ he said, referring to the recent failed bombing attempts in London.
‘when something like that happens we can back up and apprehend them, but those guys were probably communicating and they may have been using the internet. Suppose we had the ability to find them and prevent them from even assembling the cars in the first place — that’s one of the big challenges that will shape our industry.’
In Raytheon’s more traditional area — bombs and missiles — Lawrence pointed to a continued trend towards greater precision.
‘In places like Iraq we’re carrying out military operations in the middle of a civilian population. We’re trying to find terrorists or insurgents and want to reach out and touch somebody very precisely without hurting civilians or damaging civilian infrastructure.’
As well as research into non-lethal weapons such as directed energy weapons that use microwaves, this desire is also leading to the development of arms with reduced payloads and greater accuracy.
One example of this is the Paveway IV precision guided bomb. Developed jointly by RSL and Raytheon Missile Systems in the US this weapon uses a combination of laser guidance and GPS to hit its targets with greater precision.
Of course, improved accuracy is all well and good, but with the civilian death toll from bombing raids in Iraq and Afghanistan down to poor intelligence as much as anything else, precision weapons alone are unlikely to fulfil Raytheon’s stated desire to reduce collateral damage. According to Lawrence, the solution to this lies in improved intelligence systems — or, more specifically, a piece of military jargon known as c3i (command, control, communications and intelligence). ‘it’s about having the right intelligence, making sure you process all the intelligence and then you’ve got actionable intelligence.’
It’s an uncomfortable fact that what represents disaster for many, is for the defence business not only commercially rewarding but also an opportunity to innovate and put its technology to the ultimate test. ‘As we see our systems deployed we get immediate feedback from our customers on what things worked well and what didn’t,’ said Lawrence.
Given the current geo-political climate, the pace of innovation in the arms business doesn’t look like slowing down any time soon.