RSL may not be a household name but, as its engineering chief Alan McCormick stresses, its experience in defence is wide-ranging and it has a strong relationship with giant US parent, Raytheon.
As one of the big hitters in the US defence sector, the Raytheon group is an 80,000-employee, $20bn (£11bn) heavyweight that has given the world the Cruise Missile and a host of other icons of military history.
It might be imagined that in a group of such scale, its 1,700-strong UK operation, Raytheon Systems Limited (RSL) would be something of a backwater. The company is hardly a household name here but Alan McCormick, executive director for engineering and advanced programmes, is keen to stress at every opportunity how the UK’s Raytheon contingent (a quarter of whom are engineers) punches well above its weight.
For much of its long history known as Cossor, a pioneer in television and radar technology, RSL has always possessed solid engineering credentials. ‘Raytheon in the UK used to be known as a business with capability, but a limited capability,’ said McCormick.
It would have been relatively easy for RSL to evolve into a shop-front for the US, a sales house for technology developed in one of its giant American facilities, McCormick admitted. ‘But that isn’t what has happened,’ said the affable Scot, who is a veteran of the defence industry with Plessey and Marconi.
‘I’ve been here three and a half years, and with the absolute support of the US we have been working to put real engineering into the UK.’
An example is the Paveway IV Precision Guided Bomb (PGB) programme which is developing the RAF’s next generation of laser-guided weapons. ‘I guess we could have been the shop-front for Tucson [Raytheon’s US missile facility] on PGB but instead we’re the prime,’ said McCormick. ‘We took the opportunity to transfer the design authority-ship for Paveway IV to the UK. That means we have increased technical capability here.’
These days RSL is an impressively broad and deep technology operation, belying its relatively small size. It remains a world-leading supplier of air traffic management systems, including secondary surveillance radars and a surveillance technology called ADS-B, which allows planes to share critical information with each other and ground control stations.
The company is building the UK’s Airborne Stand Off Radar (ASTOR) capability and is at the cutting edge of developments in GPS anti-jam technology, which protects satellite-based guidance and positioning systems against attempts to disrupt them.
Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) technology (crucial in avoiding friendly fire), a specialist flight planning systems developer and a major power and control electronics centre in Glenrothes, Scotland, add up to a capability that certainly cannot be described as limited.
According to McCormick, the benefits of a robust UK technology and engineering base extend beyond RSL, potentially being in the wider national interest.
‘If you look at it from a “UK plc” point of view, we don’t have the same funding as the US but we absolutely want the same capabilities. On the other hand, our circumstances are different from the theirs. We don’t just want someone else’s technology. The model we work on here allows us to build on US technology and pull it through to the UK.’
McCormick believes this pull-through model can be put to good use in times of critical national need, and offers the dramatic example of the summer’s London terrorist attacks.
‘When news of the second spate of attempted bombings came through on 21 July I phoned the vice-president for the whole of Raytheon in the States.
Coincidentally all the technical directors in the US were meeting for a two-day technology conference, and we redirected that conference to see what could be done to help with the situation in London.’
The result of this sudden brainstorming of anti-terror options was a new (still confidential) programme that is directly relevant to the UK, said McCormick.
This anecdote shows how the defence industry, for all its multinational, multi-disciplinary diversity, is actually quite a tight-knit community. ‘That’s especially true in the UK, where we’re a pretty small community that works quite well together,’ said McCormick.
One of the peculiarities of the defence industry and its multitude of projects and programmes is how frequently staunch commercial rivals will find themselves working as part of the same team. ‘After a while we all get to know each other quite well,’ said McCormick. ‘One time I’m sitting across the table from someone as competitors, the next time I’m sitting beside them and they’re partners on a programme.’
And, of course, engineers working in the defence sector have special requirements to remain tight-lipped about the ultra-sensitive projects on which they work. ‘You just have to be careful what you talk about,’ said McCormick.
‘You get used to it. I signed the Official Secrets Act for the first job I took and I’ve lived in that world ever since. Where other engineers have the need to protect commercial confidentiality we have the added complexity of security issues.’
This is not the only security issue that companies such as RSL face when they do business in the global defence arena. The most prominent regulations they must abide by are the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), the strict US rules on transfers of military technology designed to stop sensitive know-how passing into hostile hands.
Even as a subsidiary of a US corporation, RSL has to work within these rules. But though many in the industry regard ITAR as a major headache, McCormick is relaxed about it.
‘People often talk about ITAR and the difficulties it causes. Yes, you have to go through a process, but we know exactly what that process is and we’re used to it. We see it as part of everyday life rather than a hindrance.’
So where does McCormick see the challenges and opportunities for defence technology companies over the next decade or so? ‘The major theme that is emerging is the ability to manage vast quantities of information,’ said McCormick.
‘Homeland security technology is a good example of that — you need to pull information from all sorts of databases to achieve the desired outcome.’
Indeed, for Raytheon, as for most other defence specialists, homeland security has emerged as one of the key R&D focuses since the turn of the century. As the London incidents demonstrated, the clamour for technology that could prevent or minimise the effect of terrorist attacks grows louder with each fresh outrage.
It is sometimes said that these expectations are placed unrealistically high but McCormick does not agree.
‘Technology can deliver much of the capability people are hoping for. It just may not happen as quickly as people think it should. Everybody wants everything right now. That’s the sort of society we live in. But to do the job, the technology has to be properly developed and implemented, so there is a need for patience.’
Patience is in fact even more of a virtue than usual in the defence industry, where the systems under development now could be operational for decades to come. Around 10 per cent of McCormick’s engineers spend their time in the detailed and vital area of customer support, maintaining and refining the systems deployed in the field.
‘There’s a big buzz in being part of a small company with such a broad reach of technology, and the ability to reach back into the US and get 25,000 engineers to support you,’ said McCormick.
‘We’re putting together some of the best technology of its type in the world here in the UK. I think we deserve some credit for that.’